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Gender Treatment in Nova vs. Esperanto

2023-11-15 11 min read Language marco

Esperanto is the most widely used (written, spoken, read) constructed language in the world. It was created at the end of the 19th Century by a Polish eye doctor to give people an easy to use way to communicate with each other. It had very strong early promise, almost making it to the status of international language of communication at the League of Nations. Then the World Wars of the 20th Century made the very idea of international communication suspect. The Cold War was no better, and eventually Esperanto itself became a sort of short-hand for an ambitious project with an obvious advantage for everybody that failed anyway.

In current times, Esperanto has seen a revival of sort. It’s easier to learn than ever, thanks to a very successful course on Duolingo. The technical hurdles of communicating in a language other than your own, in particular using the special Esperanto letters of the alphabet, are gone. And it’s easier than ever to communicate with people far away. Esperanto could have a chance, again!

I would say the main problem that Esperanto faces is the Fax Machine Conundrum: until a second person has a fax machine, yours is entirely useless. The same was true for telephones and a lot of interacting technology. Language is interaction, and hence if you don’t have a critical mass of Esperanto speakers, it’s useless to learn. That’s particularly true for the people that would benefit from Esperanto the most, monolingual speakers.

But even polyglots and intellectuals have a hard time getting behind Esperanto. There seem to be two thoughts going on at the same time:

  • If Esperanto were worth learning, I would already have learned it
  • Esperanto is imperfect, hence I don’t have to learn it and I should wait for something better

The first thought is interesting, because it appeals to narcissism. We tend to dismiss the idea that the things we know about are mostly fed to us and only in secondary form original thoughts. If Esperanto were talked about more, you’d have heard about it more, and you would have been more curious about learning it. The fact that you haven’t doesn’t mean there is a flaw with Esperanto, it doesn’t mean that you are stupid for not learning it, it simply means it’s not talked about enough in the right terms.

The second thought hinges on imperfections. Esperanto is a language and as such is imperfect. While the language has no exception to its grammar rules, and is in that respect perfect, it does have to field (valid) criticism:

  • The Universal Language is rooted mostly in Indo-European languages and even there mostly in Western European ones, leaving a large number of languages out of its vocabulary
  • The phonology (selection of sounds) in the language has some sounds that are hard to pronounce (Ĥ) for a lot of people or that a lot of people cannot distinguish (B/V or R/L)
  • The word stock is too large and complex to quickly learn

Other criticism about Esperanto is not targeting the language but the culture surrounding it:

  • Esperanto has no culture and is a soulless monster
  • Esperanto speakers are inherently leftists
  • Esperanto was created by a Jew

I am not sure if the sarcasm came through in this last section. Fact is, Esperanto is 150 years old and has its poets, rappers, comedians, singers, etc. Many Esperantists are leftists because the idea of a common language that allows everyone to equalize communication appeals to leftists. And if you object to Esperanto being created by a Jew, my friend, then you are just a lost cause.

One criticism of Esperanto is interesting because it comes from the left. It is that the language is sexist.


Different natural languages have different relationships with human gender. In many of them, words have their own (grammatical) gender that is detached from human sexuality. Latin and German, for instance, have three grammatical genders (G-genders): masculine, feminine, and neuter. Notice that these genders are just attached to words and rule how the word can show up in sentences. It has nothing to do with natural gender (N-gender). For instance, of the eating implements, in German the fork is feminine, the spoon is masculine, and the knife is neuter.

English has no G-gender at all. All nouns belong to the same indistinct class, let’s call it neuter. Doesn’t matter, once there is only one class, you could assign any of them. Esperanto is the same way: all nouns end in -o, no exceptions allowed, and no difference in G-gender. The definite article is always the same, and adjectives behave the same regardless of noun.

When it comes to N-gender, though, both Esperanto and English have complicated and nuanced relationships. Some words, while still neuter G-gender, have non-neutral N-gender. A king has a different N-gender than a queen. Mother is different from father, but mostly in N-gender. On the other hand, some similar words don’t come in gendered versions in English, like professional titles: a doctor or carpenter can be both male and female.

In Esperanto, things are a little more complicated. You can make any noun gendered by adding the suffix -in. If a doctor is a doktoro, a female doctor is a doktorino. That is true for nouns that are ungendered in English, like doctor, but also for gendered nouns. If a father is a patro, a mother is a patrino.

Notice that patro is inherently male. That is different from the case of doktoro, which can mean both male and female, but does not apply to a female doctor, who is always a doktorino.

English has developed a series of words that are inherently gender-neutral variants of gendered words. These are used in a legal context to indicate there is no gender preference. In addition to “father” and “mother,” there is “parent.”

A final group of words are animals. They are inherently gender-neutral in Esperanto, which makes sense. To specifically mean a female variant of an animal, you add the suffix -in as usual: a koko is a chicken, and a kokino is a hen. But how do you say, rooster? There is no suffix for male, since the base word usually means the male variant. Instead, Esperanto uses as a pseudo-prefix the word for “man,” viro. A rooster is a virkoko.

There are some oddities about that. First, viro is a full grown human male, whereas a virkoko can be a male chick. But that’s just a formality. Vir- here is just a prefix.

