Would the French, who are among the first to celebrate the difference between the sexes – “vive la difference” – ever consider a gender neutral language? I wouldn’t bet on it. Everyone knows in France a cat is “le chat,” (male) while a mouse, is “la souis,” (female) – a difference which may explain the animosity between the two. Nonetheless, French feminists and those of far left leanings, are demanding their language become more gender inclusive. The demand has caused a culture stir, but who is authorized to decide?
Writer James Reginato tells us it’s The Immortals. (“The Immortals,” by James Reginato, Vanity Fair, Oct. 2018,pg. 122) They are members of a select academy that Cardinal Richelieu created in 1635. Their mission, at the time, was to compile the official French dictionary. It took them 56 years. Since then, every edition of the Dictionnaire de l’académie française has been produced by elites selected for a lifetime appointment through a long and arduous process. Critics have gone so far as to compare their election to the elevation of the Pope. (Ibid, pg. 124)
Perhaps, that is a worthy comparison. Like every French person, the elites take an almost religious view of their language, dreading all things foreign — which is another way of referring to all that is common and English. Their charge, by charter, is to shape their “language in the way of greatest eloquence, resourcefulness, and beauty; to steer it in the direction of the best French possible.” (Ibid pg. 122)
As I say, to prove worthy of their task, they face an arduous screening well before the President of France approves them. After that, the newly anointed delivers an hour long speech on the accomplishments of his or her predecessor. (Ibid pg. 125)
Survivors enjoy perks, of course. The Immortals meet in a palace, wear expensive, hand embroidered robes, and sport a sword fashioned by famous jewelers like Cartier and Bucherer. The limit on the amount of jewels one can flash depends upon the generosity of one’s friends who provide the wherewithal.
An outsider might question whether or not so much pomp and circumstance is necessary to compile a dictionary. But for those who believe the French language has a soul, nothing short of velvet and diamonds will do.
Having once been an English teacher, I could never find such passion for language in the United States. Our words are of mongrel descent. A stew provided by decades of immigration, our vernacular can lay no claim to purity. I don’t object. I celebrate the mix, actually. Still, something in me longs to preserve the “wish tense”, the subjunctive, and cringes where I hear that some issue is concerning rather than being of concern. Does my sensitivity make me French, I wonder.