The Gender Problem
One of the problems with Esperanto is gender. This issue causes a lot of arguing and strife from either side, and, to some extent, it can deter people from wanting to continue learning the language, because of the adversity faced when trying to account for this gender problem with the -iĉ suffix.
So, quick overview. The words: Viro, Patro, Frato, Filo, Edzo, are male by default. These are Man, Father, Brother, Son, and Husband, respectively. To get Woman, Mother, Sister, Daughter, and Wife, you must add the -in suffix: Virino, Patrino, Fratino, Filino, Edzino.
It has been suggested, but is not an official part of the language, to use the -iĉ prefix to denote maleness (Viriĉo, Patriĉo, Fratiĉo, Filiĉo, Edziĉo), while using the original roots (Viro, Patro, etc.) as gender-neutral forms.
I will additionally state that for the words I’ve listed, there is no “Gender neutral” version. You can say “Gepatroj”, which means multiple parents of both genders, but “Gepatro” would mean a parent who is two genders at once – at least literally. It confuses the hearer.
There is no equivalent of “Kid” and “Child”, as in English; a child must be male or female (heaven forbid they want to identify as something else!)
If you look at a discussion about it online, those who are against the -iĉ suffix seem to have certain arguments:
- This is a non-issue, having a female suffix and male default isn’t sexist, and how dare you bring this up.
- Esperanto has had these rules for 125 years! We can’t change this sort of thing! Tradition!
- If we have to change one thing in Esperanto, then the changes will never end! We will reform ourselves into oblivion!
- I’m a woman, and I don’t agree with your point of view on using the -iĉ suffix, and therefore your argument is completely moot. Because I’m a woman.
- We do use “Patro” as a general word for parent, and to specify a father, you add the prefix vir-: virpatro.
- Because there’s a suffix for women (-in) but not for men, this means that the female suffix is an honorary term, and therefore sexist toward men instead.
- If we use the -iĉ suffix, then our word for Grandson, Nepo, becomes Nepiĉo, where piĉo is a certain very-bad word. We don’t want to call our grandsons bad words! (though, “Ne” also means “Not”, so then it would be… not that bad word?)
And here’s another discussion, also on Lernu.net.
My Problems with Gender in Esperanto
So, I have taken some time to figure out what exactly bothers me about the current way Esperanto is, and the response people have when one uses -iĉ or debates for using -iĉ. Here are some main points:
1. The Male Default
Why is male the default? Why should a neutral point-of-view be the default? By having women be derived from man, and having man be the default, it implies that the male point-of-view is default, primary, and more important.
And, even if you don’t agree with this yourself, that doesn’t mean my point-of-view (and other peoples’ points-of-views on this topic) is moot. It just means you don’t understand where I’m coming from.
2. How do you speak about a child, generically?
In English, we’re used to having many gender-neutral words. We don’t have gendered words for our inanimate objects. We do have some adopted words, like Waiter and Waitress, but that’s an exception.
I can speak of a Parent, or a Mother, or a Father. And, maybe people from another language may not be able to see my point of view here, either, but I honestly cannot see why anyone would not understand: Why it must be possible to talk about a demographic generically, without assigning a gender.
3. Why do some people correct me when I call myself a “Programisto”?
A Programisto is the term for a Programmer. But, of course, traditionally it’s a male default. I’ve been told to call myself a “Programistino” – a woman programmer.
This bugs me quite a bit: Why does my gender matter in my profession? Why can I not just say that I am simply a “Programmer”, but a gender has to be assigned to myself? At least with men, when “Programisto” is mentioned, it can be assumed to be either male or neutral, since many people these days consider the standard noun to be neutral, even though this is not how Esperanto traditionally was.
4. If we use the base term as the neutral, how do I specify a male?
Say I have a spouse. If we assume Edzo to mean spouse, and Edzino to mean wife, how do I specify husband?
5. The vir- prefix
It has been suggested that, when wanting to specifically state something is male, we use the prefix vir-. Remember that viro is man and virino is woman. BUT! This causes a problem: If now “Edzo” is gender neutral, and “Patro” simply means parent, neutrally, then what is a “Viro“? Is that a gender-neutral-person, or a man? What about Virino? Is that a man-woman?
Secondly, what does the placement here mean? What can it imply, and what can be inferred?
