Politics of the French Language

In 3. Language, The Art of Travel, Paris by Amy1 Comment

As a linguistics major, the topic of this week’s assignment delighted me. I have a lot of opinions on the status of “national languages,” and the linguistic superiority and prejudice rooted within this idea. It is often ingrained in U.S. culture that English is a language of superiority, with the rise of the “English-only” movement which stresses nationalism, in the form of language, to the point of racism. Even when traveling to a new country, many people are shocked to find that English will not be the easiest form of communication to use. While studying in Paris, I have taken a slow approach to using French outside of the classroom, and instead intently observe my classmates and the locals vocality as a teaching lesson. I have my qualms with language assistance apps because it can be awkward and clumsy to fiddle with your phone to find the appropriate saying in an interaction. I can, however, understand their usefulness as a study aid. Furthermore, I hold the opinion that translation from one language to another will never accurately express the intentions of the original sentence, phrase, book, or speech, etc. Everything must be viewed both in its original context and the new context in which it is said. Thus, my approach to interacting with locals has been increasing at an equal pace as my knowledge of French.

Having had experience with another romance language, learning French has been a great, yet still challenging, experience. The phonetics of French are often very different from the sounds I have been taught to produce, which proves the most challenging aspect of the language for me. What I am truly interested in while learning French is the effects of speaking a gendered language. Flora Lewis writes, “Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.” One of the first concepts taught in any linguistics class is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the surrounding debate and controversy. The hypothesis states that language influences thought, which influences culture. For instance, one could argue that in a gendered language, such as a french, sexist connotations may arise from nouns that are assigned gender. French is a language, as beautiful as it is, that mandates sexism in several ways. Plurality will always take on the masculine form, feminine adjectives must be placed before honorifics that don’t have a female form, and, not to mention, one must consider the cognitive effects of connotative gender. It has been proven that, in gendered languages, masculine nouns will take on characteristics stereotypically and historically assigned to males, and vice versa. The French academy of language regulates from the top down the correct version of French. Both elites and grass-roots groups share the ability to change a language, however.

One of my goals while learning French is to use it as equally as my professors will allow. For a woman to be a professor is nearly impossible to address in French. “Le nouveau professor est belle” is an ungrammatical sentence. I vow to use “une professeure”, and not “une femme professeur”. Interestingly enough, Quebec French allows for these distinctions, while the notoriously conservative French Academy has not accepted these changes to the language. The distinctions I will learn between masculine and feminine French words will lend to a greater understanding of how language, thought, and culture interact; which is as much as I can hope to learn from a linguistic standpoint.

(Image: The Building that Houses the French Academy of Language.; Source: Baigl Lab)


  1. I love that you approached this post from a linguistics standpoint. My struggles in learning French often have to do with remembering which nouns are masculine/feminine, along with the correct form of adjectives that accompany them. When I speak to people in French– other than in the classroom– these rules go out the window so that I can quickly speak without disrupting everyone’s flow during the day. No one has corrected me and, though I’m sure the sentences sound strange to their ears, have thankfully helped me get what I need without stopping to ponder what I am saying! As I improve in French and better remember these masculine and feminine forms, I hope that I will sound more clear and fluent. Of course, I hope that the Academie Francaise will choose to adopt less strict rules and open their minds to the way languages change over the years before I adapt to this way of speaking.

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