Pronouning Your Hermaphrodite

Here’s a writing issue I suspect is largely confined to the realm of speculative fiction: I’m editing page proofs of Zoe’s Tale at the moment and catching a significant number of errors — why is why we edit page proofs, so we see them, but you don’t. The largest class of errors? Me calling either Hickory or Dickory — two aliens who belong to a race of hermaphrodites — “him” or “he.” Man, that’s irritating. And it also shows how strong the default setting in our language is that I’ve made dozens of mistakes giving the incorrect gender to a creature I made a different gender entirely.

(And yes, hermaphrodites are, in my humble opinion, an entirely separate gender from either male or female; having the sexual characteristics of both sexes doesn’t make you a member of both sexes, or of no sex; it makes you a member of another gender. The English language, sadly, doesn’t have a formally accepted pronoun form to accommodate this, so in Zoe’s Tale I use “it” for Hickory and Dickory, although “it” is genderless, not signifiying of a third gender. This doesn’t present a problem in the book, as H & D are of an alien species, and it’s okay to refer to an alien species as “it,” because, dude, they’re aliens, and who cares. I wouldn’t use “it” in the real world to refer to someone intersexed or hermaphroditic, however; that would probably get me slugged, and rightly so.

I suspect in the end I would use “they” in the cases where I met or was describing someone intersexed/hermaphroditic who did not already self-identify as male or female; “they” is nominally grammatically incorrect, but in yet another blow to my presumed prescriptivist ways, I don’t much care, since in my opinion the English language at this point needs a singular pronoun that encompasses all genders without privileging one over the others, as, say, the generic “he” does. “They” is already used this way informally, and it’s not a new pronoun form that people currently over the age of 25 will feel goofy using. Everyone wins.

Now, at this point this is all theoretical, since at this point I haven’t personally met an intersexed/hermaphroditic person, or for that matter, a transsexual person, who didn’t generally self-identify as one sex or another, if only for the purpose of getting through everyday conversation. But, you know. It’s nice to be prepared.)

The point of noting this is to recognize this is just one of those writing issues that most writers outside this genre don’t have to tackle on a regular basis. Their lives are poorer for it, even if their page proofs are nominally cleaner.

90 thoughts on “Pronouning Your Hermaphrodite

  1. I do know someone — albeit not well — who declines to state gender. When I do not refer to this person by name, I tend to use the first initial of that name in lieu of pronouns: “R is welcome to come with you, of course,” or, “I borrowed R’s copy of that book.”

    I suspect this would work less well with other initials, and possibly less well in a fictional work as well.

  2. I go to a very liberal university, and the trans/queer community here has pushed for the use of ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ (pronounced similarly to ‘here’) as replacements for ‘he/she’ and ‘him/her’.

    The main problem with it is that people go out of their way to use them when already-gender-neutral words like ‘they’ would be more appropriate.

  3. I seem to remember reading at one point that “they” was actually the culturally acceptable norm for a long, long time until some prescriptivists unilaterally decided to force “he/him” down everyone’s throats back a couple hundred years ago. (It obviously didn’t stick, other than to make life difficult for people trying to write “correctly”.)

  4. “They” is perfectly acceptable for indeterminate gender. Shakespeare, Shaw, Jane Austen, and W.H. Auden all used it that way. Why shouldn’t we?

  5. Stian, I have heard* that the use of ‘he’ for the aliens was one of the things she later wished she hadn’t done. It made the book better for me– “Look! Errors! The book is slightly wrong! This means it is not preaching to me in any way!”– but I think that a later story set on that world was slightly less gendered.

    *sitting at the pool, chatting about books, not listening to a panel involving her; this is extremely not-first-hand.

  6. Although I’m not transgender or intersexed, I did decide to be genderless for a few years between the ages of 8and 11 or so (my parents were cool with this and it wasn’t a big deal) and I just made everyone use my name instead of “her” or “him”. In retrospect, this is kind of weird, as my name is definitely female. These days, I use “they” as a catch-all term, but will use “zie” or a gender-specific pronoun if that’s the norms of the community I’m in.

