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Madame Chairman?

Last month I took note of the Web site run by the Académie Française, through which ordinary people can ask the guardians of the purity of the French language for guidance. The organization has gotten involved in a political fracas that occurred in the Assemblée Nationale, when one of its members, Julien Aubert, addressed the body's vice-president, Sandrine Mazetier, as "Madame le Président." Mme. Mazetier took offense, demanding that Aubert address her, as the body's rules stipulate, as "Madame la Présidente," to recognize that she is a woman. Aubert stuck to the masculine form and wound up with a fine of 1,378 euros for his obstinacy. It turns out, though, that Aubert was technically right. The Académie Française intervened, declaring that traditionally one used "Madame la Présidente" when addressing the wife of a man holding the office of president, but when a woman held the office, she should be addressed as "Madame le Président." For a speaker of English, in which most feminine forms of professional names (poetess, chairwoman, even actress) are potentially offensive, this is a strange situation.

According to an article by Mohammed Aissaoui for Le Figaro (Féminisation des noms : la mise au point de l'Académie française, October 15), "les immortels," as the members of the Académie Française are known, did not stop there. In a document called La féminisation des noms de métiers, fonctions, grades ou titres - Mise au point de l'Académie française, the institution reminded the world of the rules about feminine forms of professional titles in French. For those who care, feminine nouns that evolved organically throughout history are acceptable, like artisane, postière, aviatrice, pharmacienne, avocate, bûcheronne, factrice, compositrice, éditrice, and exploratrice. However, new feminine forms, which are sometimes used against the wishes of women who hold these positions, like professeure, recteure, sapeuse-pompière, auteure, ingénieure, procureure, and (shudder) chercheure, are rejected as "barbarisms contrary to the normal rules of derivation." Officially, French will continue to use generic professional nouns, in the masculine form in keeping with its heritage in Latin, for those cases "when the sex of the person is no more important to consider than his or her other individual traits." As for the rules of the Assemblée Nationale, "no text gives to the government the power to modify, on its sole authority, the vocabulary and grammar of the French language. It is not, in effect, a tool shaped according to individual desires or political projects." Only in France.

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