Men get a prefix: Vir-
Women get a suffix: -in
Again, many people who argue that this causes no problems doesn’t understand the implications. Yes, by having these not symmetric (both suffixes or both prefixes), it sure can imply that men are, again, primary, and women are secondary. It at least separates men from women as being of the same class, in that men are of a form that requires a prefix and women are something different, requiring a suffix. That perhaps we’re not of the same status.
Esperanto was built to be a very regular language; very standard rules with no exceptions. One of these rules was cutting down the amount of words by having a male word, and a female suffix. If we adapt it today and say that the base word is gender-neutral, such as “Edzo” (spouse), there are still problems with some of the words:
Patro. Frato. These are derived from masculine words in Latin. Patro is always going to sound like Father, even if we have Virpatro or Patriĉo.
And again, a third point about women coming after men, or women being derived from men.
The language Ido (essentially Esperanto++, but not as popular as C++ solves this problem by having separate words. Matro and Patro. Of course, this undoes this one aspect of Esperanto meant to make things easier, but I prefer this to having “Patro” be generic. Or, I would go for having a new base-word for “Parent”.
Let’s always start from a neutral base, and add symmetric affixes for different genders: -in, -iĉ, and I know there have been suggestions for other, but I cannot find the thread anymore.
Arguments against “iĉistoj”:
So those are my main points. Now, for the arguments against -iĉ…
1. This is a non-issue / Sexism doesn’t exist
A. I think that this whole “Esperanto is sexist!” criticism is ridiculous, and it annoys me to no end that it is constantly brought up.
Tomo S. Vulpo
If it is “constantly” being brought up, doesn’t that denote that some amount of the population is having trouble with it? Just because you may not be personally affected, doesn’t mean that everybody shares your experience.
And that, without talk about THE BIG INSULTING LIE about sexism in esperanto. I haven`t seen yet how that change ovoids the sexism; a sexist person could be totally comfortable using that suffix because it makes an even more very remarkable difference between genres.
Now if for you the fact that patrino comes from patro is a discrimination, to me it seems exactly the same thing: an obsession, a paranoia.
What is really alienating about the Esperanto community (and not just to me, but others as well) is this assumption that one’s point-of-view is always completely unbias. How can the dominant demographic unabashedly tell others that their complaints are invalid? That it’s a lie?
2. Tradition / Reform is bad!
Now, this is a stupid and ridiculous idea. Whom does it bother that you can differenciate between the genders? That’s how almost all languages work! Why do these people think that Esperanto should not be allowed to have features that other languages have? They try to water down Esperanto until it is a completely Spartan and ambiguous language!
Tomo S. Vulpo
One thing that is not mentioned is that Esperanto is far less sexist than many European languages.
Because something is “less-sexist” or “less-racist” doesn’t mean it should remain as it is, and not get better…
Personally, I don’t think of Esperanto as being some kind of linguistic buffet, where we can take some of this, some of that, mmmm that looks yummy, ew no that’s no good…
Esperanto is what it is. Riism is an overt attempt to change Esperanto, which makes the result… like it or not, not Esperanto. If we did that with English, the grabja espno wouldn’t breeve. You vad?
English has made a point to rebrand terms; rather than just “Policeman”, “Police Officer” is a better term. Languages change all the time!
The reason is easy to understand: It creates confusion with the esperanto system. It’s not compatible with the esperanto system, because there are already 125 years of writings and recordings that use the esperanto system and it would make mandatory to learn two ways of doing something that now works fine with only one way, it would make mandatory almost every time to guess what system someone is using, because with the “aĉa” system it is very unusual to use the “aĉa” suffix. So, if we still depends on context to understand something, what the hell is solving that suffix?
This is the only argument against that seem legitimate to me. There are historical writings, and messing with the language too much would render those writings perhaps incomprehensible. However, I do not think that adding a -iĉ suffix, while continuing to use Esperanto as-is, will really throw many people off.
3. I’m a woman and I disagree, therefore you’re wrong
This is never a valid argument, ever, and I see this so much online with any sort of debate. Just because you disagree does not mean the person with a different opinion is wrong, or invalid, or doesn’t deserve to argue their points.