  7. They/them sounds like a good usage. I think in Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe, Betan hermaphrodites often use It, but it comes without social stigma on Beta. (One of my fav conversations regarding a hermaphrodite character in that series has to do with a 2 legged Betan hermaphrodite planning to cook up a kid with his quaddie–four arms, no legs–lover. They are trying to decide if they want a quaddie male, female, hermaphrodite or a 2 legger male, female, or hermaphrodite. Six choices!)

  8. I seem to remember seeing “ke” and “ker” used as a sexually non-specific pronoun somewhere; my brain tells me that it was somewhere in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,” possibly referring to Desire. It’s kinda awkward, but alphabetically, “ke” is somewhere between “he” and “she”, right? Dead center would be “ne”, which wouldn’t suck either.

  9. (I just realised I said “his” instead of the Betan “its”, showing that once again the male pronoun is really culturally embedded.)

  10. The OED says “they” has been used for at least 500 years (late Middle English), so arguing that it’s incorrect seems a little pointless.

  11. I don’t know, John. Although writers in other genres may not have to deal with hermaphrodite aliens on a regular basis, they do have to refer to singular third persons in situations where they don’t want to indicate gender. “They” and “he/she” are the usual solutions, but I like neither. (Not that I have a solution.)

  12. Chris:

    Tell that to the legions of English teachers and copy editors out there.

    AliceB: I think you can actually get around identifying gender fairly easily without having to resort to pronouns. I did it in Android’s Dream with the character of Sam.

  13. Damn. Now I have to go back and check Android’s Dream — I didn’t remember about Sam.

    But that begs the question: if you could do it for Sam, why couldn’t you do it for Hickory and Dickory?

  14. I’m a conlanger, not an SF author, but I have similar problems with referring to my genderless aliens in English. It’s very hard to remember to use “it” for sentient creatures – when running a rpg with people playing them, everyone naturally tended to use the player’s pronoun instead.

    I also recently wanted to write about them in French which added a further complication – is it “un rikchik” or “une rikchik”? Masculine seems to be the most generic – sadly, most human languages are sexist to some degree.

    John, any opinion on what the eventual translators of Zoe’s Tale should do when referring to Hickory and Dickory’s species?

  15. A genderqueer friend taught me several years ago to use the Spivak pronouns. Ey showed me eir disapproval quite strongly when I accidentally used the biologically correct pronoun of em (yes, I knew eir biological sex for reasons that are Not Your Business:). The pronouns come quite effortlessly to me now.

  16. When I was reading “The Last Colony” the first time, the short conversation with Hickory and Dickory seemed a little odd (not wrong, just different) because you carefully ducked the issue of pronouns. Hickory was always named as the speaker, rather than “he/she/it said”. Later I thought about why that stuck out for me and I wondered what pronoun you could have used. I suspect I would have ended up with a different mental image of them if you’d used “it” — it would have desensitized me to the fact that they’re really alien. However, I suspect that device would end of falling short if they had more than a three page conversational role in a novel.

  17. Yeah, Hickory and Dickory are quite major characters in ZT; it was best to deal with the pronoun issues.

  18. Diatryma: The later story to The Left Hand of Darkness is “Winter’s King”, and is in fact an earlier story. When it was written Le Guin had not yet decided that the Gethenians were androgynes, but when it was later revised for publication in the anthology The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, it was changed to use feminine pronouns throughout. So it’s no less gendered than The Left Hand of Darkness, just differently gendered.

  19. I have a vague recollection that around 20 years ago or so, the MLA proposed “thon” as a new pronoun meaning “he or she.” It didn’t catch on. And it probably wouldn’t help in this case, since you appear to need a pronoun that means “he and she” without indicating multiple people.

  20. The dread singular they. I consider myself a descriptivist, but I tend to stick to the prescriptivists’ rules on this issue. I think it depends a great deal on the audience to which you’re writing.

    I’m glad others have already mentioned Shakespeare and other luminaries of English—moreover, the fact that the prescriptivists lost this battle before they joined it.

