Many languages burden students with the need to memorize arbitrary grammatical gender. Someone learning German, for example, is forced to remember that a large body of water can be a masculine Ozean, a feminine See, or a neuter Meer, and that the noun Mädchen (“girl”) is neuter — because all nouns ending in the diminutive suffix -chen are neuter.
English and Esperanto grammar spare us this trouble. The only residual gender is found in the third person singular pronouns, where we distinguish between li, ŝi and ĝi or he, she, and it. Both languages are often said to use “natural gender,” that is, only humans and certain animals are referred to as “he” or “she”, and everything else is “it”, excepting only poetic or metaphorical usage (calling a ship a “she” or the like).
Odd as it might seem to us, some languages (e.g., Finnish) go even farther and use the same pronoun to mean both “he” and “she.” But however gender-neutral their grammars, I’m pretty sure that all languages have at least some sex-specific words in their vocabularies.
In English we sometimes apply separate names to male and female animals. A horse can be a stallion or a mare, a hog a boar or a sow, a sheep a ram or a ewe, a chicken a rooster or a hen, etc. In the case of bulls and cows we even lack a singular noun embracing both. Sometimes we have a distinctive word only for the female of the species, such as lioness and tigress.
(Supposedly P. T. Barnum reduced dawdling in his New York museum by putting a sign on a door reading “This way to the egress.” People thinking they were going to see an exhibit about some female creature were surprised to find themselves outside.)
A century ago, English often made a distinction between male and female professional titles, so that a woman might be referred to as “authoress” or a “poetess” or “doctoress”. This is much less common in modern English, with actress being perhaps the only remaining example in common use (and even it seems to be in decline). One reason for the change is the movement toward equal rights for women. Adding a feminine suffix can be taken to imply an irrelevant or even dismissive distinction. Why not simply call an author of either sex an “author”? And if you do draw a distinction, why should the base word be masculine and the derived one feminine?
This brings us to the Esperanto suffix -in, which troubles some students for the same reasons. Why indeed should all the sex-specific words in Esperanto be masculine by default? Why do we derive the word patrino from patro and virino from viro? Why not make the base word gender neutral and employ suffixes for both male and female?
This strikes me as a valid complaint. After all, Ido manages to avoid a gender bias by treating most almost all noun roots as neuter, deriving masculine words as needed with the suffix -ul and using -in as in Esperanto, so for example the Ido words for “brother,” “sister,” and “sibling” are fratulo, fratino, and frato. The only Ido nouns with inherent gender are viro (“man”), muliero (“woman”), patro (“father”), and matro (“mother”).
There have have been proposals to introduce something similar into Esperanto, but they have not caught on. The problem is that while Esperanto came into existence as a planned language, it is today a naturally evolving one, and it can no more be re-engineered from on high than can English. In fact, a number of so-called “natural” languages (Icelandic, for example) are far more regulated than Esperanto is in practice. Imposing a complete reworking of gender in Esperanto is about as practical as completely reforming English spelling.
This is a point worth emphasizing, because Esperanto is so often described as a “constructed,” “planned,” or “artificial” language, which has not been a really accurate description for decades. (As early as 1922 a League of Nations report on Esperanto made the point of calling it a “living language.”)
On the other hand, just as English has gradually become more gender-neutral in response to objections, so has Esperanto. Nouns referring to professions and to animals are increasingly treated not as implicitly masculine but as neuter, with an -in suffix or a vir- prefix used only when the distinction is relevant. In practice, at least based on my own observations, only a relative handful of words — viro, knabo, patro, avo, onklo, frato, nevo, nepo, and perhaps a few others — are still treated as invariably masculine.
It’s worth pointing this out to students not just because it helps address the concerns they might have about a supposed gender bias in Esperanto, but because it’s necessary to the understanding of written Esperanto from various decades.
It might also be worth noting that other languages are far less gender-neutral than modern Esperanto. French grammar virtually imposes sex-specific distinctions for the names of professions, for example, with the feminine word usually derived from the masculine. In Spanish, niños (literally the plural of niño, “boy”) means not just “boys” but also “boys and girls.” Esperanto, of course, has always referred to a mixed group as geknaboj.
In short, while complaints about Esperanto’s treatment of gender are probably less common than they were a few decades ago, there’s no reason not to address the topic, in part because it’s something worth knowing in its own right, and in part because it points out that Esperanto isn’t sterile and artificial as some think, but rather a language that changes and develops in active use just like English.
In a future column I’d like to address the subject of memory aids for learning Esperanto, such as Butler’s advice to remember the difference between muso (“mouse”) and muŝo (“fly”) by picturing the circumflex in the latter as the fly’s wings. For example, is there an easy way to remember which is which in the set tablo, tabelo, and tabulo? What about the distinction between -ig and -iĝ?