Female language: English and French differ. Or do they?

woman against background of questionmarksRecently, I was stopped in my tracks over female language. Specifically French female language. And then I thought about English, and how different it is. Or is it?

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?

Palais de Justice, Law Courts in France

© [Olivier-Tuffé] / Adobe Stock

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?

dictionary open at the word "dictionary"

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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

barber's tools, annotated not that kind of FigaroAlison 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 Académie Française does not require the feminine form, although French Government documents do.

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.

Fist from mouth to knock down brick wall

© [nuvolanevicata] / Adobe Stock

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.

name badge: what is my name?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.)

Decisions, decisions

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.

diverging paths, which to choose?

Image by PixxlTeufel from Pixabay

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…

Joanna Maitland author

Joanna Maitland

18 thoughts on “Female language: English and French differ. Or do they?

  1. lesley2cats

    Interesting. Must say I approve of a combination pronoun; I’ve often thought we should all perhaps be referred to as “it”. And the Mayor/Maire problem is the same in English. Historically, the Lady Mayoress was always the Mayor’s wife, but I’m not sure the title is ever used these days. Food for thought…

    1. Joanna Post author

      I had forgotten about Lady Mayoress, Lesley. You’re quite right about that, I think. You may have a point about “it”, too, though at least English has the option of using “they” which is gender-neutral. Not true of classic French which has “ils/elles” though I believe the version “iels” is used by some. I’ve noted that some newspapers now routinely refer to a single person as “they” rather than “he/she”. It’s not grammatical per the rules but it works for what they’re trying to do. Wonder what the Dame would say about it?

      1. Sophie

        Good grief, of course. I’d forgotten about the Lady Mayoress, too.

        What if the Mayor is a Mayoress … The Mayoress and Sir Mayor?

        And, even ore complicate, what if the male Mayor’s partner is also male? The Mayor and Sub Mayor? Pro Mayor? The Mayor and Mayoral Partner?

        The editors of books of etiquette must be teasing their perfectly coiffed hair out.

        1. Joanna Post author

          Gawd, haven’t a clue on any of those, Sophie. In some cases, the partners work it out for themselves, as in the US Vice-President’s husband. And Alison tells me that the French president’s wife is not Madame la Présidente but Madame Macron and, sometimes, la première dame (though not officially so).

  2. Liz Fielding

    Thankfully, Joanna, I’ve never had to wrestle with this particular conundrum in either English or any other language. Whichever you decide, the book will be brilliant.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Liz. I’d settle for the book being pretty good, I think. And I know I’m being anal about the French language in it. It’s the proofreader in me coming out, I suppose

  3. Yvonne Setters

    Why is everything now so complicated? I am 82 and am constantly being told by grandchildren – you can’t say that nan – . I know languages are forever growing and changing but at the moment it’s a minefield. Then I think why can’t I just use what I am comfortable with. Hey ho.

  4. Jan Jones

    Interesting post. Regarding your dilemma, would it help to consider how the character interacts with all the women around him? How he sees women in general?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Jan, but I think I’ve worked it out. I think he’s a “madame le juge” man. How did I get there? You’ll have to read the story to find out. When it’s available, one of these years…

  5. Alison Morton

    Delighted I could help, Evelyn. It’s a daily trap here and even the French get it wrong. Or is it really wrong? 😉
    I’m not comfortable with using the ‘iel ‘and ‘iels’ that some sensitive people are starting to use. I think I’ll stick with ‘il/elle’ and ‘ils/elles’ in my everyday life here in France.

    1. Bridget C

      I live in France too, and I agree that it is much easier in English with “they”! “iel” is not natural for me, and I don’t know anyone who uses it.

      1. Joanna Post author

        Welcome Bridget and thanks for the comment. I can’t say that “iel” would come easily to me either. I wonder if it’s used more in writing than in speech?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Elizabeth, but I’ve decided to go the other way, based on Alison’s advice about who says what.

  6. moyalydia

    Joanna, I always find your articles interesting and min stretching. I’m on the eve of my 80th birthday and I would go with Madame la juge.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Moya. Must say it’s been mind-stretching for me, too. But I’ve decided (almost decided) to go with Madame le juge because that feels appropriate for the character who says the words. Glad you find our blogs interesting. It’s what we try to do, always.

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