First of all, I would like to express my never ending gratitude to the pronoun They. Thank you for existing, and for being there for me. Thank you for making it so much easier for me to breathe at times. Thank you for being so sturdy and reliable, for your undeniable existence in the English language, which in turn makes me undeniable since I adopted you. Thank you for the roots you helped me grow for my identity over the years. They’re the best kind, the stubborn kind, the annoying kind. The kind gardeners insult with passion. The kind that survives wildfires and storms, over and over again. Thanks to them, I know that the certainty of me existing will sprout back to life, even if it has been shaken or trimmed down to almost nothing by uncaring words. So thank you They, for making me real and for much more.

English is not my first language. I am lucky and immensely privileged to be able to speak it well enough for me to live in the UK, where I can use it daily. I am lucky to benefit from a language with They in it. Thisprobably wouldn’t have been possible without the French education system which started teaching me the basics of English when I was ten, so that when the time came, I could move abroad and attend a Master’s degree in London. And of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without my parents’ emotional or financial support. My parents whom I love so much, and who call me their daughter without knowing that it hurts a little bit each time they do.

Until recently, there was no They in my mother tongue. French is by essence a very binary language, with no neutral personal pronouns. While in English, adjectives remain unchanged no matter what, in French they are closely linked to the subject to which they apply and most of the time adopt its grammatical gender, actively reflecting it in the way they are written or pronounced. And in contemporary French, nouns are either masculine or feminine. There is no distinct neutral form for words in French. In the rare cases in which one should be employed, the masculine is used. So I grew up with Il and Elle, the masculine and the feminine, and most the only pronouns available.

As a non-binary person, I get misgendered constantly. I have to come up with mental strategies each time, to cushion the blow. A lot of it involves a bit of mental housekeeping, taking in the wrong pronoun and stripping it of its general meaning to apply a new one on top of it before I can process it. I often have to remind myself that when some friends use the wrong pronouns addressing me, it is mostly by habit. I understand that this person uses this word due to years of conditioning, and that when they employ it, it is without malice and that the meaning they attach to it is tailored to address me specifically. I know it has nothing to do with the love they feel for me. Society teaches most people to react in a specific way when facing individuals with a certain tone of voice or appearance, and I am very aware of it. So I try not to blame people too much. I am mostly angry at what leads them to behave this way. They cannot possibly know that each time they use the wrong pronoun, it’s one more pebble thrown at the wobbly structure that is my identity, and that even though it has strong roots, it can be trampled on easily. That each time, it feeds the thoughts in the back of my brain which keep telling me that I’m not real, that it’s my fault if I’m not trans enough, that I am wrong and that the rest of the world is right. So recently I bought a nice little pin with my pronouns on it. I go about my day wearing it, hoping it can help orient people in the right direction, sparing me the stressful moments where I have to quickly decide if I am going to speak up and correct them or not. I don’t mean for this to be a pity party, and I apologise if that’s how it comes out. I just feel like it’s relevant to point these things out, and most importantly to underline the fact that despite it all, I have pronouns to put on my pin.

Around 2010 in France, the pronoun Iel (pronounced like ‘yell’) appeared. I write 2010, because that’s apparently when the first sightings were reported, localised within the confines of the LGBTQ+ community. But it was in 2013 that the existence of Iel was established as more than a myth, and that it officiously became a known denizen of the French language. Iel is They’s cousin from across the Chanel. Or, if you will, its colleague. In fact Iel and They may not be related in any way, but they still occupy similar roles as neutral personal pronouns in their respective languages.
Iel is a newborn chimera. It sprouts, like so many other words, from the fusion of two others: the pronouns Il and Elle. Iel is relatively young and its first steps are complicated. It stumbles into the French language which at first glance doesn’t seem to have much space available for it. It feels a bit like everything is purposely designed to make life harder for Iel. Amidst its harsh and binary surroundings, a non-binary pronoun crudely stands out. But Iel is resilient and shapes its freshly acquired territory so that it can stop bumping into obstacles all the time. Little by little, the traces it leaves as it roams around transform the landscape.

I think I learned about Iel’s existence in 2017, and at first, I wasn’t very kind to it. I didn’t like how it sounded, I thought it was clumsy and unattractive. At that time, I had more of an affinity with the masculine Il which in my opinion was more suitable. The masculine is being used in French as the neutral form for adjectives, so it made sense to choose it. Looking back at it now, I think the fact that Il was a well-established, ‘respectable’ and commonly used word must have played an important role in that decision. To put it simply, it was a safer option. It existed in the approved binary framework of the French language and its existence or realness was unquestionable. Meanwhile, Iel was bold and uncommon, mostly employed by the LGBTQ+ community at the time and proudly displaying its non-binary status. I think that scared me. Iel was a statement I wasn’t ready to make yet. And just like people do when they are scared of something, I chose to be unkind to it and I moved on to using the English They.

