Gender in Volapük

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.

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 transtorah.org. 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.

Why learn Ido? – Sanzo84

Raye Chell Mahela

A late reply (by 4 months), so apologies in advance. I’m a native Indonesian speaker, but I learned English since I was around 3 and currently teaching English as a Second Language to teenagers and adults. I’m also proficient in French (B2 level) having lived in France for 6 years. When I visited my parents for the summer in Romania for around 4-5 months, I picked up the language quickly because it was also a Romance language. I was able to get around in broken Romanian after 2-3 months. I also picked up bits and pieces of other languages just for kicks: Japanese, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, even Irish Gaelic. None of which I studied seriously (that is, I never took formal language courses in these languages).

I’m learning Ido because I wanted to learn an International Auxiliary Language (IAL) out of curiosity. Like many others, I looked at Esperanto first but was turned off by the diacritics in the language. I learned them in French and Romanian, but sought a more simpler IAL. I was interested in Ido when I learned that it was based on early reforms in Esperanto. I took a look at Ido and was immediately hooked. I’ve been studying for less than a week, but I’m reading free PDFs of Progreso and Kuriero Internaciona as well as other books in Ido with little difficulty. It may be because of my grasp in two Romance languages, but I was thrilled to find out I could understand around 40% of text in Ido already!

I’m hoping to seriously learn this simple yet beautiful IAL and help spread the word here in Indonesia. I even started to text “Me amoras tu” to my girlfriend, hoping to convince her to study along with me.

— Sanzo84

View more reasons for “Why learn Ido?”

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.

Creating an inclusive auxlang

Raye Chell Mahela

Read in EnglishLegu Esperante

An international auxiliary language (sometimes abbreviated as IAL or auxlang) or interlanguage is a language meant for communication between people from different nations who do not share a common first language. An auxiliary language is primarily a second language.

from Wikipedia

Not all conlangs are meant to be auxlangs, but some are – like Ido and Esperanto. However, can a language invented by one man or one small committee be inclusive?

Becca’s post, “How universal can a language be?“, mentions a few things:

For queer people, learning any language can be a very invalidating experience.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.

Which got me thinking about how could we achieve a language that includes as many people as possible. What are some of the challenges that would arise?

1. Be created by many

A single person cannot reasonably create a language that includes everybody and excludes no one. Again, from Becca’s article:

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

I think that the only way to reasonably come to rules for the language that most people can agree to, and most people can feel represented by, is to have a group of people create the language. Not just Europeans, not just straight people, not just one gender or another. As many people as possible need to be able to give their input – whether or not they are linguists.

2. Be fluid

With certain conlangs, such as Esperanto, the community in general is very resistant to change, thinking that it might end up killing the language and defeat Esperanto’s goal of being spread to everybody as a second language.

But, in order for a language to be inclusive, it has to be open to changing – after all, even with a committee of people from various backgrounds working on a language together, somebody is bound to be left out. Therefore, the language would need to be open to change when people voice their concerns.

3. Be versioned

Of course conlangs go through various drafts, but I think that it is important to not just stop at v1.0. Each version needs to have people using it and refining it, with new features added for new versions.

That might sound like programming language development – even ol’ C++ has major differences between version 1998 and version 2011. 1998 is a solid language, and many people still use 1998 exclusively, but 2011 adds a lot of modern features that people have come to expect from modern languages.

Perhaps spoken languages should be similar.

If you look at Ithkuil, it is versioned as well — each “version” is marked by a year: 2004, 2007, 2011. I have not learned it myself, but if anyone out there has input on how the Ithkuil community deals with this, please let me know! :)

4. Be modular and extendible

It might seem daunting to build such a fluid language! What if some people want aspects of Láadan’s evidence markers, but want Ido’s reversibility when it comes to word building? You have to choose one focus!

No you don’t! Why not include everything?

The language shouldn’t be written into a corner so that it has to follow one paradigm, but should be built in such a way that it can be expanded upon with minimal pain for the core language itself.