    Tell that to the legions of English teachers and copy editors out there.

    My father used to tell a story about a professor at Berkley who gave Abraham Lincoln a failing grade on his Emancipation Proclamation. It was tacked to the door in his office.

    Tough crowd, indeed.

    According to some of these folks, starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is a hanging offense. But who am I to judge? I was kvetching the other day about how serial commas are falling out of use and how American producers insist on writing “an historical speech,” in turn leaving bumbling newscasters to say, “an historical speech,” while aspirating the aitch.

    I said to my friend, “If I hear this again on CNN, I’m writing a complaint.” That’s when it hit me: I’m a nerd.

    There are a lot of other nice nerds on this site, PS. I’m impressed.

  21. ‘They’ sounds plural to me…and I don’t think either Hickory or Dickory should be addressed as if they’re plural. This humble reader suggests that you let Zoe get it wrong the first time and then Hickory could introduce her to the proper pronoun in Hickory’s native language.

    You can just make it up and totally sidestep the Grammar Police!

  22. I’m not big on introducing unfamiliar and alien grammar unless there’s a reason — no need to pull people out of a story like that.

  23. In Diaspora Greg Egan used (IIRC) “ve”, “vir”, and “vis” for the subject/object/possessive gender-neutral pronouns when the characters were living in a non-gendered society. After a chapter or so of this it stopped being jarring and flowed fairly well. It was interesting when some characters later moved to a society that recognized genders and our usual pronouns came back. Egan didn’t specifically mention gender but the use of gendered pronouns was quite noticable and even a bit strange once I’d gotten used to the neutral ones.

  24. This reminded me of the way Battlestar Galactica works the pronoun “it” as a device when describing the cylons. “It” is almost a “racial”, or uh, machinist?, slur. When describing the cylons, it is used to show hatred and unacceptance. When a human character evolves into being able to see the continuum of humanity and the blurred lines surrounding what makes us machine-like vs. gives us humanity, the pronoun usage changes to he/she. It is an interesting and a bit subtle device.

    So, Zoe’s Tale world might be fine to call Aliens “it” in its universe, but that is what I always think of when people use “it” to describe people of ambiguous or unstated gender. (Or as I’ve often heard it used to describe significantly disabled children.) It seems a way to dehumanize them. I sort of hate “it” even when describing animals. I personally think “they” rolls off the tongue much better than “yo”, but maybe that’s because I’m old.

  25. Lisa:

    “It seems a way to dehumanize them.”

    Well, you know. Hickory and Dickory aren’t human. But your point is taken. This is one of the reasons I wouldn’t use it to describe actual people in the real world. With pets, I sometimes use “it” when I’m in doubt of the pet’s gender (which is often not immediately obvious) and then swtich to the correct gender when I know what it is. I don’t think it matters to the pet either way, however.

  26. Do the Obin even have or need pronouns before the augments? I’ve never quite grasped just how obtuse to individuality they were in their pre-ensouled state.

  27. Jennifer Pelland (who I found via your site, what a great writer) used “se” and “ser” to refer to a hermathrodite that was female who was trying to pass as female in one of short stories “Mercy Tanks”

  28. Just last Saturday, I learned that one of my non-gender-identified friends is now using “they” as a preferred pronoun. It made for a very awkward initial conversation, since my first assumption was that they had developed multiple personalities. Oops.

  29. In an effort to combat the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, I once researched (at my journalism professor’s behest) and found the following:
    The English language does have a gender neutral/anonymous pronoun for singular use. It’s “one.” So, if one were to use said pronoun, it would me make me very happy. I don’t know about the rest of the world, though.

    Admittedly, it’s a bit antiquated for use as a pronoun, and we tend to use it as an indirect pronoun, but it’s there.

    What does one think of that?

  30. One uses it from time to time, but one believes it sounds oddly formal, and in any event “they” has much wider informal use, and one tends to go with what usage is common.

  31. It is interesting that you can describe an infant as “it” without it being cringeworthy, but for anyone older it seems wrong. Perhaps it is the ability to speak that is the dividing line.

