An Experiment in Conlang Gender Diversity

I set out in November to write a constructed language that celebrated gender diversity. Many conlangs skirt the issue of gender through the use of a single third-person pronoun, as is also seen in many natural languages. I wanted to do something a bit different.

Part of my inspiration for this was, in fact, Suzette Haden Elgin, who constructed Láadan out of a belief that women were “not superior to men (Matriarchy) or interchangeable with and equal to men (Androgyny) but rather entirely different from men.” I felt similarly about gender in conlangs: it is very easy to make everyone the same, but it misses the point of gender diversity.

Just as Elgin created a series of books about the construction of Láadan, I ended up creating a culture of people who spoke the language, a world they lived in, and various other cultures who lived alongside them. It’s still in progress, and the language is still “evolving” (being developed by me) in many ways. Some of the things that were true about the language at the beginning of December have been changed since then.

The contest Lexember was very helpful to me in developing it, although the gender system has been there from the very beginning and has barely changed aside from a few tweaks. You can read about the gender system on my conlanging Tumblr.

It has occurred to me, though, that the gender system of this fictional culture is still centered around the concept that binary gender is the norm (I wish I knew the word for this). You are either male, female, or “miscellaneous.” So as I keep developing this culture and its world, I will have to think of ways to break out of this in future cultures, worlds, langs, etc. This experiment will, hopefully, inspire better ones, either in me or in someone else.

Gender Diversity is a Very Old Concept

Gender diversity is not a recent fashion trend or a problem with late-stage capitalism. It has always existed, but throughout the centuries it has been a taboo, to the point where generations upon generations of gender-diverse people have been erased from the history books.

To give one example, take a look at these Classical Jewish Terms for Gender Diversity, compiled by the website This demonstrates that in the Mishna and Talmud, very early works of Jewish Biblical criticism and commentary written down after the expulsion of the Jews from former Judea/Palestine, there was already a concept of “Saris Adam”, a person who is identified male at birth but develops female characteristics as a result of human intervention. Such a person would probably, in modern English, be called a trans woman.

There are many other examples, like the Hijra in India, or the effeminate dancers of Roman society (cinaedi, which later became a pejorative term). One only needs to actually seriously occupy oneself with history to stumble into things like this. If “saris adam” was known to classical Jewish scholars, then a lack of gender diversity cannot simply be ascribed to ignorance. Rather, in the past, gender-diverse people have been deliberately and artificially excluded from various cultural institutions because it was convenient for the functioning of society. But as is so often stated, society and culture are man-made, socially constructed. And gender diversity is natural, a fact that any trans person who has come to terms with themselves could tell you, despite the fact that many privileged non-trans people claim otherwise.

So any attempt at correcting these erasures has nothing to do with fashion, late-stage capitalism, political correctness, censorship, or an artificial attempt to control nature. It has to do with allowing what has previously been censored to become fully expressed.

The Good Fairy: An Esperanto Fairy Tale of Respectability Politics

In the Summer of 2015 I had the opportunity to read “La bona feino” (The Good Fairy), a fairy tale written in Esperanto by a white, heterosexual European male librarian named Louis Beaucaire. Although Beaucaire wrote a number of these Fairy Tales of the Green Magpie, he was best known for Kruko kaj Baniko el Bervalo (Kruko and Baniko from Bervalo), a set of “indecent anecdotes” about a couple of womanizing, brothel-frequenting, married straight men living in a fictional land called Bervalo.

But let’s forget Kruko and Baniko and move onto “The Good Fairy.” Paraphrased, it goes like this: a fairy learns about Esperanto and wants to learn it due to its pretensions of being able to bring about world peace. When she begins to actually study the matter, she finds out that inside the language’s foundational text, the Fundamento de Esperanto, there is a story about an evil fairy, and she does not like it. She thinks it is insulting to fairies. So she writes to L. L. Zamenhof, who assures her that he had no intention of offending fairies, and would be happy to remove it, only he cannot because it is already part of the language’s foundational text. Reassured, the Good Fairy goes on to become a completely self-sacrificing, party-line-toeing Esperantist, including at one point using her magic to oppose the Ido movement. She never again questions the language, Zamenhof or the Fundamento.

This story is a frequently anthologized part of Esperanto literature, and it demonstrates the inherent respectability politics of the language. If you want to be a “good fairy,” you must not only accept being marginalized within the foundational text of Esperanto, but you must oppose the “bad fairies” who do not accept it. If the Ido movement, for example, wants equality for fairies at the expense of the Esperanto movement’s doctrine (the Fundamento), they are evil people whom good fairies must oppose at all costs. And if fairies don’t oppose Ido and support Esperanto, they are bad fairies.

That’s what the white, cisgender Western Esperantist Louis Beaucaire wanted to convey. That’s what the Nobel-prize-nominated Esperanto poet William Auld loved enough to include in the anthology Nova Esperanta Krestomatio during the 1980s, and what the Universal Esperanto Association continues to publish. You be the judge.

How universal can a language be?

For queer people, learning any language can be a very invalidating experience. Learning materials generally focus on the language that is standard, acceptable and “normal,” never on the language of non-binary or queer people. For example, a genderqueer French learner will have to do some extra research to find out about non-binary French pronouns such as iel, yel, ille, yol, and ol. It is likely that, until they are able to read the language, it will be difficult for them to even find information about such things. And using such pronouns prior to reaching complete fluency and eliminating their accent will make them vulnerable to even greater derision than non-binary native speakers.

Learning a constructed language can be even more invalidating. Constructed languages have been made with a particular goal in mind, and queer people soon discover that this goal did not involve them. As an example, Láadan is a language designed to express female thought, and a Láadan learner can expect to learn words for concepts such as “baby,” “pregnant” and “menstruate” from the very start. But perusing the dictionaries in the back of the First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, Second Edition, a student will find no words whatsoever for concepts like “transgender,” “transsexual” or “non-binary,” despite the fact that the first two concepts were well-known to feminists at the time of Láadan’s creation.

When thinking about the possibility of a queer language, it is hard to imagine constructing such a thing without invalidating someone. Any constructed language is very likely to push, consciously or unconsciously, the particular biases of the author. For example, if a transmedicalist were to construct a language designed to be inclusive to trans people, the author would probably make sex equivalent to gender, erase the concept of being cis or trans altogether and strictly assert the gender binary. A person who does not believe in gender, on the other hand, may choose to erase any concept of gender from their language altogether. Yet to many trans people, either of these would be less inclusive and less validating than a Romance language, whose queer native speakers have already found their own ways around the problem of binary gender.

As social agreements, languages suffer from the same fundamental problems that any social arrangement suffers, and constructed languages inherit these problems while introducing their own. We may have several answers to the ultimate question of the Universal Language, but it is also possible that we have never actually known what the question is.