Again, if you’re a programmer, think of libraries of code. Libraries for C++ are built with C++’s rules, but extend the functionality of the language – so, for example, your programs don’t have to just be console-based, white text on a black screen. (Though it’d be interesting to have namespaces in branches of the language, hmm…)


So how do we achieve this?

How could we possibly collaborate on an auxlang, bringing in many voices and allowing for evolution over time? How could we allow people to work on off-shoots of the language, and once refined, asked to be made part of the core language? How do we keep track of all of the changes made to the language over time?

Revision Control.

Ho, ve. That’s a little programmery, isn’t it? But a lot of conlangers I know are programmers.  That isn’t to say that the language should be built by a diverse group of programmers (everyone knows the field of CS has its diversity problems…), but revision control can be a really great tool for this sort of project, and non-programmers can learn to use it, too.

I would love to see a conlang develop on GitHub, or Bitbucket, or Sourceforge, or on its own server with its own website, and see tools develop to aid in teaching and using that language. It would take a lot of effort and a lot of time, but perhaps it’s an experiment that should happen at some point.

But Rachel, how do we get people to learn such an auxlang?

Honestly, if you want people to learn a language, there has to be stuff to do in that language. This can be chatting with others, but there is more to that. Perhaps if we are able to create films and animations and video games and news websites and everything else in such a language, we build value for the language.

It’s hard to learn a language specifically on ideals, and it’s very hard to learn a language that has virtually no resources out there but a few language lessons.

But creating content is something that is required for the language itself to grow and evolve. We would need to use it for our entertainment or daily lives, find out what is lacking, and build onto it.

I do not think that having an evolving language would hinder this too much. There is still entertainment from older versions of English that get adapted and are still shared today, and with revision control history (and, hopefully, branches for each new ‘version’), all of the historical data would be there to enable somebody to adapt their work to newer versions, or other works from older versions.

What do you think?

  • Do you know any conlangs built by a group, with the intent of being inclusive?
  • Do you know any conlangs that are being built on GitHub or with other open source methodologies?
  • Would you be interested in taking part in such a project, either by building out the core, testing the language by using it, or creating resources otherwise?
  • What downfalls do you foresee?

(One problem I foresee is that I’m writing this in English, and to get people from around the world contributing, we’d need resources in each language – at least to learn the core language, then communicate with that for language building.) :)

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.

Láadan: for women, but not *only* women

I would like to take the opportunity to link to an article about misunderstandings with Láadan…

Misunderstanding Láadan from Acta Lingweenie

the main point being that, Láadan was invented by a woman, with womens’ needs in mind, but it was never intended to be spoken only by women. Men are welcome to it, too!

There are some other common points brought up when one talks about Láadan – unfortunately, linking anything to “feminism” tends to cause people to react badly towards it by default. This is a shame, because Láadan is truly a unique concept! It would be nice if more people gained an interest in it.

That’s all for now. :)

Aril!

Esperantujo vs. Láadanehoth

Raye Chell Mahela

A Reddit thread was posted about me (and English-speakers in general) the other day…

sexism

You can view the thread here.

In my opinion, many of the responses have good points as to why [American?-]English speakers may seem more concerned with sexism than people who speak other European languages. But you’ll also see messages like:

complain to complain

and

calmdown

The initial inspiration for this thread was my post from 2013, “Esperanto Controversey: The -iĉ suffix“, on my reactions towards there being a feminine suffix -in, but no male suffix, such as -iĉ, why having a male prefix vir- doesn’t make it better, and my responses to the vitriol one can find when reading threads arguing about whether or not Esperanto is sexist.

I believe that this single issue, not necessarily the ri pronoun or the -iĉ suffix, but the angry response to any discussion about this or any reform about Esperanto, is what has caused some amount of Esperantists (usually women or LGBTQIAA otherwise) to leave Esperantujo.

And, honestly, I’m getting sick of it as well.