    Languages like German or French have it easy. Since gender doesn’t have a direct relation to sex, they don’t (I presume) have this issue. Wasn’t this an issue in “The Lost Colony”? (I didn’t notice anything…presumably whatever you did was not jarring.) Is there a German translation of that yet?

  32. “One” always sounded pompous to me, but it’s an intriguing suggestion. In my nerdy way, it’s better than “they” since it’s so clearly singular.

  33. In high school I remember having a long conversation with my English teacher on this very subject. She said I should use “she” since it had both she and he. She was kidding and I believe I used “it” as well in the story I was writing. But it does go along way to showing not only or inherit biases, but how language actually helps shape and further entrench those biases.

  34. Re: “it”

    yeah, in the right context (such as hermaphrodite aliens in an alternate universe), I might not even notice.

  35. I agree, one is oddly formal. And since it already has that connotation, it’s probably better avoided.

    So, a note of a different color:

    I read Charles Stross’s Halting State recently and I noticed that he did an interesting thing in his storytelling, which was to place the action in some new person, that the storytellers constantly referred to themselves as “you.” I bring it up because, while at first it was jarring, it actually helped me let go of some other preconceptions and, like an oyster knife, helped me open up my mind for a few moments. I don’t know if that was his point or not, and I’m unlikely find out, but I thought it was interesting. I’ve read all of his stuff (that I could find), and this was the first one where it occurred. Maybe it had to do with the setting? Maybe it’s a Scottish thing?

    Back to the point: perhaps it is better to go further afield sometimes, specifically to jar people’s perceptions and help them think outside the box. It doesn’t do much for a comfortable afternoon reading on the couch, though.

    I think readers adapt to whatever they find, for the most part, and I never actually notice unless the usage of something common becomes *really* odd. McCaffrey refers multiple to Mrdini (neuter aliens) as “its.” That one took me a while. But I adapted. I still raise an eyebrow every time I see it, though.

  36. Since you’re proof-reading, I’ll point this out:

    ‘Me calling either Hickory or Dickory — to aliens who belong to a race of hermaphrodites — “him” or “he.” ‘

    to -> two

  37. Peter David likes to use ‘hir’ and ‘thir’ (he/she and they) for his hermey characters. At any rate, it’s got to be hell on editors for non-standard usuage.

    Kind of, you know, like comma, usuage. :)

  38. Meh. I grew up being taught that ‘he’ is a default when you aren’t sure or are speaking formally (using general examples, for example).

    I’ve also heard that ce (sp? pronounced ‘see’) is being used in some transgender communities. don’t recall offhand what the him/her version of that was supposed to be.

  39. What I find interesting is that I wrote a story for Houston, We’ve Got Bubbas that also had aliens. They weren’t hermaphrodites, exactly, and I never really decided HOW they reproduce, just that they thought mammalian sex was disgustingly weird.

    In this story, I also kept referring to them as “he” or “him” and had to devote an entire editing pass to making the usage consistent.

  40. I don’t think it’s a direct analogue, but in River of Gods, Ian MacDonald used “yt” and “yt’s” as a pronoun for the Nutes.

    Mind you, they were outright genderless instead of hermaphroditic, but I found it was a clever way of expressing the distinction.

  41. Tell that to the legions of English teachers and copy editors out there.

    Can’t speak for the English teachers, but as a copy editor, I don’t have a problem with singular “they” for a general person when I’m not working to someone else’s style sheet. (When I am, of course, I become a they-hater to precisely the same degree as my client; I’m not stupid.) Even so, I would have problems referring to a single specific person as “they,” but I’m not sure that I see a better option here.

    (I once ran into someone who used “y’all” as a singular pronoun. THAT was a confusing conversation.)

    I forget who it was who suggested that the best option might be “he or she; it,” abbreviated h’orsh’it, but I doubt this suits your purposes, either.

    I’ll keep thinking about it, and if I come up with a brilliant idea, I’ll get back to you.

