Date: Fri, 16 Jan 1998 15:42:33 EST


Subject: la langue

From today's L.A. Times:

French Academicians Let Politicians Know It's Still an Homme's World

Linguists say feminization of titles is ungrammatical--and worrisome.

By JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG, Times Staff Writer

PARIS--Members of the august Academie Francaise usually keep their noses

out of politics. Every Thursday, the 40 "immortals," as they are known,

gather at their domed home by the Seine for the never-ending chore of

updating the academy's dictionary of the French language (as of this week

they were on the second volume of the 9th edition, endeavoring to define the

English import "manager").

Lately, however, three of the academicians--including the Academie's 79-year-

old "perpetual secretary," Maurice Druon, and one of the eminent body's two

women, Helene Carrere d'Encausse--have been sufficiently worried by a

development in government circles that they have appealed publicly to

President Jacques Chirac to stop it.

The purity of French is at stake, they warned, along with the "image of France

in the world" and the nation's "cultural future."

The troubling development: Some of the six female colleagues of Socialist

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin have made it known that they prefer to be called

madame la ministre instead of madame le ministre.

For Cabinet members such as Socialist Segolene Royal and Dominique Voynet of

the Greens party, using the feminine article "la" instead of the masculine

"le" is a subtle but clear signal that women, long kept at arm's length from

power in France, have arrived.

For the trio of academicians, it's a shocking and ungrammatical deviation in a

language where all nouns have a gender. Whether the person given the job is a

man or a woman, they maintain, the word "minister" in French was and remains


And what might be next, Druon, Carrere d'Encausse and colleague Hector

Biancotti fret in their letter to Chirac, which was published in the Parisian

newspaper Le Figaro. Are female lawyers, now given the same courtesy title of

"master" as their male counterparts, to be called "mistress," with the double-

entendre that entails? Should the inscription on the Pantheon, the Paris

monument that is the equivalent of Britain's Westminster Abbey, be rechiseled

to be less gender specific (it now praises "great men," hommes in French being

a synonym for all human beings)? Will France buckle to the same "demagogic

influences," they ask, that in Quebec and Belgium have spawned new coinages

such as professeure (a female teacher) and sapeuse-pompiere (a female


Get used to it, has come the reply of many female politicians here. "If

certain words don't have a feminine variation, it's because for centuries,

there was no woman to occupy those functions," said Royal, the minister for

public schools.

"No one can ignore that the systematic use of the masculine indicates a

masculine image of power, which can only reinforce the supremacy of men in a

supermasculinized world," said legislator Joelle Dusseau, who has started

calling herself the French version of "senatress."