Doing it French style

“Bonjour. Aujourd’hui je vais vous presenter quelques gays”. (trans: “Hi. Today i’ll be introducing you to some gays”)

Huh? What is the bint going on about? Well, i’m making a point – which is, if you look closely, that in French, “Gay” appears to be a noun. It probably isn’t. But that’s how it looks.

And this is my long overdue taking issue with the whole “don’t write about gays, trans, etc. as though they are nouns, because that is disrespectful”.

No, if you’ll pardon my French, it fecking is not. However, it does appear to me that two issues have got inflated, alongside a very old-fashioned and, dare i suggest it, paternalistic pre-chomsky view of grammar.

Sometimes a noun…is just a noun

The basic argument i encounter often is “don’t write about ‘a gay'” cause its disrespectful. Well, it MAY be…but the disrespect is nothing to do with the grammatical usage.

The French sentence above exemplifies something that French does often, and which you can tell they’re doing because they have grammatical gender.

In a bar, you might ask for “un creme”. Wassat? Its a coffee with milk in it. OK. Look closely: its “un”…grammatically masculine. Only “creme” is feminine: so shouldn’t it be “une creme”?

Nope: because French drops words out…and “un creme” is shorthand for “un café creme”: “creme” is acting adjectivally, though it has the function of a noun in that request.

Ditto my intro. Trans Aide (just renamed to Association Nationale Transgenre) quite happily write about “les gays”. They seem to be “nouning” the term…but my guess is that in origin the underlying thought is a sentence referencing “un type gay”.

Back to English. The basic grammar pedant claims that noun and adjective are two totally separate categories. No they ain’t: you got that view from doing English grammar, itself borrowed, in large extent, from a 19th century model of Latin grammar – and its just wrong. Too absolute…too lacking in fluidity to cover language comprehensively.

English abounds with adjectives acting as though they are nouns. Colours, f’rinstance. Snooker: how often does a commentator suggest someone is planning to “pot the black”.

They mean “black ball”…but it would be tedious if they kept inserting balls into their voice-over. If you see what i mean.

Loads and loads of other instances of adjectives acting nounally. “I read two books last week: the more dangerous was by the Marquis de Sade”.

Basically, in loads of situations, language is quite happy to drop trivial words, like “one”, “person” and so on if it speeds up and makes sentences that bit faster.

Just think of police reports: “the suspect is a female”. really? How disrespectful! Only its not. Its just usage…

Respect is the key

Which leaves us where on talking about “gays” and “trans”? First up, i think the regular squawk about nounifying has a lot to do with fashion and follow-the-herd stuff. There’s not a real grammar issue there…and its slightly disingenuous to claim there is.

However, if an individual i am talking to objects to a particular usage, i’ll respect that: there is no need to be rude face-to-face, and if someone dislikes “trans” as noun (or just “trans”) when we’re chatting, i’m not so crass as to force my usage on them.

That’s a bit like gender and titles: if someone identifies as female, identifies as “Ms” its crass to insist on addressing them as other.

In general journalistic use…i’m not impressed by the (enforced) pedantry. I know that there are some much bigger arguments around the language used in respect of any minority and if particular words become viewed as generally disrespectful, i’d go with not using them.

I won’t write “mong”, “poof” or “tranny” unless…there’s a point to be made or some irony somewhere in there. I certainly do not regard those as acceptable terms for everyday journalism.

Otherwise, there is another, possibly more important point. Refering to someone as “a gay” can be perceived to be reducing them to their sexual orientation. I synmpathise…having early in this transition process fallen out with calling myself transsexual. It felt far too limiting and sort of defined me by my gender identity.

That’s a bigger, fairer point…though not totally sure how to get round it. Since it isn’t solved by inserting a noun: calling me a “trans woman” is no better, in this respect, than calling me “trans”: its still limiting.

Dunno. Will be interested in comments. I suspect this one leaves me at odds with a certain community view…but grammar, language, words…those are all, in their way, obsessions of mine…and i dislike restrictions, espesh when they are created on the back of a misunderstanding of what grammar is.



9 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Shirley Anne said,

    There may be a problem with English just as there is with French but it shouldn’t be an issue. The whole point of any language is to communicate and as long as that happens it doesn’t really matter whether the language is perfect. Perfection is a requirement of those who are sticklers for it. If we study any language but let’s say English we see words come and go, spelling changes, new words entering the language regularly and they all have to be joined together in order to make sense. That point may be reached without insisting on perfect presentation.
    For myself, well I prefer the language to meet minimum standards, correct spelling, correct use of adjectives, adverbs, nouns and pronouns, capitalisation of letters when it is proper to do so. (Thinks….Jane doesn’t capitalise i when it should be I)… LOL, and abbreviations…….LOL again.

    Shirley Anne xxx

    • 2

      janefae said,

      de-capitalising “i” might be one of my retirement campaigns. 🙂

      i don’t really see the point of it…but would be intrigued if anyone with better linguistic history than i could explain why.


  2. 3

    Shirley Anne said,

    This site might give a better understanding Jane…

    Shirley Anne xxx

  3. 4

    Adam said,

    Hi Jane, I have to say that I really don’t buy your suggestion that oppenents of nominalizing adjectives base their objections on neo-grammarian prejudices – I’m calling strawman on that 😉 To my mind, the issue is clearly that the nominal form serves to otherify the subject through a reductive focus on their sexual identity. I personally hate hearing ‘a gay’ (or worse, a homosexual) rather than ‘a gay man’ (leaving aside the question of whether sexuality is relevant in the context). Nothing to do with the grammar, I just perceive it as rude, marginalizing. And that’s what it boils down to: perception of the audience.

    • 5

      janefae said,

      straw man? mebbe it is, mebbe it isn’t.

      However, that argument, pretty much as you call it, is an argument i have heard on more than one occasion and seems to be the phrasing used in the TMNW guidelines as well as various LGBT guidelines. I understand that the target of that is “othering” and i also mostly buy into that (though i’ll post at slightly greater length in a mo to explain my issue).

      At base, though, i object to reification and to some degree “othering”: that CAN be the result of nounifying…but i’d say that the two things aren’t synonymous. There can be offensive and othering nounifying: and there can be offense and othering that is not based on that process. Also, i do believe that nounifying is not automatically to be deprecated. qv. the use of words like “female” or “communist”.

      Therefore, my quarrel is simply with the argument – not with the outcome. If the issue is “othering”, then people should explain it as such and also explain to those to whom they give such guidelines WHAT othering is (since a lot of the normative lot haven’t even heard the word) and explain how it works. Not just simply say “don’t nounify”.


  4. 6

    Adam said,

    PS: And try reading a page of text without capital letters – it’s a nightmare! Capitals are very handling for parsing sentences. I’ll admit that there’s a less of a case for capitalisation of pronouns.

  5. 9

    Actually, in French “gay” can be used as a noun. In my opinion it’s far better than the standard French slang for homosexual, which is “pédé”. As in “pédéraste”


    Fortunately, imported words don’t have the same overtones in their adopted language.

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