  42. Ursula Le Guin used “he” consistently as a pronoun for hermaphrodite aliens in «The Left Hand of Darkness».

    And she now regrets it immensely, since it so blatantly undercut the point she was trying to make in the novel. She talks about that in one of the essays in Dancing at the Edge of the World, I think.

    I don’t know what the proper solution to the problem is, but I don’t think using “he” is it. “He” isn’t un-gendered, it’s default-male.

    Good on ya, John, for working on it.

  43. cofax: You’re right, Le Guin has an essay in _Dancing at the Edge of the World_ that addresses this. “Is Gender Necessary? Redux”, pp. 7-16 (pronoun discussion starts on p. 14). (New York: Grove Press, 1989.)

    Partially under the influence of Language Log, I tend to ignore artificial prescriptivist rules in my own writing. As a copy editor, I like to let authors choose for themselves whether or not to avoid sentence-final prepositions, split infinitives, etc. But I’ve mostly worked for publishers who didn’t have a style sheet to inflict on me…

  44. Gender of pets? If they’re birds, snakes, tarantulas, I’ve got no problems saying “it”.

    On the other hand…
    Dogs are male until you know otherwise
    Cats are female until you know otherwise, which can be a bit harder than with dogs.

  45. Some members of the furry web community, noticeably Bernard Doove and his Chakats in my opinion, use ‘shi’ and ‘hir’ as pronouns relating to the hermaphroditic species in his works. Structurally, the new pronouns are similar to the ones we’re used to, and don’t give you quite as much of a jolt when you read them.

  46. 2 (Sam): I’m always amused by that particular crowd of ignorant {insert favored gender-specific — or not — insult here}. Ignorant, in that they obviously know nothing about medieval and earlier German… in which “hir” is a gendered word.

    And “ze” just sounds like Clouseau-French — perhaps the epitome of “ignorant.”

    General comment: Most modern, younger Germans slur their articles when speaking colloquially — especially in the Berlin area — so that they don’t have to keep track of the gender of all those nouns. Or, for that matter, figure out which case they’re using, since they tend to be much more rigid users of SVO word order than their elders (or on paper). Even a couple of decades ago, it was fascinating taking other Yanks out into the city, especially if they had only ever gone through formalized German training, and making them actually listen to what was coming out of the mouths of the locals.

    What this has to do with Our Gracious Host’s dilemma, I don’t know; I just think it an interesting tangent.

  47. Hey John-

    This is somewhat on-topic, since you mentioned that you’re copy editing. Do you care about errata of previously published books? If so, is there a place where known errata are published, so I don’t bother you with ones that are already addressed? (I found one in Ghost Bridages, and one in Last Colony.)

    If you want to know, I assume email is the best medium to send you the info?

  48. Sam @ 2
    ‘Ze’ and ‘hir’ sounds very close to how the German language addresses male and female persons. Where ‘ze’ is “Sie” in German addressing a woman by name. Like “Sie Erika” or “Sie Julia”. “hir” sounds like “Herr” and is used addressing a man by name. Like. Herr Ray or Herr Sam.

    But I have had this discussion with many of my English speaking Austrian friends that English as a language is very neutral.

  49. jhazen:

    At the moment I don’t need them because I’ve sent in tons of errata to Tor. The next time I’ll need some is when Zoe’s Tale goes into paperback. But then, yes, I’ll be appreciative of it.

  50. DavidM: “Halting State” was written in the present tense, which is very unusual. My suspicion is that he wrote it this way to make the book itself seem like a game in that while stories are written as if they happened in the past (generally), events appear to happen in games as the player plays.

  51. I like “it”, if I’m trying to refer to myself (or a character, or someone I know for sure won’t mind) without mentioning gender. “Zie” and “zir” are fairly easy to parse, once you get used to them, and I use “they” colloquially, but you just can’t beat “it” for the sheer lack of gender. Most non-gendered pronouns sound like “he” and “her” with a single letter swapped out.

    You catch a bit of cognitive dissonance at first, using “it”, but if the sapience of the individual isn’t in question, it’s the best way to hammer home the lack of binary gender.

