33

In English, if I don't know the gender of the person I'm referring to, I'm stuck using one of several suboptimal pronoun options. For example, if I want to say:

The lawyer is sick. ___ is going to the doctor this afternoon.

I can fill in the blank with the following, but none are particularly good options:

  • "The lawyer" or "That lawyer" (long-winded, repetitive)
  • "He or she," "s/he" (ugly)
  • "He" (traditionally inclusive of both men and women, but now often considered to be a form of gender bias)
  • "They" (quite informal and often not considered correct – originally refers to plural, not singular, noun)

I cannot fill the blank with it, because the lawyer is a person, not an object or animal (no lawyer jokes please).

In Esperanto, is there a third-person gender-neutral pronoun that can go in the blank? If so, are there any limitations on its use in these sorts of situations?

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    Reference for "usually not considered correct"? – Andrew Grimm Aug 24 '16 at 3:33
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    The singular "they" is becoming much more common in English speech, and I think it's generally preferred if you are unsure of someone's gender. – sevenseacat Aug 24 '16 at 4:13
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    In analogy to English, would it be wrong to use ili for that? So, La juristo estas malsana. Ili venos al kuracisto postagmeze. It is clear that the only reference is singular. Now, I guess that native English speakers would understand this, but would speakers of other languages be confused by that? – Oliver Mason Aug 24 '16 at 8:43
  • @AndrewGrimm See Wikipedia for the type of thing I was thinking of. But point taken; I've updated to "often." – Nathaniel Aug 24 '16 at 11:37
  • @OliverMason To me that does look like (at least) a grammar error or a very confused person that cannot express their(!!) ideas clearly in Esperanto yet. – marcus Jun 9 '18 at 21:03
28

In his Lingva Respondo called "Pri pronomo por «homo»", Zamenhof explicitly said that "ĝi" can be used as a gender-neutral pronoun. However, he also acknowledged the problem that "ĝi" can sound degrading when used for humans, as it is usually used only for objects and sometimes for children.

Already in the 1970s, the proposal to use "ri" as a gender-neutral pronoun was made, and in the last ten years this proposal has significantly entered actual usage, especially among young Esperanto speakers in Western countries. Given the problem with "ĝi" mentioned above, I think that this addition to the traditional pronoun system of Esperanto can be justified.

See my article Esperanto kaj sekso for a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of "ri", "ĝi" and other proposed solutions for this problem. (The article also covers in depth the question of what gender information is implied by different words, such as "patro" (clearly male in both traditional Esperanto and normal modern usage) and "instruisto" (traditionally often interpreted as male when used in the singular, but now often gender-neutral).)

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    Could you give a quick overview of the cons of ri? – Adamawesome4 Oct 25 '17 at 21:28
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    @Adamawesome4 – Ri has the “ri petas / ripetas; ri gardas / rigardas; ri markas / rimarkas” problem. I guess other proposals (such as Gi or Hi) don't clash as badly with existing vocabulary. Gi would be basically the same as Ri with a different (easier?) pronounciation. On the other hand Hi would be a new male-only pronoun making pronouns more symmetrical (in hiismo the neutral ili is the plural form of the neutral li). – marcus Jun 9 '18 at 21:15
14

Sadly, like English, Esperanto has several solutions, none of which are entirely satisfactory.

According to PMEG, li essentially has two meanings: one is used to refer to a male person when the sex is known and the other is to refer generally to a person when the sex is unknown. So in theory in this case you should use li, and that is apparently the recommended usage by Zamenhof. However this usage feels uncomfortable to many speakers because it appears as if it excludes the possibility of the person being a woman, even if that is not the intention.

Alternative solutions without breaking the Fundamento could be to just explicitly say li aŭ ŝi or even tiu, but neither of these sound very natural and they can quickly make a text sound very repetitive if they are used a lot.

There is a proposal to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun ri. However, this is tied to a larger reform called riismo which also introduces other concepts such as the suffix -iĉ- and making many familial nouns neutral. I think riismo is widely known so you would likely be understood if you used ri in this situation, but perhaps people would then assume you are using the entirety of riismo and may be confused.

