They? Them? iel? ellui? Why is gender neutral French so difficult and how do you make it work?

What are your pronouns?

An innocent question which can make you feel very welcome or lead to an icecold surprise. I think many people simply don’t know what this is about. Let’s start from the beginning, though:

Case in point, I go by they/ them. What’s that mean, though?

Cris likes cats. They like cats. Tell them about your cat. Their cat is called Pyewacket.

The singular they has been around since the 14th century. Shakespeare was no stranger to it. Plural they isn’t even much older. Although the generic he is being defended as a gender neutral term to this day.

Quels sont vos pronoms?

In French this isn’t quite so clear-cut. Historically the language has never known ambiguous pronouns. That is, until very recently:

Cris aime les chats. Iel aime les chats. Parle ellui de ton chat. Iels sont ami·es.

Let’s take a closer look at the cases here:

Question Pronoms Exemple
Qui? iel Iel aime les chats
Qui pluriel? iels Iels aimes les chats

The agreement with the object remains as usual, according to the grammatical gender:

son chat sa chatte

What if, you ask, the gender of the person themself is ambiguous? Why thank you, there is a solution for that as well:

Question Exemple
De moi? C’est mo copaine.
De toi? C’est to copaine.
De lu? C’est so copaine.

And not to forget French has gendered articles:

Question déterminé undéfini
Qui? lu copaine an copaine

Lose the grammatical gender

You may have noticed my use of copaine in the examples. Many words in French require gender to be specified. In other cases the grammatical gender is oblivious to the gender of the individual, or there is no established noun.

masculin féminin épicène
ami amie ami·e
frère sœur (la fratrie)
père mère parent
copain copine copaine
docteur docteur docteur

And of course there’s demonstrative terms:

masculin féminin épicène
ce cette çu
tout toute touz
tous toutes touze
quel quelle quéal

The variations

Like in English, there’s other pronouns or variants with some differences. I’m not going into detail because my motto for this blog is, feel free to take my example and run with it. This is a pragmatic outlook, not an overview of everything out there.