  52. My problem with many of the proposed alternatives is that they only work until you say them aloud. “Hir” and “s/he” just turn into her and she.

    Others have problems too… “One” is archaic, but inasmuch as it IS currently in use, it is as a deliberately abstract pronoun… One that isn’t supposed to stand in for a specific noun at all, but in fact any and all nouns in a class. So it no longer works very well at all as a personal pronoun.

  53. OK, I’ve been noodling this over (it beats editing a manuscript on plumbing construction, and boy do I wish I were kidding about that). It seems to me that you have three separate problems:

    1) How the characters refer to themselves;

    2) How other, nonhermaphroditic characters refer to them; and

    3) How you, as the narrator, refer to them.

    The solution to 3 is easy: write in first person. Then you just have to solve 1 and 2. However, I recognize this solution has flaws of its own, the first of which is that you’re writing in first person. If you’re committed to third person, then things get tricky.

    #1 is probably the easier choice; pick something and go with it. (Presumably a hermaphroditic species wouldn’t have gendered pronouns to start with, so you get to be creative. Woo hoo!)

    #2 is tougher. IMO, what you have given yourself is a plot point — some characters will adopt the species’ own pronominal structure, but others can’t break free of the male/female dynamic. Of these, some will use one or the other exclusively, some will flip back and forth more-or-less randomly, and some — the most interesting group from a story perspective, IMO — will select the pronoun appropriate to the role that person is filling at a given time, which lets you use this species to reflect back on the gendered culture. Probably you’d want to avoid this for your narrator.

    I don’t know if I’ve helped at all, but I’ve killed five minutes that I would have otherwise spent on water closet fixtures. HUGE SUCCESS!

  54. Andrew Hackard @#48:
    I once ran into someone who used “y’all” as a singular pronoun. THAT was a confusing conversation.

    To anyone south of North Carolina, “y’all” is second person singular.

    The second person plural is “all y’all”.

    I do not kid.

  55. Spivak and most others sounds awful. What McDonald used, yt isn’t the luckiest choice either. Price of being original I guess..

    The ones Greg Egan uses (ve,ver, vis) sound more naturally to me, but perhaps it’s because I’m Slavic..

  56. I’m a linguistics grad student and former English teacher (of the ESL variety). My inner linguist and my inner English teacher fight a lot. For a whole lot of reasons (and most of them have already come up in comments), I’m all for the singular they. I even wrote a paper about it once, drawing all my example sentences from a Call of Cthulhu game. The prof loved it.

    Look over the comments and see how many invented alternatives that have been proposed either in the real world, in fiction or both. We could collectively attempt to choose one, but I bet that would lead to a lot of disagreement over which one. And in the meantime, people would keep using they, and y’all, and yo. I think the gender neutral third person pronoun (or gender inclusive) is something that has to be handled organically, by the language as it evolves.

  57. On singular they: I’m working on a book of essays (about gender, although I don’t know if that’s strictly relevant). I wanted to be gender-neutral without confusing readers who aren’t familiar with designer pronouns; after much consideration (and after browsing Language Log) I opted for they.

    My editor flagged some phrases like “If someone [singular] has spinach in their [plural] teeth…” In a telephone conversation, I said, “Are you not a fan of singular they?” fully prepared to defend its correctness. “Well,” she said, “some people might find it jarring.”

  58. @61 This is not entirely true.

    Louisiana is definitely south of both Carolinas and usage where I grew up was as follows:

    You: singular, the individual person being addressed.

    Y’all: plural, more than one individual, may be used to address an individual person if that individual person is a representative or spokesperson for a group or class of people (implied plurality)

    All-y’all: emphatic plural, with emphasis on each-and-every-one of the group being addressed.

    As in, “Jim Bob! You get off my lawn!” vs “Jim Bob! Y’all kids get off my lawn!” vs “I said ALL Y’ALL KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN BEFORE I GO GET MY SHOTGUN!”

    *cough* Got to go now, my vestigial southerner is packing heat.