4. -in is sexist towards men
A. It is males, not females, who may feel discriminated against by the -in suffix.
For example, if the Constitution of a Land (say, Esperantio), says that the head of the Executive Power is “la prezidanto”, women can still get into that office. On the other hand, if it says “la prezidantino”, men must lose all hope.
As you can see, women have a special suffix which, when used, excludes inequivocally the male gender, while men must get around with the neutral, thus always leaving room to women.
You have to be kidding me. This is like arguing that the “Society of Black Engineers” on campus is racist towards white people, or “Black Girls Code” is sexist AND racist against white boys.
Historical context cannot be forgotten when it comes to issues like these. And I know, the word “privilege” gets passed around a lot as a means for insulting the other party, but this is exactly what this is about.
Finally, I like these comments:
I voted No, and I am male, but that’s not entirely true, because it doesn’t bother me, personally, but the fact that it bothers some people and therefore may hinder Esperanto, bothers me. Know what I mean?
Esperanto doesn’t have a way to refer to a third person without specifying the gender. That’s a big shortcoming because sometimes one doesn’t know the gender or doesn’t want to communicate it.
In some cases it may be an aesthetic issue, in some other cases it may hinder communication. I’ve seen many times of the later when translating from English to Spanish because in Spanish we must apply gender to all nouns and adjectives, so in that regard Spanish is inferior to English. And Esperanto can be better, with just a simple addition: ri.
The other issue is asymmetry. I find asymmetry displeasing and un-aesthetic. That asymmetry is that some nouns are masculine by default. We have to change them to make them feminine. This asymmetry has the potential of causing the same expression problem caused by the lack of a third person singular neutral pronoun. We have ge-, but ge- according to the dictionaries I checked doesn’t mean neutral, they mean both-sexes. So the correctness of calling gepatroj to the parents of a child where both parents are male could be challenged. They should be called patroj, and that might be revealing too much. Maybe you have to be in such a situation to understand it.
Of course solving that might be very hard, because it requires a change. Adding the suffix -iĉ-, and using it to indicate male, after some time may generate a void of the root noun which eventually can be used to turn those nouns into neutral. Not “both-genders” but “any-gender”.
And I know many would say: “But Esperanto already works quite well the well it is.”. For those I can’t but remind you that “But English already works quite well the well it is.” is the reason why not only 5% of the world, but almost the whole world choose not to learn Esperanto. I know Esperanto works and I know it is the best option out there and that’s why I defend it and advocate it as much as I can. But I will not stop raising the issues I see that could make Esperanto work better.
And of course, an argument like this is met with a response of “Pupeno, I am still waiting for you to sign up for my campaign to improve Spanish and English.” – Sarcasm, rather than respecting another’s opinion and debating without spite.
people speak English an Spanish because it’s what’s around them, not by choice. It is not conceivable that they will fix them because something else that would be done by choice and they are not choosing anything.
If you’re considering learning Esperanto, but this issue bothers you…
When I first began learning Esperanto, I found that everybody was very friendly and nice. Though, as time goes on, you realize that the relatively small Esperanto community is just a community of people – people you agree with, people who anger you, people who curse and coarse, and people who are creative and constructive. It’s a community of people.
And I get disheartened, and I stop learning for a bit, and then I come back. It’s understandable if you see a problem with something, and it seems like even trying to bring up the topic will just cause anger and toxic words.
But here’s my perspective: Speak however you want to speak. Some people do use -iĉ and deal with it when people immediately point it out and start complaining. If enough people use it, it will catch on. If enough people use it, maybe we can gain more respect, rather than abrasiveness, from fellow Esperantistoj.
I would perhaps ask those who are anti-iĉ to view it like religion: I’m atheist, and you might hate atheists and completely disagree with me, but if someone found that out about me while out in the world, I wouldn’t expect to be shamed or continually challenged for my beliefs. It’s frustrating when I try to express myself through art, using a language that I’ve chosen to adopt, and the only thing people can see is the “-iĉ”. If you don’t like it – ignore it.
And no, it won’t taint a beginner’s ability to learn the language. They’ll find out what -iĉ means, and its implications, and decide for themselves what to do. Then they will understand when someone says viriĉo, whether or not they would say viro or viriĉo, themselves.
My Work in Esperanto
Maybe I’ll translate this article once I’m fluent enough. >_>