Gender specification through language does not pose problems to learners alone. The French authorities are struggling to find accepted, non-sexist forms of nouns to denote certain professions. Following a plan laid down by the French government to combat sexism in the late 1980s, disagreements have arisen with the body governing the use of the French language, l’Académie française.
For professions such as writers and company bosses, the accepted form is a masculine noun, écrivain and chefrespectively. The new initiative proposes that the female forms of these nouns should be écrivaine and chefesse. Here enters rhyming embarrassment. Feminizing the word chef with the suffix -esse has created a word which rhymes with the French word for buttocks, fesses. The added -e on to écrivain has created a word which means vain or empty, vaine.
Feminists are protesting at these proposed changes because they actually reinforce sexism. They say these new words promote connotations of weak, vain women or focus attention on physical attributes of the female body –altogether making a joke out of a proposal which is supposed to make everyone happy and equal.
So, what about the English equivalents? Slowly and subtly we have been doing the opposite of the French, and replacing our gender-specific nouns. For example, television and newspapers seem to have phased out the wordactress to replace it with actor regardless of the sex of the person in question.
Indeed, Collins English Dictionary includes the following note:
‘Use of the word actress to refer to a female who acts is old-fashioned. The gender-neutral form is actor.’