Three French fight over three letters

French dictionary: The pronoun «iel» is a source of debate among our neighbors.

Image: Keystone

“Something historical” or paving the way for an ideology “that destroys our values”? Our French neighbors are currently fighting over a word with just three letters: “iel”.

The dictionary “Le Robert” is for France something like the “Duden” for the German-speaking area: a reference work that shows how words are spelled correctly, but also an authority that records which language people use. A few weeks ago, the makers of “Robert” added a new term to the online version of their dictionary – which, with a little delay, is now making waves in France.

It’s about a word with just three letters: «iel». The term is a mixture of the personal pronouns “il” (“he”) and “elle” (“she”) and is intended to describe all those people who do not feel they belong to either of the traditional genders. The variant «iels» exists for the plural.

“Iel” or “iels” is a “subject-personal pronoun in the third person singular and plural, which is used to address a person regardless of their gender”, says the definition of the term. The word is used “in inclusive communication”.

«Pioneer of the ‘Woke’ ideology»

A few days ago, in a letter to the Académie française published on Twitter, the MP François Jolivet accused the makers of “Robert” of harming the French language. The entry “iel”, according to the politician of the Macron party La République En Marche, was “a pioneer of the“ Woke ”ideology that destroys our values”.

François Jolivet received approval from Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. The party member of Jolivet wrote, also on Twitter: “Inclusive spelling is not the future of the French language.” Schoolchildren should «not orientate themselves».

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Charles Bimbenet, general manager of the publishing house Le Robert, did not want to let that go. In a statement he defended the gender-neutral personal pronoun. «For a few months now, the documentalists of ‘Robert’ have noticed an increasing use of the word ‘iel’. The frequency of use of a word is examined through the statistical analysis of extensive text corpora from various sources. This constant monitoring enables us to recognize the emergence of new words, phrases, meanings, etc. »

“It’s almost something historical”

In short: the word was not invented, but simply noticed in common usage and therefore included in the dictionary. The word is still rarely used, but the frequency has been increasing for months.

Bimbenet welcomes the discussion about “iel”: “The fact that the controversy about our language, its development and use can sometimes be lively and sometimes heated is nothing new and can even be seen as an excellent sign of its vitality.”

Lee Ferrero from the Transat association for transgender people in Marseille supports the dictionary makers’ decision. “It’s almost something historical,” said Ferrero loudly “france inter”. “Language establishes the existence of things, so imagine a situation in which your identity cannot be expressed, a situation in which you cannot easily communicate and be understood when you talk about yourself.” The recognition of the word by the “Robert” maker “iel” will “set things in motion,” says Ferrero.