Every language poses it own problems when transcribing from the spoken to the written word. In this guest blog, I’m delighted that Dennis Dressel, Wifek Bouaziz and Marie Klatt, all at the University of Freiburg, take us through the dilemma of transcribing French, with its convention of treating plurals as masculine, while also trying to respect inclusivity. How does the transcriber acknowledge references to females when the language conventionally refers to them as male?
Like all Romance languages, French is a highly gendered language. That means that all nouns are either masculine or feminine and adjectives must agree with the noun (in gender & number). This also holds for participles, when used in the composite past tense (with the auxiliary être ‘be’).
Elles sont allées au parc.
They-F-PL AUX went-F-PL to parc
‘They went to the park’
But there is a complication. Suppose the group which goes to the park is composed of ten women and one man. When French refers to mixed groups, the generic masculine (ils) is traditionally used, so the sentence becomes ils sont allés au parc, and the women will fall out of the picture.
Traditional linguistics will claim that it doesn’t matter, since everyone knows that ils encompasses male-specific, gender-mixed and gender-neutral denotations. But linguistic research has extensively shown that the use of the generic masculine reinforces male bias and fails to make non-male genders visible (see Gygax et al., 2019; Menegatti & Rubini, 2017). The question thus arises of how gender inclusivity can be accomplished within these binary constraints.
The point médian
In written French, the point médian (interpointt or median-period) offers one possible inclusive writing directive. It allows users to combine masculine and feminine endings, overriding the rule ‘le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin’ (‘the masculine form wins over the feminine’). The point médian is widely used (both in academic and non-academic contexts) and it is embraced by queer communities and organizations. Here are two examples:
Moreover, recent French CA publications have embraced the point médian among other inclusive writing practices, as this example from Greco and Mondada (2021: 18) demonstrates:
Il ne s’agit pas seulement de revisiter les potentialités du langage et de sa multimodalité, mais aussi de reconnaître et de renverser des formes radicales d’asymétrie et de définition de ce qu’est un·e locuteur·ice légitime, autorisé·e, et socialement intégré·e.Greco and Mondada (2021: 18)
[English gloss: it’s not enough merely to think about the multiple modalities of language; we need also to recognise and reverse the asymmetries in what it means to be a legitimate, authorised and socially integrated speaker]
But while the point médian has proven to be a practical alternative to the generic masculine in written French, it is mostly invisible/inaudible in spoken French. However, we observe that some French speakers make an Increasing effort to use gender-inclusive or non-binary forms in talk-in-interaction. Such inclusionary practices can encompass the production of a schwa /ə/ sound in cases such as ami·e (/amiə/), the delayed production of the final consonant sound in cases such as important·e (/ɛ͂pɔʀtɑ͂:tə/), or the ‘conjoined’ production of both the masculine and feminine suffix in cases such as acteur·ice (/aktœʀis/). We have not been able to record and analyze naturalistic data of these inclusive speaking practices yet.
What does this mean for CA?
So what does all this mean for us, CA-researchers working with French data? When it comes to academic writing, many French journals explicitly reject inclusive language and specify that they will only accept ‘habitual orthography’, whereas others have started to encourage its use and recommend the avoidance of sexist language. Looking at recent CA publications in French, we find that some authors use the generic masculine while others implement inclusive writing practices (see the special issue edited by Greco & Mondada, 2021). While the body of conversation analytic work on gender is constantly growing (Mondada, 2021; Stokoe & Speer, 2018; Whitehead & Lerner, 2021), we do not know of any studies on (non)inclusive practices in French conversations.
In addition to academic writing, the transcription of French interactions is at the heart of our conversation-analytic work. When transcribing French audio data, we attempt to capture what participants actually say and we cannot impose inclusive language on an interaction after the fact (i.e., we cannot add what’s not there).
However, we find that there are some ‘grey areas’ that provide opportunities for inclusive transcription practices and whose methodological implications we want to briefly outline in the following. In this blog post, we particularly want to explore one of these grey areas, i.e., cases in which gender denotations are invisible/inaudible in spoken French but must be morphologically represented in written French.
How to proceed?
Looking at examples from our data, we want to propose some possible ways to introduce inclusive language in our transcription practice, while also reflecting on its methodological boundaries and practical implications. It is important to mention that our reflections have been greatly informed and inspired by our colleagues’ contributions to a discussion on Twitter earlier this year.
The most obvious issue concerns referential appropriateness. If a referent is clearly determined by context (e.g., a cisgender heterosexual couple) and the phonetic realization allows for multiple transcriptions, we propose to use inclusive language instead of using the generic masculine. In this example drawn from a co-telling sequence, the female participant speaks on behalf of her and her boyfriend. The phonetic realization of the past participle /desɑ͂dy/ (‘descended’) would conventionally be transcribed using the generic masculine descendus. The inclusive version, that morphologically represents both partners’ genders could then be written as descendu·e·s.
In cases where the referent is not clearly determined by context and their gender is not unambiguously realized phonetically, we also propose to use inclusive language. In this example, a participant mentions that they met a group of friends after leaving a party. These friends are not further specified and both the generic masculine amisand the inclusive form ami·e·s have the same phonetic realization /ami/.
By not using the generic masculine in this case, the transcriber (who has no ethnographic information about this group of friends here) can indicate their limited access to the source events: instead of introducing a male bias to this telling sequence, the neutrality (or indeterminacy) of the participant’s talk can be maintained.
Another dimension of referential appropriateness concerns the transcription of talk produced by participants who identify as non-binary. In this example, ALI (uses pronouns they/them in English and iel in French) tells a story and uses a composite tense that requires past participle agreement. In such cases, ethnographic data can be of great value, and we advise asking for pronouns on the participant consent form.
In addition to issues of referential appropriateness, the question of emic relevance is central to the way we analyze conversations. In our own data, we have not found any instances in which inclusive language use is made explicitly relevant by the participants. Finding and describing such practices would certainly be very interesting and could provide insight into how gender identities and categories are negotiated in francophone interactions and to what extent written practices of inclusion provide resources for conversation.
But even if the analytic focus does not lie on gender, inclusive writing and speaking practices can encourage a critical reflection of what and how we transcribe our data: transcribing French data always requires some contextual knowledge and interpretative skill on behalf of the transcriber, e.g., when dealing with phonetic ambiguities concerning grammatical number, when deciding how to transcribe non-conventionalized cliticizations, or when using the generic masculine in cases of referential uncertainty. In addition to rendering visible non-male genders, implementing inclusive transcription practices (within the constraints of readability and feasibility) may encourage us to gather additional ethnographic data and to indicate our own limited access to the conversations we transcribe. Our growing awareness of inclusive writing practices thus furnishes an opportunity to scrutinize our own transcription habits and to hopefully spark conversation around possibilities to investigate our own implicit biases.
Gygax, P. M., Schoenhals, L., Lévy, A., Luethold, P., & Gabriel, U. (2019). Exploring the onset of a male-biased interpretation of masculine generics among French-speaking kindergarten children. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1225.
Stokoe, E., & Speer, S. (2018). Conversation Analysis, Language, and Sexuality. In K. Hall & R. Barrett (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Language and Sexuality. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190212926.013.7
Whitehead, K. A., & Lerner, G. H. (2021). When simple self-reference is too simple: Managing the categorical relevance of speaker self-presentation. Language in Society, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404521000270
 See for instance: http://www.rfla-journal.org/fr/content/consignes-de-redaction