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Gender in Volapük

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Becci Cat

Queer, disabled, polyamorous transgender lunatic. ✨✨ Kvira, malkapabla, pluramema transgenra frenezulino.

Yesterday I was surprised to see that there was a Volapük tag, so I thought I would take the opportunity today to write about the language.

Volapük was constructed by Johann Martin Schleyer, a German Roman Catholic priest, in the late 1800s, after he claimed to have had a vision from God. It was the original international auxiliary language movement; the third international Volapük convention took place entirely in Volapük, which was the first time (that I’m aware of) when a constructed language was brought out of theory and into practice. The second was probably Esperanto.

Volapük eventually died as a result of infighting between the Academy and Schleyer (the Cifal or Chief) over control of the language. This same story has often been repeated in the communities of various constructed languages, such as Loglan for example. The Academy went on to make Idiom Neutral, which was very heavily influenced by Volapük, but the movement never recovered. Today there are a handful of people who still speak it, and a significantly larger number of people who study it. Personally, I am not fluent in Volapük, but I do study it, and if I ever had the time, I think it would be fun to become fluent.

Volapük, as spoken today, has three third-person pronouns: on, om, and of. On is an all-purpose pronoun, usable for both people and things. A group of men would be caled oms as a pronoun, a group of women would be called ofs, and a mixed group would be called ons. It is also possible to simply refer to everyone as on and ons. This system is the result of the grammatical reform of Arie de Jong, which happened decades after the original Volapük movement had mostly died out. Under the old system, men and things would go by om in the singular, oms in the plural. Women would go by of in the singular, ofs in the plural.

Volapük is a pro-drop language, meaning you ordinarily don’t use pronouns in the nominative except for emphasis. But the personal suffixes of verbs are exactly the same as the pronouns:

binom: He is
binof: She is
binon: It is; They (sing) are
binons: They are
binoms: They (masc) are
binofs: They (fem) are

Informally and regardless of whatever the official policy might be, genderqueer people could certainly add pronouns to Volapük the same way they do in Esperanto with e.g. “ri”. The following letters are currently used for Volapük pronouns: b, d, f, k, l, m, n, r, s, y. This leaves the following letters left over: g, p, t, v. There are other letters in the Volapük alphabet (c, h, j, x, z), but it would be hard to pluralize them in pronouns, since plurals are formed with s. The pronoun os is impersonal, and has no plural form. Yet it might still be feasible if you wanted your personal pronoun to be (for example) “oz”, and for the plural of it to simply be “ons.”

Of course, you would be likely to find the same difficulties using non-standard pronouns in Volapük that you did anywhere else.

There are also two Volapük gender prefixes, hi- and ji-, which make a noun masculine or feminine, respectively. So the Volapük word for “human” is men (derived from German Mensch), and if you wanted to say “man” you could either say himen, or you could synonymously say man. For “woman” you could say jimen or, synonymously, vom. There is no prefix that makes something non-binary, but as with pronouns, I’m sure someone could find a way if they wanted to :)

I find it interesting that Volapük uses “on” to represent both people and things. There are Esperanto speakers who claim that this function is fulfilled by ĝi in Esperanto, but unlike in Volapük, this has never been common or established usage except in reference to animals and babies.

I personally love Volapük; it’s a fun language with its own character, and it gets a very bad name in the Esperanto community. It’s easier to understand than it seems, once you get used to its alphabet and weird ways of assimilating words. Most of the words are derived from natural sources, and are more phonologically faithful than orthographically. This means that spoken aloud, some of them even sound more like their original root words than Esperanto words do.

Also, because Volapük has religious roots, I find the idea of talking about irreligious (or even sacrilegious) things in the language amusing :)

You can learn more about Volapük at volapük.com.

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