There are some attempts to introduce the pronoun ŝli exactly for this situation. However, it is less well-known than ri and many people may think you have simply mispronounced or mistyped ŝi and then assume the person is known to be a woman.

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    The usage of "ri" is not necessarily tied to also using "-iĉ-" and to making the familial nouns neutral. That might be the case for many of the most active users of "ri", but I myself and many others use "ri" without making the familial noun neutral. – Marcos Cramer Aug 24 '16 at 9:16
3

Looking in related languages

In natural languages such as English the problem is usually that not just does the language itself not have an elegant way of dealing with the problem, but there are also no dialects or other closely related languages that have a solution ready for borrowing.

With Esperanto the situation is similar but not quite the same. This problem with Esperanto's pronouns is just one among several that were addressed with Ido. As a result, a lot of Ido pronouns (all other than first and second plural) are different from those of Esperanto. Nevertheless, I think the Ido third person pan-gender pronoun lu is arguably the natural choice for Esperanto.

Apart from a general desire to keep Esperanto 'pure', even if that means protecting its most sexist 19th century features against reforms, I can see some good arguments against the use of lu, though:

  • Lu doesn't fit into Esperanto's system of all personal pronouns ending in i. (This feature was intentionally changed by Ido to make the personal pronouns easier to distinguish.)
  • Esperanto has a verb lui (to hire) that is of course in no way related to lu. It appears that in Ido the corresponding verb is lugar rather than luar to make absolutely sure that this cannot lead to confusion. But in Esperanto one could theoretically be misled into mis-hearing lu as luo and trying to come up with a meaning for it as a noun. (Luo is not a dictionary word, but also not unlikely as a derivation of lui. There is also the Esperanto name lo of the letter L, but I think that's less likely to be a problem.)

Nevertheless, in the sense that Ido is really just a dialect of Esperanto (I believe there are even books and plays that make use of this), Esperanto can be said to already 'have' this pronoun.

Inventing a new solution in the original spirit

One could also think of adding one that is more in the original spirit. Unfortunately I don't know any language with a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun ending in i. If we want to stick with one consonant letter plus one vowel, this leaves us a choice between bi, di, fi, gi, hi, ji, pi, ri, ti, zi, ĥi, ĵi. I think we can eliminate some of these as they are hard to pronounce, hard to distinguish from existing personal pronouns, or misleadingly close to certain pronouns or offensive words in well known languages. I would argue this leaves at most bi, di, gi, ri. I find none of them really convincing. [I changed my mind. See PS below.]

However, as I found out after writing the above paragraph, there is already a proposed Esperanto reform that would make ri a gender-neutral third person pronoun. See Wikipedia on 'riismo' for details.

Accelerating natural language change

Another option would be to just say li/ŝi quickly. Even spelled li-ŝi, this would easily be understood, and I think it would fit into Esperanto's system of pronouns. (I think it's better this way than the opposite order ŝi-li, as that would be more likely to raise ideas of something related to chili or Chile said by a new Esperanto speaker who sometimes uses incorrect nouns not ending in o.) This solution, also, is in a sense already present in Esperanto.

(Disclaimer: I know a lot about languages and have read some books and articles about Esperanto. But I am just learning to speak the language right now, so I can say nothing about how this problem is handled in practice. Basically I am just trying to bring up a few points that in my opinion are likely to play a role.)


PS: There is an extensive Wikipedia article on the problem of a seksneŭtrala homa triapersona pronomo. It contains some additional ideas that I find quite convincing: (1) Geli is arguably already an Esperanto word fit for the purpose. (2) Gi can be interpreted as either a simplification of geli or a variant of ĝi, which some people (quite logically but perhaps not very politely) already use for the same purpose. Or one could even think of the prefix ge- as derived from a gender-neutral pronoun gi, in the same way that we may say "he-cat" or "she-cat" in English. So gi seems to be an excellent fit.

