Consider the implications of usages such as the following:
- “Man is a mammal and suckles his young” – the human race is male by default; “Womankind” is a subset of “Mankind”.
- “The reader is entitled to his opinion” – if you're female, you have to pretend otherwise to read legal documents.
- “Wizard” is praise; “witch” is an insult (abuse is the only field in which there are more words to describe women).
- “The UK's greatest living author” is ambiguous; does it rule out the possibility of authoresses who are greater?
This doctrine of Male‐As‐Default treats women as a negligible subgroup, and femaleness as abnormal but always noteworthy.
Sexism is (in principle) avoidable in English, via words like “human, people, he/she, they”, and sex‐neutral jobtitles where sex is irrelevant. Things are different in languages where the distinction is one of grammatical gender – such as German, where Feminist is masculine, Männlichkeit = “manliness” is feminine, and Weib = “woman” is neuter. Gender in European languages originally started as an arbitrary system of agreement categories that had nothing to do with reproductive biology; but over the centuries people started expecting males to be masculine and females to be feminine, and built their cultural assumptions into the grammar. As a result, the French for “they” is ils in the masculine and elles in the feminine, but mixed groups are ils, even if they're made up of 99 women and one hornet (un frelon, grammatically masculine).
So how about Esperanto? Surely a language without arbitrary gender‐classes, designed by an enlightened progressive humanist, will avoid such pitfalls? Well, uh… no. In fact, as first propagated his brainchild was blatantly and systematically sexist. All animate nouns were assumed to be male, unless given the ghettoising suffix ‑in. A word like studento didn't mean “student”; it meant “male student”, and a female one needed to be clearly labelled as a studentino. Such usages have become less common over the past century, but there's no real consensus on which words are still inherently male: certainly regho = “king”, probably soldato = “soldier”, maybe jughisto = “judge”… so an Esperanto job advert for a tajpisto = “typist” is ambiguous (how sexist is the advertiser's dialect?) without au tajpistino = “or typistess”.*
For many other common words the male‐centred scheme is still mandatory. A “mother” is a “fatheress” (patrino), a “girl” is a “boyess” (knabino), a “woman” is a “maness” (virino, which also happens to be the word for a kind of hypothetical mini‐virus), and so on with brotheresses, husbandesses, unclesses, cousinesses, nephewesses, and sonesses‐in‐law – a sex‐obsessed set of kinship terms incompatible with the systems traditionally used in many other cultures. Vietnamese, for instance, has a common monosyllabic word em meaning “younger sibling(s)”; an idea that Esperantists need a whole phrase to express. There is a prefix ge to indicate “both sexes”, as in gepatroj = “parents”; but it's still a matter of some debate whether you can use it in the singular, or to refer to a group of parents who might all happen to be women. Only one clearly neutral noun exists: homo = “person” (cf. French homme = “man”). Even the affix ‑ul, although glossed as “person”, is really male by default; if it wasn't, “young people” would all just be junuloj instead of junuloj kaj junulinoj!
“Horse” = chevalo, “mare” = chevalino; Esperanto also provides for ghirafino = “female giraffe”, blatino = “cockroachess” (“henroach”?), and so forth, regardless of tradition (in English, “ducks” are female by default), let alone actual biology (most hornets are sterile females). Farmers may also find handy the Esperanto “pup” suffix ‑id as in chevalido = “foal”, and the “stud” prefix vir‑ as in virchevalo = “stallion” – but why aren't these affixes extended to humans to give words like homido = “humanling, kid” or virpatro = “father, sire”? Too “dehumanising”?
Then again there are the derogatory affixes, fi‑ and ‑ach, demonstrated in “Teach Yourself Esperanto” just as feminists would predict: by forming sex‐specific insults. Fivirino is “dirty woman, slut”; virinacho is “crone, contemptible female”; and we are never offered the male equivalents (whatever they are). If you can't see what the fuss is about, try imagining an equivalent racist language, with black and white pronouns, a suffix ‑afro, and an assumption that the human race is Caucasian (“one white, one vote”). Now imagine the ‑ach suffix being exemplified with virafracho…
Time for a few jokes. Is a casino a feminine case? Is a neutrino a female eunuch? And if a fraulino is an unmarried woman, is an unmarried man a fraulo? Well, actually, yes; a merry jest from Dr Zamenhof. Ha ha ha… (sob).
The use of ‑in doesn't make words any more recognisable – on the contrary, it wastes the one opportunity to adopt a root with near‐global recognisability: “MAMA”! And it doesn't shrink the vocabulary, either – on the contrary, ‑in is strictly redundant when there are already distinct words for “he/she”, and if the default was unisex there would be no need for explicitly neutral ge‑ or homo. The only thing ‑in is good at is reflecting nineteenth‐century social attitudes; and even if the linguistic discrimination doesn't worry you (like two of my correspondents who explicitly supported it because it's misogynistic), this scheme of compulsory lopsided gender‐agreement rules is offensive just for its shoddy design. Look for instance at one of the side‐effects of the rule that any affix can lead an independent life as a word in its own right: ino = “a female”; ina = “feminine”. Generally, Esperanto requires more intricate morphology to refer to women than men; but here is an exception. “Teach Yourself Esperanto” translates “feminine intuition” as la ina intuicio. So… how exactly do you say “masculine intuition”? It's not vira – that's “manly” as opposed to virina = “womanly” (viroj are specifically adult human males, whereas even a kitten can be an ino. Candidates for a masculine affix parallel to the feminine have been proposed (‑uch, ‐ab, ‐ich, ‐un, mal‐in, ‐ul), but while few present‐day Esperantists may support Zamenhof's original system, equally few take the obvious first step of marking male and female symmetrically.