Two nouns enter the ring: one masculine, the other feminine. A lone adjective awaits its fate. The victor will assign its gender. Who will it be? Let’s ask Claude Favre de Vaugelas, the reigning grammar god of the original Académie française (founded in 1635) whose mandate was to “perfect” and standardize the French language. Vaugelas was such a big deal in the 17th century that he even got mentioned by name in a Molière play, Les femmes savantes. In that play, a woman is so obsessed with grammar that she fires her maid for having offended her ears with improper grammar. When questioned about her overreaction, she explains that in spite of 30 grammar lessons, the maid has spoken French in way that Vaugelas has condemned in no uncertain terms. Therefore, she must be fired. (Sounds like some French teachers I know):
Elle a, d’une insolence à nulle autre pareille,
Après trente leçons, insulté mon oreille
Par l’impropriété d’un mot sauvage et bas,
Qu’en termes décisifs condamne Vaugelas.
Grammar, says Philaminte, is so powerful that even kings must obey it:
La grammaire, qui sait régenter jusqu’aux rois,
Et les fait la main haute obéir à ses lois ?
But let’s get back to Vaugelas and the gender problem.
The sentence in question is “Ce peuple a le coeur & la bouche ouverte à vos louanges.” So, you’ve got two nouns, “coeur” (masculine) and “bouche” (feminine) and then an adjective (ouvert) that modifies both of them. Ideally, you avoid the issue and rephrase your sentence, says Vaugelas. Otherwise, you’re up against a problem: usage vs. what is correct.
And here is where it gets interesting. Usage, in the 17th century, held that you would agree with whichever noun was closest to the adjective. That’s how all the royals do it, he says. But, here’s where the king and friends are wrong, according to Vaugelas. The correct way to agree is to let the most noble of the two nouns win, which, naturally, is the masculine one:
le genre masculin, étant le plus noble, doit prédominer toutes les fois que le masculin et le féminin se trouvent ensemble (the masculine genre, being the most noble one, must get the upper hand every time that the masculine and the feminine are found together).
In other words, the man must always win. So, while usage had already shifted to a more gender-equal formula, Vaugelas helped solidify gender bias (masculine=more noble). Without Vaugelas, things might have gone differently.
Today, with new debates in France surrounding what kids learn at school about gender equality tied to a new governmental plan to teach the “ABCD of equality,” some people are questioning the typical phrasing of grammar instruction. Typically, a teacher in France would say “le masculin l’emporte” (the masculine wins it), thereby reinforcing the gender bias through grammar. It seems that nobody is considering a return to what the royal crowd was doing back in the 17th century. Instead, they suggest saying “it agrees with the masculine” which is a pretty weak solution, if you ask me.
Language evolves and changes with usage. Language shapes how we see the world. If the French really want to consider teaching gender equality, even at the level of grammar, they might want to consider the direction things could have gone if Vaugelas and the Académie française hadn’t codified the game.