  • "Luo" is an Esperanto word, meaning "rent" or "lease" (as in the act of renting or leasing something). – Marcos Cramer Aug 24 '16 at 8:00
  • @MarcosCramer: That's what I suspected at first, but it's not on vortaro.net. The lernu.net dictionary only lists lupago and luprezo. – Hans Adler Aug 24 '16 at 9:42
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    In Esperanto one can regularly form new words, irrespective of whether they are in a dictionary or not. Since "lu/" is a word root, one can use it with the ending "-o" as a noun, as long as that makes any sense. – Marcos Cramer Aug 24 '16 at 13:13
  • Of course you can do that. My point was that it's not a standard word in dictionaries. This is similar to when people claim that "examining" is not an English word. Technically this is not true, but when they say this they are usually thinking of a sense in which it is. I will edit my answer to take this into account. – Hans Adler Aug 24 '16 at 17:12
  • I would add a few points: (1) “ili” is already unrelated to “ilo”, so this kind of overlap in lu and luo is not necessarily a deal breaker; (2) having pronouns with other endings could help understanding because all the others are way too similar sounding; (3) fi is offensive (i'll propose an edit to your answer) – marcus Aug 24 '16 at 18:37
1

Some Esperantists use gi, derived from the prefix ge-.

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    This option has already been mentioned by other answers. Could you provide more details as to why this might be a good choice? – Nathaniel Aug 25 '16 at 0:32
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    This is so uncommon that I would not say Esperanto has it. – Vanege Sep 2 '16 at 20:59
0

Some people use „ŝli“ (yes, without a slash) or „li aŭ ŝi“/„ŝi aŭ li“ (which you described as ugly).

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    One disadvantge of "ŝli" and even more so of "li aŭ ŝi" is that they presuppose that every person is either male or female, which forces non-binary people into a categorization that they reject. The usage of "ri" or "ĝi" as gender-neutral pronouns avoids this problem (though the usage of "ĝi" faces another problem, as discussed in my answer). – Marcos Cramer Aug 24 '16 at 9:19
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    @MarcosCramer or you can argue that ŝli may be interpreted like shemale. I'm just stating what people actually use and what can be understood by everyone, even beginners. The problem with ri for example is that AFAIK it is not part of Esperanto, it is just a proposed solution. Being that, it is highly unlikely for example that a beginner can deduce its meaning, it's not taught in lessons, etc. I'm not saying it's a bad suggestion but until it is approved by the academy or reaches enough widespread use, I would personally stay away from it, so that I can be sure that I'm always understood – Lyubomir Vasilev Aug 24 '16 at 9:31
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    I think "ŝli" to rare to be worthy mentionning. I have never met this unofficial pronoun in actual conversation in two years of active use of Esperanto. I know "ŝli" because people often mention it in this kind of discussion, but it is kind of a legend."ri" in comparaison is far far more common. – Vanege Aug 24 '16 at 10:22
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    @LyubomirVasilev: Esperanto is a living language, and as such it is defined by how competent speakers use it, not by what the Esperanto Academy approves. The Esperanto Accademy still hasn't even approved such common words as "agnoski", "teroro", "eseo", "firmao" kaj "teamo" (given that I am the director of the section on general vocabulary of the Esperanto Accademy, I have made some research about the most commonly used word roots that still aren't official, which is where this list comes from). It only "officializes" word roots that are already widely used. (to be continued) – Marcos Cramer Aug 24 '16 at 13:48
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    @LyubomirVasilev (continued): So for "ri" to ever have a chance of getting officialized, it will first have to be used. And I think that there are very good reasons for using it. – Marcos Cramer Aug 24 '16 at 13:49
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You could say The lawyer is sick and they are going to the doctor this afternoon.

Although this wouldn't help in other examples

  • This doesn't really answer the question, though, as you still have the pronoun after the and, which was what the OP was asking about. – Oliver Mason May 11 '18 at 8:01
  • @Asher – You’re suggesting to use they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, right? In some varieties of English, this is quite common, so I get where you are coming from! :-) Such ”de-pluralizing” has, however, no tradition in Esperanto – ili is always plural. – Bjørn May 11 '18 at 19:49

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