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Epicene alternatives and -iĉ-

Al feliĉulo eĉ koko donas ovojn. To a fortunate man even a rooster gives eggs.

To a fortunate person even a chicken gives eggs.

The issue of gender in Esperanto has always been an ambiguous and sometimes awkward one.

A lupo is a wolf, for example, in modern usage usually one of unspecified gender, but originally — and sometimes still — only a male wolf; which meaning is meant nowadays depends entirely on the speaker. One can add -in- to denote a female (lupino), but there’s no comparable way to unambiguously indicate a male wolf — one must resort to an idiomatic and sometimes ambiguous construction with viro* (“adult male human”, “man”) to produce virlupo, which is literally “man-wolf” or “werewolf” but by convention “male wolf”. (“Werewolf” is by convention homlupo, or “human-wolf”; a male werewolf is unintuitively a lupviro — which, adding to the confusion, was the word for “male wolf” in older Esperanto.)

*Some propose using vira as a separate word (vira lupo) to make the meaning clearer, since vira does indeed mean “male”. But it also means “manly”, an ambiguity that led to the introduction of maskla and masklo, which the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro takes pains to gloss as “virseksa” and “virseksulo”, as “vira” alone cannot clearly define the word without additional context.

Some writers have attempted to circumvent the problem by coining unambiguously masculine words like taŭro and stalono, a stopgap measure that would obviously be impractical for all animal words.

Kin relationships are still masculine by default; they can be made female with -in-, neutral in the plural with ge-, but not traditionally in the singular — that is, one could say “parents” (gepatroj), but not “parent” without additional word-building or changing words altogether (gepatrano, generinto).

Sometime after 1980, however, the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro included singular gepatro in its pages to mean “either father or mother” while still maintaining that ge- otherwise means “both sexes together”*. This situational use of ge- does not extend beyond kin relationships as an epicene affix; one does not speak of a gelupo in sheep’s clothing, for example, but only a lupo.

*More specifically, my 2002 edition of the PIV offers
gepatro. Patro aŭ patrino. gepatroj. Patro k patrino.
but my 1981 edition only offers only gepatroj. In both editions, however, ge- itself is defined as a “prefix showing that the group being spoken of consists of both sexes”.

One solution to Esperanto’s gender ambiguity problem is the oft proposed -iĉ-, a masculine counterpart to -in- (ex. caridino “tsarevna”, caridiĉo “tsarevich”) which would make words masculine without the ambiguity that vir- brings. However, though -iĉ- has been independently proposed by many people for a long time (mostly as a suffix logically suggsted by -ĉj-, but at least once as a borrowing of the Russian -ич), it has never been made official or been acknowledged in dictionaries.

Resistance to its adoption reportedly has largely* come from the fear that, in some proposals, traditionally male roots like patro (“father”) and viro would become gender-neutral, so that “father” would become patriĉo, “man” viriĉo, and the new usage would not be compatible with the old. (A strangely selective fear, to be sure, since modern usage already conflicts with the old in that ĉevalviro, once “male horse,” is now “centaur”, and al feliĉulo eĉ koko donas ovojn is generally “to a fortunate person even a chicken gives eggs”, and doesn’t make sense anymore.)

*Some objections stem from the mistaken belief that vir- as a masculine prefix is the prescribed method of the Fundamento (1905), and is therefore untouchable canon. But -viro, not vir-, was the prescribed method until the first world war, when vir- was introduced in Zamenhof’s translation of Genesis and supplanted -viro, untouchable canon though -viro was. The prefixation of vir-, while standard practice now, was never in fact canonical — and is therefore at least as replaceable as -viro was.

The Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko characterizes this particular strategy as the proposal of “certain extremists”; the same source is cited in Wikipedia and Wiktionary, but there the strategy is presented as basic to all the proposals for -iĉ-.

Elsewhere, however, -iĉ- is proposed not as a reform to the existing lexicon, but as a clarifying suffix for use only with roots that are already gender-neutral. Patro and viro, both un­ambiguously male by definition, would remain unchanged — one would no more add -iĉ- to them than one would -in- to amazono (“Amazon”) or damo (“dame”) — but lupo could be masculinized as lupiĉo without any lycanthropic confusion. Moreover, having -iĉ- would make suffixes for either sex optional unless clarification were necessary — a kato, programisto, and amiko would be unambiguously generic words for “cat”, “programmer”, and “friend” instead of the ambiguously masculine/neuter words they’ve been.

Part of the problem with that solution, though, is that in order to avoid neutering traditionally masculine words — something that’s already been happening over the years with words like kuzo, nepo, and others that aren’t intrinsically masculine in some European languages — some twenty new epicene equivalents (mostly denoting kinship relations and titles) would have to be introduced.

To date, this author has never seen more than a handful of such words, so for the interested Esperantist, here’s a more complete list of epicene alternatives to which one can add -in- or -iĉ- as the need arises¹:

avo grandfather avolo grandparent
edzo husband spozo spouse
fianĉo fiancé fidancito
(fidanci “to betroth”)
filo son filjo³ child
frato brother hermano sibling
nepo grandson nepto³ grandchild
nevo nephew nipoto³ nephew/niece
onklo uncle avunklo uncle/aunt
patro father ĝenitoro parent
vidvo widower viduvo widower/widow
kuzo male cousin kuzeno³ cousin
knabo boy puero child, young person
viro man homo, adolto, persono human, adult, person
bubo male brat pueraĉo brat
fraŭlo bachelor celibulo
celiba “unmarried”
grafo count komito count/countess
princo prince princepo prince/princess
reĝo king rejo king/queen
Sinjoro Mister Sioro Mister/Mistress/Miss
koko rooster galinaco⁵ chicken
¹Since publishing this page back in 2014, I’ve learned of another page addressing this issue with its own list of epicene alternatives.
²Mouse over the words to see their origins.
³Epicene alternatives might not be necessary for some words, since enough people already use them as such that the words’ gender is no longer stable.
Most professions, once regarded as masculine by default, are now treated as gender-neutral. Titles of nobility, insofar as they indicate official ranks that aren’t normally rooted in gender, should probably also be regarded as gender-neutral; the alternate ranks listed here are for those for whom reĝo just doesn’t sound right when referring to a queen.
Like most words for animals nowadays, koko is often used as an epicene word to denote the species, not the gender. However, because koko is also in some aphorisms where it definitely means “rooster”, an alternative word seemed appropriate here.

Using these epicene counterparts, a grandparent would be an avolo, a grandfather an avoliĉo, and a grandmother an avolino. The forms avo and avino, while still on the books, would over time become quaint archaisms like bovoviro (originally “bull”, later “minotaur”, and now not used at all).


In 2016, Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko dropped its denouncement of -iĉ- as an unnecessary heresy and frankly acknowledged it as a widely proposed — though seldom used — masculine suffix.

In 2019, Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko acknowledged that the ambiguities of vir- have likely led to -iĉ- becoming a growing fact in the Esperanto community, though mostly in the forms iĉo and iĉa. It also mentioned a proposed -j- as a gender-neutral answer to -ĉj- and -nj-, as well as a non-binary suffix -ip-.