There are proposals to introduce in several languages gender-neutral pronouns to refer to groups of mixed gender or single individuals of unknown gender.

Are there examples of existing languages that both have gender-specific pronouns for the cases in which gender is known and use a special neutral pronoun to refer to groups or individuals of mixed/ unknown gender, as part of their established grammar? (So excluding attempts at recent introduction).

EDIT: Edited the question for clarity, as I'm asking about languages in which this pronouns system is historically part of the language.

  • 4
    Does it have to be a unique pronoun for indefinite referents? Otherwise English would qualify, as "they" has been used for indefinite referents since the time of Chaucer!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 13:58
  • @curiousdannii But English simply has a single plural pronoun. It doesn't have a distinct one for the specific case in which the referents are unknown, and symmetrically lacks an ungendered version for the singular.
    – Udik
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 15:48

1 Answer 1


Japanese has the property you describe, depending on how you analyze its sort-of pronouns. Also, according to the article kanojo 彼女 (f) was consciously introduced, but not recently.

Pronouns are really low-frequency words in Japanese compared to other languages, but it has two gender-specific third person pronouns kare 彼 (m) and kanojo 彼女 (f). These words also have other uses. There's also an alternative ano hito あの人 (lit: that person) that is gender-neutral.

Based on your question, I'm assuming you are looking for a natural language precedent for something a bit like Ido's pronoun system.

Ido does not have grammatical gender in its nouns, but does have a system of optional grammatical gender in its third person pronouns. However, it also has a singular and plural epicene pronoun that explicitly does not comment on the gender of its referent.

il(u) -- 3sg masc
el(u) -- 3sg fem
ol(u) -- 3sg neut
 lu   -- 3sg epicene
ili   -- 3pl masc
eli   -- 3pl fem
oli   -- 3pl neut
 li   -- 3pl epicene

Your question is difficult to answer because the property you want is in some ways incompatible with languages with a prototypical gender system. In a prototypical gender system, every noun is assigned a grammatical gender and the noun's gender is reflected morphologically on determiners, verbs, or adjectives and not just in the pronoun system.

So, languages with grammatical gender frequently have cases where the assigned gender of the noun conflicts with semantic properties of the referent. For instance, in French, a man is still une personne. In cases like that, it is acceptable in French to use the gendered pronoun matching the formal class of the noun. I'm not a native French speaker. I don't know off the top of my head whether it is totally impermissible to use a masculine pronoun to refer back to a masculine entity introduced as une personne previously if you later establish this person's masculineness somehow in the discourse without explicitly using a masculine noun to refer to them.

The point is: grammatical gender is a formal property of every noun. An explicit don't-care pronoun whose semantic range overlaps with gender-specific pronouns sort of conflicts with this.

Additionally, purely pronominal gender systems are rare to begin with.

Our examples have involved agreement of the verb, but there are various other targets which may agree in gender, such as adjectives, determiners, numerals and even focus particles. Most scholars working on agreement include the control of anaphoric pronouns by their antecedent (the girl ... she ) as part of agreement. If this is accepted, as we do here, then languages in which free pronouns present the only evidence for gender will be counted as having a gender system. Of course, such languages with pronominal gender systems have a much less pervasive system than those like Russian. Including them, however, makes little difference to the overall picture, since they are rare (the best known example is English, which is typologically unusual in this respect); another is Defaka (Niger-Congo; Niger Delta, Nigeria; Jenewari 1983: 103-106).

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