Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speakers: Heather Burnett and Olivier Bonami (Université de Paris, LLF, CNRS)

Title: Linguistic Prescription, Ideological Structure and the Actuation of Linguistic Changes: Grammatical Gender in French Parliamentary Debates

Abstract: In this presentation, we give a new study of the role that social meaning and speaker ideologies play in variation and change in g(rammatical) gender in French. More specifically, we study noms de métiers et de fonctions 'professional nouns' which have the following g-gender assignment pattern: when they are used to refer to socially female individuals, they can have either masculine or feminine g-gender (i.e. le ministre or la ministre for a female minister); whereas, when they are used to refer to socially male individuals, they can have only masculine g-gender (only le ministre for a male minister). We present the first quantitative study of the linguistic and social factors that condition the use of masculine vs feminine g-gender with reference to women, focusing on variation in the transcripts of the debates of the Assemblée Nationale (AN, French House of Representatives).

The use of grammatical gender in expressions referring to women has been the subject of enormous amounts of prescription and language planning in France and within the Assemblée Nationale itself (see Houdebine 1987, 1998, Burr 2003, Viennot 2014, among others). These efforts can be naturally divided into two phases of activism: First, in 1986, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius legislates the use of feminine grammatical gender and (certain) feminized forms in the AN and similar government institutions. However, we show in our data that this prescription had little to no effect on the speech of the politicians at the time (see also Yaguello 1989, Brick & Wilks 1994 for qualitative observations). Second, in 1998, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin issues a statement reiterating Fabius' policy. We show that, unlike 12 years earlier, use of the feminine form (eg. la ministre) successfully replaces use of the masculine form (eg. le ministre) within the space of a year in the AN. This striking difference raises the question: What changed from 1986 to 1998 which allowed the feminine form to take over, possibly aided by (the exact same) language policy?

Our main proposal in this talk is that changes in the use of feminine grammatical gender and differences in the effectiveness of Fabius/Jospin’s language policy are the result of changes in social gender ideologies that occurred in France between the mid 1980s and mid 1990s. To make this claim maximally explicit, we develop a formal model of the relationship between ideological structure and language use and interpretation based on current work in game theoretic pragmatics (particularly Franke 2009 and Frank & Goodman 2012). More specifically, we use Gärdenfors (2000, 2014)'s Conceptual Spaces framework to formalize speaker ideologies and Burnett (2017)'s Social Meaning Game framework to capture the link between ideological structure, social meaning and language use. Using this model, we show that the failure of Fabius' policy and Jospin's subsequent successful use of this policy is predictable from independently motivated assumptions concerning 1) the social meaning of French g-gender (following Livia 2001, McConnell-Ginet 2013), and 2) changes in social discourses surrounding the properties of female politicians associated with the Parité ('equal representation') debates in the late 1990s (Ramsay 2003, Scott 2007, Julliard 2012, among others). We therefore conclude that tools from formal semantics and pragmatics can be helpful to understanding both the relationship between social change and linguistic change, and the conditions under which language policies can be effective.


  • Brick, N., & Wilks, C. (1994). Et Dieu nomma la femme: observations sur la question de la féminisation des noms d'agent et sur les désignations d'Edith Cresson dans la presse. Journal of French Language Studies, 4(2), 235-239.
  • Burnett, H. (2017). Sociolinguistic interaction and identity construction: The view from game‐theoretic pragmatics. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 21, 238-271.
  • Burr, E. (2003). Gender and language politics in France. Gender across languages, 3, 119-139.
  • Frank, M. C., & Goodman, N. D. (2012). Predicting pragmatic reasoning in language games. Science, 336, 998-998.
  • Franke, M. (2009). Signal to act: Game theory in pragmatics. PhD Thesis. Institute for Logic, Language and Computation, University of Amsterdam.
  • Gärdenfors, P. (2014). The geometry of meaning: Semantics based on conceptual spaces. MIT Press.
  • Gärdenfors, P. (2000). Conceptual spaces: The geometry of thought. MIT press.
  • Houdebine, A. M. (1987). Le français au féminin. La linguistique, 23, 13-34.
  • Houdebine, A. M. (1998). La féminisation des noms de métiers. Paris: Harmattan.
  • Julliard V. (2012). De la presse à Internet, la parité en questions, Paris, Lavoisier.
  • Livia, A. (2001). Pronoun envy: literary uses of linguistic gender. Oxford University Press.
  • McConnell-Ginet, S. (2013). Gender and its relation to sex: the myth of ‘natural’gender. in Corbett, G. (ed). The Expression of Gender, Berlin: de Gruyter. 3-38.
  • Ramsay, R. L. (2003). French women in politics. Berghahn Books.
  • Scott, J. W. (2007). Parite!: Sexual equality and the crisis of French universalism. University of Chicago Press.
  • Viennot, É. (2014). "Non, le masculin ne l’emporte pas sur le féminin." Petite histoire des résistances de la langue française. Éditions iXe.
  • Yaguello, M. (1989). Le sexe des mots. Belfondl.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Alexander Martin

Centre for Language Evolution

Jun 02 2020 -

Language evolution seminar

2020-06-02: Linguistic Prescription, Ideological Structure and the Actuation of Linguistic Changes: Grammatical Gender in French Parliamentary Debates

Online via link invitation