posted by Simon Kemp
The French newspaper Le Monde has been taking a look at the question, in an interesting article (in French) that you can read online here. There are the issues we know about, of course, such as the rule that ‘le masculine l’emporte sur le féminin’ in sentences where both genders govern an adjective, pronoun or participle ending:
Les femmes sont rentrées chez elles.
Les femmes et le garçon sont rentrés chez eux.
We know too about the vexed question of masculine job titles for professional women :
Madame le maire
Madame le ministre
Madame le professeur
Both of these grammar points cause controversy, and there have been calls for reform, which we’ll revisit another time. Le Monde, though, takes a different tack, and examines pairs of words, which grammatically stand as simply the masculine and feminine forms of the same word. In all the cases Le Monde picks out, though, the masculine form has a positive or neutral connotation, while the feminine form has a derogatory, and often sexual meaning:
– Un gars peut être bon ou brave, c’est-à-dire un mec sympa. Une garce même belle, restera une garce.
(‘Un gars’ translates more or less as a ‘lad’, but ‘une garce’ means a bitch.)
– Un courtisan est un proche du roi, une courtisane est trop proche du roi
(‘Un courtisan [a courtier] is close to the king; une courtisane [a courtesan] is too close to the king.’)
– Un professionnel est un homme compétent, une professionnelle est une prostituée.
(‘A professional [applied to a man] is a skilled man; a professional [applied to a woman] is a prostitute.’)
Le Monde has several more examples, and a lively debate among readers below the line, about whether the language itself is teaching its speakers from an early age to disrespect and sexualize women. See what you think, and if you think the writer is onto something about French, are you confident that English is free of the same problems?