On the 18th of November 2021, Iel entered the French dictionary le Petit Robert. This addition results from a simple observation by the lexicographers of the online dictionary: the number of search entries for Iel on their website had increased steadily over the past few months. In response to this, they came up with a definition for this new word that was making its way into conversations and written text. This is what their work is about as Marie-Hélène Drivaut, lexicographer and editorial director of le Petit Robert, reminds us in a brief interview delivered to the independent news agency Mediapart:
We describe the use [of words]. We are an observatory and not a conservatory.” 
There was no political stance or motivation behind this decision. Nothing but the acknowledgment that a word had entered common language and therefore it required a definition. I recommend watching the interview.

Then immediately came the outcry and the polemic. The existence of Iel as a third pronoun being defined — therefore officialised, which is an interesting dynamic that is worth exploring — was like a rock thrown into the pond. A direct attack. People started expressing their fear at the idea that Iel might replace — and potentially erase (or maybe consume?)—Il and Elle. That it might be taught to their children in primary school during French lessons and confuse them. Interrogated on the topic, the French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer stated that “The French language should not be fiddled with, no matter the reason.” Moreover, he added, if feminising titles and professions to tackle gender stereotypes is important, the use of middle dots — used in inclusive writing to accord adjectives to all pronouns — or of other “unexpected modifications of the language” doesn’t do any good, as it makes French even more difficult for children to learn. “The language is so beautiful. And two pronouns is good.” concluded Brigitte Macron, former French teacher and the country’s current first lady, present during the interview. Others perceived the situation as the progression of what they call “woke culture”, which they describe as “a political trend aimed towards the rewriting of history and the erasure of all things perceived as oppressive”. The entry of Iel into le Petit Robert would demonstrate an attempt at erasing the grammatical domination of the masculine over the feminine. Sure. Meanwhile I’m just here, trying to figure out why so many people are acting like Iel personally showed up at their doorstep and shot their dog.

From what I gather, I feel like a lot of this originates from this fantasy that some people seem to share. This idea that the French language is or should be eternal and immovable. That it is this grandiose and timeless colossus which must be preserved and protected at all costs from the smallest of alterations like every other antique monument; that is to say that it should be conserved.
Iel, by essence, represents a direct menace to the integrity of this mirage. It does combines some of the worst fears of those who shiver at the idea of change: novelty, minorities made unpleasantly visible and a challenge to the status-quo. Language is marked by the intentions of those using it, and as such the apparition of a third pronoun is the sign that the binary way in which gender and reality have been presented so far might need some reconsidering. That the way things are isn’t relevant to everyone. Let’s be clear, Iel was not shoved into people’s mouths against their will, and it didn’t materialise out of thin air. It came to be because it was necessary, as Marie-Hélène Drivaut points out:
A new word that appears responds to a need. One can find said need futile, absurd or legitimate, it doesn’t matter. It still responds to a need.”

Throughout this debate (Debate? Panic?), we keep being reminded that Iel is “made up”, “forged”, “fabricated”. That it is a neologism, a new word created by mashing Il and Elle together. That constructed aspect seem to be the main argument used by its detractors to undermine Iel, as it would makes it “less real”. It’s these crazy feminists, back at it again, but this time they have the nerve to come for the sacred institution of French Grammar. And the people who scream bloody murder in the face of this shameless vandalising of linguistic purity will casually use the words hashtag or internaute a few hours later.

I remember having a discussion with one of my grandmothers, who expressed her disapproval of the way gen Z teenagers are twisting words around to communicate different meanings. For example, malaisant is an adjective derived from the noun malaise, which appeared recently and is mostly used by younger people and teens. It conveys a very specific feeling that no other word carries. She felt like it was an improper use of the language, or rather, a sub-language, inferior to the “real” language, and that the fact that these new patchwork words were entering the “real language” wasn’t a good thing. She couldn’t really tell me why she felt that way. She just did. I suspect that this is what happens when you look at language with conservation and not observation in mind. When I pointed out that all words were made up, she told me that it wasn’t the same. Honestly, I demand to be shown a word that isn’t made up, because what would that look like?

I am so grateful for Iel. I am so happy that it entered the French language by that weird front door that is a dictionary, making its existence irrefutable. I am glad that some people can adopt it as their own and feel validated by it the same way I feel validated by They. I hope Iel gives them roots too, if they need any.

I’m trying to understand the anxiety that Iel brings to some people, and looking at the whole situation, I think I mostly want to reassure them, let them know that nothing is being taken away from them. A word has been added, that’s all. No policy is being enforced in the way we should construct sentences in French. No new programme has been written down for the teaching of grammar in schools. This is not an enforcement of a political agenda that wishes to completely rearrange  French to make it “unproblematic”. The only thing happening is that a new word is being used, laying bare the binary foundation of our language, and challenging that. A word exist now for people who don’t recognise themselves in this divide and/or wish to move beyond it. And it raises interesting questions: how do we use Iel in everyday language? How do we accord adjectives in a way that is non-binary? There are no conventions for now, and people are experimenting. Some non-binary folks prefer to use Ielle instead of Iel. Some ask that the masculine forms of the adjectives are used to describe them. Some prefer to twist sentences around by using adjectives that use the same form no matter the gender (like sympathique, or bizarre). Language is growing and expanding in a beautiful, organic and radical way in front of our eyes, shaped by the many individual voices that make it their own. Honestly shouldn’t we rejoice at least a little bit for that?