A French speaker issue: why I consider “patrimoine naturel” to be a sexist and anthropocentric term I won’t use anymore

Natural heritage is generally translated in French as “patrimoine naturel”. The term “héritage” also exists in French but it is generally meant as a financial inheritance passed on through families. It is not broadly used for culture or nature.

The popular translation of “heritage” would be “patrimoine” (ie “patrimoine culturel” for “cultural heritage”). For instance, in France we have the “journées du patrimoine“, a massive event to promote cultural heritage, which is organized yearly. Another example would be the “Fondation des sciences du patrimoine” funded by the French government, through Patrima and Patrimex.

The problem with the term “patrimoine” is that it implies a legacy from a father, or the fathers in general (“patri-” comes from latin “pater”). Several studies have indeed found that using masculine generics tends to introduce a sexist bias (for instance, see studies by M. C. Hamilton or S. Sczesny for English language).

As a result, some French scholars, and feminists have launched the “Journées du matrimoine” to defend that a large part of our cultural heritage comes from women/our mothers.

It is actually very rare to read about “patrimoine naturel” or “matrimoine naturel”, though. “Patrimoine” or “matrimoine” is mostly used when talking about castles, churches and museums. Even when I was still using “patrimoine naturel” to describe my research, I always had to define it for French speaking scholars, whereas it was at least roughly understood by most English speaking scholars I met.

As a researcher and as a feminist, I am not comfortable using the term “patrimoine naturel” anymore. Beyond the sexist issue (using such a term might reinforce the idea that all of our legacy would come from our fathers, which is a problem for both cultural and natural heritage), I think it is even more problematic when discussing nature.

Firstly, the gendered duality doesn’t apply to a large part of natural heritage. Think about gendering mountains or oceans: it has been done a lot, but it is a very anthropocentric way of seeing nature. Also, it introduces the question of gender (a social construct) in nature. A lot of plants do have reproductive organs that are often labelled “male” or “female”, but plants certainly don’t consider “pink” to be appropriate for female plants only in the Western world. Using such a strongly gendered noun might trigger even more anthropocentrism.

Secondly, “patrimoine” (or even “matrimoine”) implies that natural heritage is a legacy from humans to other humans. A part of natural heritage indeed is, at least partly, like selected plants or gardens created by humans. But a large part of natural heritage is not. We could argue that, due to climate crisis and industrialization, almost every milieu on Earth has been impacted by humans, but this is not a positive legacy, and “patrimoine” is generally understood as a positive concept.

As a result, I use the term “héritage naturel” in French to translate “natural heritage” and I try to defend this position. For most audiences, it is not an issue: “patrimoine naturel” wouldn’t have meant much to them anyway.

However, degenderizing the French language has not been warmly welcomed by all French scholars (I had a bad experience myself using that term while submitting a project to the Agence Nationale de la Recherche or ANR). It is important to note that there is a huge backlash against feminists (called “woke”) in French universities at the moment, sometimes described as “intellectual terrorism” in popular media.

I would be happy to discuss this question!

Reviewed by Hugo Thierry and Jorge Palacios (thank you !!!)