Gender-neutral French pronouns

Image: “Gender was never binary” by Jeanne Menjoulet on flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

While brushing up on my French, I started wondering which pronouns nonbinary people in Francophone countries use. Most of the nonbinary people I know in the U.S. use the singular “they” (which has been in use for centuries), and I’m familiar with other pronouns like ze and xe.

A Duolingo forum post led me to the two infographics above. I also enjoyed reading this Quora answer, originally posted in 2017 and updated in May 2019:

iel” is quite often used in the LGBT+ community and is probably the most “standard” replacement. (I have also read “ille” a few times, but it does not seem as popular and it doesn’t work well in spoken language, when it sounds roughly the same as “il”). But random people who don’t know nonbinary people or aren’t interested in gender issues are unlikely to use or even recognize it.

Edit: I’m now much more interested and better informed about this topic than I was when I originally wrote the above in 2017. The situation has, unfortunately, not changed much. Iel is still the most common NB pronoun, but in the community, al is also gaining traction, as part of a larger grammar system including a neutral gender, proposed by a linguistics researcher (see here, but about everything is in French and untranslated). I now use it quite a lot in French, including for myself. Other non-binary pronouns I have seen or heard used by people, although not as often, are ul and ol. I also know several people (mostly genderfluid ones) who use il, elle and iel interchangeably.

Alex Coninx, native French speaker; updated May 1, 2019

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