The real issue is the complexity of it all. Words come in four classes according to gender:

  • Words that are inherently gender neutral and accept no gendered suffix, like pomo, apple
  • Words that are inherently gendered with the male version being the base and the female version receiving the suffix -in, like patro - patrino
  • Words that are inherently gender neutral but where the neutral form implies maleness, like doktoro - doktorino
  • Words that are inherently gender neutral where both male and female forms need to be explicitly marked, like koko - kokino - virkoko

Nova does away with all this by making all words inherently gender neutral and requiring explicit marking of the natural gender where opportune. A new suffix is used to mark male gender, -uq, but use of gender markers is largely discouraged.

How does that change the language? Let’s look at the four classes above:

  • Inherently gender neutral words don’t change
  • Words with mandatory male base forms are now neutral. The male form must be marked. Patro becomes “parent,” while “father” is now patruqo and “mother” stays patrino
  • Words with implied male base form are also neutral and behave like above.
  • The prefix vir- is gone and replaced by the suffix -uq in animals: koko is still chicken, kokino is hen, but instead of virkoko we now have kokuqo

There is one more change to note that is particularly relevant to fairy tales, of all things. In them, there often is a king and a queen, where the king is the monarch of a country and the queen simply his spouse. That becomes an issue in English when the actual monarch is a woman, in which case the title “queen” is retained, but the spouse usually isn’t a “king.” That was the case in the United Kingdom for decades, where the spouse of Queen Elizabeth II was styled Prince like his own sons. Awkward.

In Nova, there is a distinction between spouse and gender. The Esperanto word for spouse, edzo (now gender neutral, implies maleness in Esperanto) is used to mark the spouse of a titled person. Then, when necessary, gender markers can be used to further specify the N-genders of the couple.

  • redjo - the monarch
  • redjedzo - the spouse of the monarch
  • redjuqo - the male monarch or king
  • redjedzino - the femal spouse of the monarch or queen

In this scheme, Queen Elizabeth would have been redjino and her husband, Prince Philip redjedzuqo. In practical terms, though, she would have just been redjo and he redjedzo, monarch and consort.


A second are in which Esperanto is not gender-neutral is pronouns. Esperanto has three singular person pronouns, corresponding to “he - she - it.” They are “li - ŝi - ĝi” respectively.

Just as English is trying to figure out how to handle someone whose gender is unknown, Esperanto has to do the same. In English the debate revolves around using the plural form for the singular, since the plural has no gender marked and there is only one plural “they.”

In English, it’s easy to assume that “they” is used as a contraction of “he or she.” “He sees the light” turns into “he (or she?) see(s) the light” which turns into “they see the light.” In this gender neutral plural form, the plural form of the verb is used.

The debate in English has long left the purely linguistic realm and is now firmly part of the culture wars. The idea of not having to specify gender makes some people uncomfortable, just as much as having to choose one makes others uncomfortable. From here we get neopronouns and bathroom bans.

Esperanto, just as with nouns, inherits the “German model” of N-gender. That is a gender-neutral, male-preference form that is supplanted with an explicitly marked female form.

The pronoun li means “he”, the pronoun ŝi means (and is pronounced like) “she.” If the gender is unknown, the male pronoun is used. The subtle implication is that all world is male until told otherwise.

If you want to be gender neutral, you have three options:

  • Use the gender neutral pronoun as the main pronoun, using the gendered pronouns where opportune
  • Use the gender neutral form of the male pronoun as the main pronoun; create a new male-only pronoun and use it with the female pronoun where opportune
  • Use the male form of the male pronoun as the male pronoun; create a new gender neutral pronoun and use it as main pronoun

Most Esperanto reforming revolves around option 3. Many like the neopronoun ri, maybe subconsciously because it is an alveolar like the male li.

Some reforms prefer using the neuter ĝi instead of li or ŝi. That is a lot more frictionless, as no new word needs to be introduced and ĝi is already in use for the gender-neutral form for babies and young children.

In Nova, the treatment of nouns finds its counterpart in pronouns. Just like the male / neutral form of a term was made gender-neutral, the male / neutral pronoun is made gender-neutral. Just like there is a new suffix for maleness, -uq, there is a new male pronoun, gi. Just as the male (and female) suffix is to be used sparingly, the male (or female) pronoun is to be used sparingly.

Nova seems to make the gamble that the male-preference neutrality is not a coincidence. It’s the result of a male-dominated world, where the distinction between man and human is largely lost and women are considered the exception that needs to be marked. Using the male gender neutral pronoun for both and all genders includes and absorbs the female into humanity and denies maleness the subrogation of default status.

If you want to see the advantage of this approach, consider that existing Esperanto text does not have to change. Because Esperanto made the assumption that the male is the default, most text is written with the pronoun li. Only where someone is known to be female is the pronoun ŝi used. A reader of Esperanto from hundred years ago would simply assume that li is either male or female, and ŝi definitely female.

Choosing a gender neutral pronoun would soon change the default pronoun, making all text from the past quickly sound archaic. It is precisely the (faulty) presumption of male default that keeps the continuity of language up in a newly gender-neutral world.