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Sometimes it is preferable to leave a person's gender undisclosed and some people do not fall into the usual two gender categories. This requires some adaptations in languages that indicate gender in nouns or pronouns. In English one can use the plural "they" in the singular so as to avoid choosing between "he" and "she". In Swedish a new neutral pronoun "hen" has been introduced in addition to the masculine "han" and the feminine "hon".

I would like to know if there is a neutral choice in Latin. Using neuter (e.g. id instead of is or ea) is one option, but it makes the person in question sound inanimate. In case of a person of unknown gender Latin uses masculine, but this is not really a good option for this purpose: If I speak about a specific person, then using a masculine pronoun indicates that the person is male, whereas I wanted to make no statement about their gender.

Which Latin pronoun(s) could I use to refer to people of unspecified gender? If you suggest a new pronoun, where has it been used and how can I decline it? (I am not asking you to come up with new pronouns. I am asking if there are attested pronoun suggestions for this purpose in the Latin literature.) If you suggest using neuter pronouns for people in this case, can you provide use examples to show that this has really been done before?

Let me stress that I am looking for pronouns in the case of a specific person. As I wrote in a comment below Cerberus' answer about the neutrality of masculine pronouns: It is important that the person is specified. If someone says "If someone comes to my office, I will sing him a song", I understand that it doesn't have to be a man. But if I hear "My spouse has his own business", I assume the spouse is male.

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    And what do you do with adjectives and participles? They also tell the reader or listener the gender of the person you are talking about. – jknappen Apr 20 '16 at 10:09
  • @jknappen, I wanted to make this question more focused and chose to discuss only pronouns. Adjectives, participles and nouns are also an issue. To some extent one can prefer words in the third declension to remain neutral, but avoiding pronouns is harder. If I know a suitable pronoun, I can work myself around revealing the gender in many situations. That's why I started with pronouns. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 20 '16 at 10:40
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    Is it really on-topic to ask for made up words? I think that will lead to all sorts of problems. It's one thing to ask for a tweaking of Classical and Medieval models, but it's something entirely different to suggest new pronouns. My 2¢. – C. M. Weimer Apr 21 '16 at 2:17
  • @C.M.Weimer, I should have phrased that more carefully. My idea was to ask for previously made up, attested new words, in case there are any. I imagined someone might have come up with a pronoun in the last two millennia. And my main question really is which pronoun to use in this case, be it neuter, a new word, or something else. I edited my question a bit. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 21 '16 at 7:39
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It is important to distinguish between syntactic gender and semantic gender. As we all know, a word like centuria, "group of ca. 100 soldiers", is syntactically feminine, but semantically it is masculine, since the Romans had no female soldiers. A feminine word is used to describe men. Or consider the feminine word virtus "manhood", from vir "man". There is no necessary conexion between syntactic and semantic gender. Cf. German das Mädchen "the girl" (neuter), Dutch het meisje "the girl" (neuter).

As you say, in Latin the masculine gender is used if you want to indicate that you are talking about a person of unknown gender. It is the same in many Indo-European languages (all that I know, at least), and that's probably why no neutral pronouns for people are used: the reader or listener knows that you are not actually indicating that this unknown person should be masculine, you're just applying the neutral use of the pronoun. So you could say that e.g. is really is the neutral pronoun for people in Latin, in addition to its being the masculine pronoun. A word can have two different senses, after all.

So in case you want to talk about someone without revealing his gender, you can just use masculine pronouns and adjectives, and nobody will know!

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    Thanks! If someone speaks to me about a specific person and uses a masculine pronoun, I deduce that a male is in question (whether or not it's meant so). It is true that masculine pronouns can also be semantically neutral, but in this case there is a serious risk of misinterpretation in using a masculine pronoun. If I want to hide the gender of someone that I want to talk about in English, I refer to them with the pronoun "they" and its forms, never "he". (In Finnish there is no gender whatsoever.) But it might well be that there is no better option in Latin, no matter how much I wanted one. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 20 '16 at 13:26
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    I would say there is, but I acknowledge that it is a matter of opinion. At least I would misinterpret you if you used a masculine pronoun in a neutral sense of a specific person. It is important that the person is specified. If someone says "If someone comes to my office, I will sing him a song", I understand that it doesn't have to be a man. But if I hear "My spouse has his own business", I assume the spouse is male. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 20 '16 at 13:58
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    The million dollar question: can anyone find an example of a Latin singular they – brianpck Apr 20 '16 at 14:46
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    @brianpck: Hah, yuck! (As you may know, there is the general plural 3rd person as used in verbs, like ferunt Caesarem occisum esse "they say Caesar has been killed", which is aequivalent to dicitur and is used when you don't know or don't want to specify who said it. And there are of course pluralia tantum. And there is the constructio ad sententiam, à la populus sunt. But otherwise I don't think it's possible to syntactically refer to something singular by a plural word—which wouldn't make sense anyway, so no loss there, I'd say.) – Cerberus Apr 20 '16 at 15:02
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    @brianpck A Latin singular they would not sidestep the gender issue, since Latin plurals still have three distinct genders. – Anonym Jul 26 '18 at 19:17
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Given the general statūs (plural) of women in the ancient world, I think you're going to have to invent something epicene, as in Swedish hen. (Many folks in English have started using ze as a nominative, hir as a genitive, and mer as an objective or, alternatively, hu, hus, and hum. In fact, historically English had two epicene pronouns, ou and a, but nobody seems interested in reviving them. Thon was very popular for a while, starting in the nineteenth century, but seems to have died out.)

As far as I know, nobody has come up with syntactically epicene pronouns for Latin (the current pronouns, as @Cerberus says, are already semantically epicene). If you want new words I propose therefore es to go along with is, ea, id, hec with hic, hæc, hoc, and illed with ille, illa, illud. I have however no strong attachment to these.

Perhaps declensions would be (in the order nom, gen, dat, acc, abl):

es, es, e, em, e

hec, hes, he, hem, he

illed, illes, illu, illem, illu

I find these kind of hideous, though, and, to be honest, if you start using them, I'm far more likely to be confused than to understand what you're saying. Perhaps it would be easier then simply to decide always to use ea, hæc, and illa, and make it clear in other ways that you intend these pronouns epicenically. (Malum eæ dabo, quæ veniat. Si Marcus venit, exempli gratia, malum dabo.)

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    Not sure if i'm alone here...but your suggestions are pretty painful to look at, much less use :) – brianpck Apr 20 '16 at 14:53
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    Well, I myself find them pretty painful to look at, much less use, but I also find ze/zir/mer and hu/hus/hum pretty painful and impossible to use. Answer updated to indicate same. – Joel Derfner Apr 20 '16 at 14:54
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    You may as well retain the existing gen. and dat. forms which are already epicene (eius, ei, huius, huic, etc.): so something like es, eius, ei, em...? – TKR Apr 20 '16 at 17:05
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    Thanks for the answer! Perhaps contrary to what you intended, you managed to convince me against coining an epicene pronoun. The point @TKR makes is an excellent one: in some cases the pronouns are already epicene. If you want to come up with new pronouns, incorporating these forms is a good idea. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 20 '16 at 19:48
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    I'm glad you came to that decision; if it seemed that I wanted you to coin a new pronoun, then it's evidence that my effort to bend over backwards in the interest of impartiality was successful. I have mixed feelings about epicene pronouns in English as it is. – Joel Derfner Apr 21 '16 at 7:05

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