Swiss voters may get last word on 'inclusive' writing

Geneva (AFP) –


Ensuring gender neutrality in writing is a tricky business, and nowhere more so than in Switzerland which uses four languages and may soon put the issue to the popular vote.

Furious over inclusive writing making its way into officialdom, the media and schools, the Swiss branch of the Defend the French Language association is hoping to gather enough signatures to trigger a vote, as is possible under the country's direct democracy system.

Wrestling with language is part of the national identity in Switzerland, where German, French and Italian are used -- plus a fourth official language: Romansh.

French and Italian nouns have either a masculine or feminine gender, while German nouns have a masculine, feminine or neutral gender.

In French, Italian and German grammar, the masculine takes precedence over the feminine in situations describing both men and women -- a rule that activists for gender equality say instils the idea that men are superior to women.

As a result, there has been a rapidly spreading trend of filling words up with dots and stars to include their masculine, feminine and sometimes non-binary forms all in one go.

But critics say this is going too far, butchering the written language and creating an unreadable mess.

Since the 1990s, the Swiss government has tried to avoid the problem by leaning towards neutral terminology, where possible, in the three main languages.

For example, communications in French referencing voters get around the issue by referring to the electorate, "l'électorat", rather than "les électeurs et les électrices" -- the masculine and feminine forms of the word "voters".

But formats like "les électeur.rice.s" have now started appearing.

France's education ministry has recently banned the use of such formulations, and in neighbouring Switzerland, a string of politicians, mainly from the right, are also campaigning for them to be wiped off the page.

Benjamin Roduit of The Centre party brought forward a motion in parliament in March -- which has yet to be debated -- asking the Swiss federal administration to adhere to the established rules of the French language.

- How would you like your 'buerger'? -

In June, the Swiss Federal Chancellery banned the use in German of asterisks and other signs that include the masculine, feminine and non-binary forms of words, believing they do not achieve their aim -- and instead "cause a whole host of linguistic problems".

It gave as an example this sentence: "Der*die Leiter*in bezeichnet eine*n geeignete*n Mitarbeiter*in, die*der ihn*sie bei Abwesenheit vertritt", which means "the director shall designate a suitable member of staff to replace him/her in his/her absence."

For the word "citizens" in its plural form -- "Buerger" for men and "Buergerinnen" for women, which turns into "Buerger" if both men and women are involved -- the federal administration will now simply use both in succession.

In French, though, some have been using the formulation "citoyen·ne·x·s" for citizens, with the "ne" denoting women and the "x" for those uncomfortable with either the masculine or feminine spelling.

In recent months, Switzerland's French-language public television service RTS has also fanned the flames by replacing "Bonsoir à tous" ("good evening, everyone", using the masculine plural "tous") with "Bonsoir et bienvenue" -- a neutral "good evening and welcome".

The Swiss branch of Defend the French Language wrote an open letter asking RTS to reverse the change.

Branch president Aurele Challet is also attempting to gather enough signatures to trigger a public vote on the issue.

The initiative "aims to ban so-called inclusive writing throughout Switzerland".

- 'More equality' -

"The French language cannot tolerate being dismantled by utopians creating gibberish," said Challet, a former sports journalist.

He said putting dots between letters is "inconsistent, it's ineffective, it's ugly and it will bring nothing to the legitimate fight -- which I support -- on the place of women in society."

A typographer by training, he deplores the introduction of this writing style in officialdom and soon in schools.

Taking advantage of the upcoming renewal of textbooks in French-speaking Switzerland, the Swiss authorities intend to introduce some elements of gender-neutral language from 2023.

Pascal Gygax, a psycholinguist at the University of Fribourg and author of the book "Does The Brain Think Male?", defends the "re-feminisation" of writing, including in the classroom.

"We see that there are now more egalitarian currents -- we saw it with the 'MeToo' hashtag," he told AFP.

"The language issue is part of a movement that aims for more equality."

For Janna Kraus, of the Transgender Network Switzerland association, being "against equitable language should not give anyone the right to prohibit its use by others".