What do I mean by “female language”? Well… I suppose I mean the words and phrases used to signify that we are referring to someone female rather than male. It’s an issue in French, because it’s a gendered language. In English, we’re increasingly moving away from gendered language. For example, we don’t talk about actors and actresses any more, just about actors. And in cricket, we have batters, not batsmen. In the fishing industry, we have fishers, not fishermen. Back before the war, the women who painted china were called paintresses. I can’t imagine anyone using that word now, can you? Or—pace Jane Austen—authoress.
The issue arose because, in the book I’m currently working on, there is a reference to a female examining magistrate in Paris. Now, the French for judge is “le juge” and an examining magistrate (the one who oversees the pre-trial enquiry) is “le juge d’instruction”. So far, so fairly OK. One would address such a magistrate as “monsieur le juge”. But what if he is a she?Back in the day when I lived in France—æons ago—I would have assumed I should address her as “madame le juge”. (I was never up before a judge during my time there so it never arose. Honest!) In the co-ed school where I taught, however, the principal was called “madame la directrice” and not “madame le directeur”. At the time, I didn’t think much about it. I just adopted the same formulation that everyone else used.
Is female language changing?
Back to my book.
I started to wonder if things might have moved on in France. I vaguely remembered hearing something in relation to the topical question of pronouns used by people who do not self-identify as he or she: in French, as il or elle. The French have developed various formulations of which the most used appears to be iel which is, obviously, a combination of il and elle. That suggested things might be changing. The pronoun iel is even included now in the Petit Robert dictionary (though not accepted by the Académie Française). So maybe my magistrate ought to be referred to as “madame la juge“? It didn’t sound quite right to me, but it didn’t stop me wondering.
So I consulted someone who ought to know, someone whose French is a great deal more fluent and up-to-date than mine: Alison Morton, author of the Roma Nova series and, since April last year, also a proud French citizen.
Turns out that it is, as Alison described it, compliqué.
Le Figaro on language
Alison referred me to a fascinating article in Le Figaro. Worth a read if you speak French. But here are a few snippets anyway. This first one astonished me. It turns out that the first female Prime Minister of France, Édith Cresson (1991-92), took the view that the only acceptable way of addressing the Prime Minister was Monsieur le Premier Ministre. Really? Monsieur? Apparently so.
However, the current (female) Prime Minister of France, Élisabeth Borne, is Madame la Première Ministre. (And Alison Morton’s official documents confirming her French citizenship were handed over by Émmanuelle Dubée, Madame la Préfète des Deux-Sevres. According to my out-of-date French dictionary, la préfète means the wife of the préfet. Not any more, it doesn’t!)
The Wiki article on gender neutrality says that French most commonly adds suffixes to make the female form. So for mayor, you would have le maire or la mairesse. Not according to Le Figaro, though. It says current usage is for the noun (eg maire) to be masculine and the rest feminine. It quotes madame la maire.
On the other hand, since the Académie Française has not come down on one side or the other, a speaker could assert that it is not wrong to say madame le maire or madame le ministre. Back in 2021, there was a spat in the Assemblée Nationale when a male MP kept referring to a female minister as madame le ministre. So it can happen.
Female language is easy in English, isn’t it?
Must say that I’m glad we don’t have those problems in English.
Except that, sometimes, we do.
Back in the mists of time, the law said that Law Lords (predecessors of the Supreme Court) had to be addressed as “My Lord”. There was no option of using “My Lady” for female Law Lords, possibly because there hadn’t been any. 😉
That has now been changed and there are female equivalent titles for all levels of judges.
The official designation for a High Court judge is “The Honourable Mr Justice Surname.” It used to be the case that female High Court judges were always called “The Honourable Mrs Justice Surname” whether they were married or not. To call someone “Miss Justice Surname” could be unfortunate, after all. So even English can have gender problems. (In French, a lawyer is often addressed as maître. As far as I know, female lawyers are not addressed as maîtresse! More potentially unfortunate female language related to the law.)
Back to my book. Again. The decision is not clear cut. The Académie Française would permit either madame le juge or madame la juge. That’s no help to me.
Alison was more helpful. She told me that it depends both on the speaker and the person being referred to. Younger people, mostly, would go for madame la juge. So would people with a more modern outlook. Older people and more conservative ones might use madame le juge. Some female judges, like the female minister cited by Le Figaro, might get cross if they were addressed as madame le juge. Others, perhaps older ones, might prefer it. Argh.
So now I have to decide whether the character who uses these words—and he’s not a hugely important character in the story—is modern or conservative.
He is certainly older (tick) but conservative? Not sure. Possibly? He does dress in a three-piece suit…
I’m sure readers will tell me that it really doesn’t matter. After all, I’m not planning to publish this story in French. And how many readers will even notice or know there’s a potential distinction? Possibly none. But I still can’t make up my mind. And I DO want to get it right.
I’ll have to decide. Eventually. Probably as the last edit I do before it goes to print…