I appreciate a lot of the posts made in response to this thread, there is a lot more discussion supporting English speakers in this thread than what I have seen in the past. But it is still tiring to always have to deal with this topic. I’ve seen people leave Esperanto for Ido, or just leave the world of conlangs altogether. And, I’m hoping, that’s where Láadan comes in…


Whether or not you agree with some of the reasons for the creation of Láadan – to me, it seems like the community that could be built around it would be a much more pleasant one to be part of than some places in Esperantujo. I still have my Esperantist friends, but just my close circle that I choose to talk to, via Facebook or otherwise.

By being labelled as a “feminist language”, my hope is that people who are aware of biases in our culture are more drawn to this language, rather than the people who do not have to deal with sexism who believe that it is a “myth”, that any grievances about a topic is just “complaining for the sake of complaining”. I hope that our community will be one that is accepting of LGBTQIAA people and all people, and that we treat each other with respect. Because I’m tired of being in a community where respect isn’t shared.

Also, with regard to “complaining for the sake of complaining”, this sort of discussion almost seems like it would be more appropriate in Láadan – the frustration of being told “what you perceive is false” almost seems like a core tenant of what Láadan is trying to fight. By making how we speak more explicit, in how we know what we know, and describing how we feel, hopefully an argument like this would not take place.

Of course, speakers of Láadan are human. And, like with any community, there are going to be disagreements and problems. Even within the LGBTQIAA community, there are arguments and anger. Nothing will be perfect, but maybe it will feel a little bit more like “home” than the home under the green and white flag.

A Look at A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, Second Edition

Raye Chell Mahela

You can still find copies of A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan on Amazon used, but it runs about $40 currently. It’s not horrible, but it can be a bit pricey, so if you’re on the fence about picking up a copy, I’d like to share some of what the book contains.

I was pleasantly surprised when I received it, because it is such a lovely book. It has a thick, textured cream paper with brown text (which I’ve read in the past is the easiest color combination to read), and it has a lot of illustrations as well, which adds to this odd, somewhat rustic and old-fashioned feeling of the book. It’s not just a cold, unwelcoming grammar lesson book – it feels warm, somewhat mysterious, and even a bit mischievous (as there are illustrations of women doing things from practicing violin to kicking a gentleman’s butt).

laadan-contents

The book has three main sections to it: The grammar lessons, the dictionary, and kind of a “miscellaneous” section of more grammar notes, sample translations, and lessons from a previous publication.

Láadan Grammar Book lesson

Unfortunately, the copy I received has a little bit of highlighting in it, but only on a few pages. (Still! Agh! I only ever mark things in pencil. *shakes fist*)

So far the lessons have been pretty straightforward and nicely formatted, but I have not gone through all of them yet. In conjunction with the Amberwind lessons (currently down, see the Lesson page on Lolehoth for backups), beginner lessons on the LaadanLanguage.org website, and the Wikipedia article, I think you can get a pretty solid understanding of the Láadan language. (I haven’t yet, but I am not done studying yet!)

Láadan Grammar Book dictionary
Láadan Grammar Book dictionary

The book also features an English -> Láadan, Láadan -> English dictionary, which I haven’t gone through in depth since I usually reference the dictionary list from LaadanLanguages.org. This makes up about 60 pages of the 160 page book.

Láadan Grammar Book translations
Láadan Grammar Book translations

After the dictionary is more grammar notes (“Rules of Grammar” and “Miscellaneous Additional Information”), as well as translations and break-downs of some songs and psalms into Láadan, which may come in really handy.

Láadan Grammar Book mini-lessons
Láadan Grammar Book mini-lessons

And then there are three mini-lessons that were published in something called Hot Wire. These also have break-downs and translations of short stories, with some in-depth translation notes.

This book is basically my age, as it was published March 1, 1988. (That’s 21 days before I was born. ;P), but I’m glad you can still find some used copies around.


At the moment, I have not been able to find a copy of the accompanying audio tape to purchase. The back of the book lists the same PO Box that I can find online, but I do not know whether someone has taken over the responsibility of copying and sending out the tapes, since Suzette has since passed. I am actually going to send a postcard to the address and see if I get a response regarding this. Will see! (If you want to sell me an audio tape, I’d love to buy it. I’d like to make a digital copy as well for preservation! :)

You can hear a sample reading from the audio tape at Lingweenie.org.