  59. A related note that I like to promote whenever I’m involved in one of these discussions (although of little help to you perhaps John), is the use of “man” for both the species and the male of the species.

    The best – or at least funniest – idea I’ve heard for combatting this is as follows:

    Let ‘man’ be the non gender-specific word for the species, and keep all the man words: mankind, chairman, man power, man-hours etc. BUT think about the male and female forms.

    If a wo-man os a man with a womb, then clearly the new word for a male would be te-man. :-) (it works best if the ‘te’ is pronounced as in ‘testicle’). The alternative peman is not preferred because the female version would be vaman, not woman.

    Example sentence: “We have come before you today to join this this woman and this teman in holy matrimony…”

  60. Well, since I’m going to eventually run into this as well, it’s nice to see how at least one writer in the genre is dealing with it.

    I noticed the trick with Sam. You sneak! I’m not sure why, but I like characters whose gender is indeterminate. (See re: Neil Gaiman’s Desire, for instance.)

    I like Hickory & Dickory for other reasons as well, and am very glad to hear that they’re major characters in Zoe’s Tale! Damn, I’m going to have to go down to the editing department and do some begging when the review copies come around.

  61. Perhaps using Hungarian pronouns is the answer for you; there is no separate he/she/it in that language.

  62. If it ever comes down to it, they’ll just have “Other” on all the forms. I suppose “it” or “that” would be poor form for pronouns. “Herm,” sounds too much like “her,” and would also lead to difficulty. Maybe the Asians have a handy word for it that could catch on here.

  63. Pronoun Challenges

    1) Asexual and Gender Neutral beings.

    I think that there should be a separate set of pronouns for gender neutral and asexual beings as there is a significant difference between being part of both genders and being part of no gender.

    2) Cultural baggage

    I find that they sounds too impersonal and gender neutral. I think it would make sense to have a new set of pronouns that embodies the concept of bi-gender and all the connotations that come with it. He and She have a rich history of cultural baggage that colors our interpretation of whatever we read. A good example of this is the comic “How it Works” . In the comic, a boy incorrectly solves a math problem and is told “you suck at math.” When a girl incorrectly solves the same problem in the same way she is told “girls suck at math.” “It” also has connotations which suggest that it might be a good idea to find a new term for gender neutral and gender neutral persons.

    When I think of “it” or sexless beings I tend to think of cold, impersonal, and mild creatures. It would be interesting to see a race of incredibly violent and passionate aliens that are gender neutral as I think it would go against the traditional interpretation of asexuality, at least my traditional interpretation of asexuality.

    Finding terms that evoke the appropriate response will be a challenge.

    3) Multi-Gender and New Gender

    Science fiction and fantasy writers often deal with species that have more than 2 genders or have a completely different gender system. What pronouns should be used in these situations?

    4) Making Up New Terms

    Most Sci-fi readers are used to new or made up terminology. The most famous example that I can think of off the top of my head is “grok”. Using new terms would also eliminate some translation problems. They could use the term you created instead of the language’s pronouns but they would still have to deal with noun/adj cases and verb declensions.

    5) Conclusion

    All in all it seems like a very interesting challenge and I look forward to seeing what sci-fi writers choose to do. A really fun paper would address the different approaches by different areas of study. Compare sci-fi writers, scientists, and GLBT/genderqueer people’s answers to the gender pronoun problem.

  64. In Iain M Banks’ “The Player of Games”, the Azadians have three genders – male, female and apex. The apices basically run the show. There’s a “translator’s note” which says something to the effect of “this story was originally written in [the Culture language] Marain, which of course has one pronoun for male, female, hermaphrodite, neuter, drone, Mind, etc. But since you’re reading it in your own language, I’ve used the male and female pronouns for Azadian males and females, and I’ve used whichever is the dominant sex’s pronoun in your language for apices. If your civilisation has no dominant sex, your language will obviously reflect this.

  65. What a coincidence! I just experienced the very same issue on my latest short story. I was dealing with a colony ship of evolved, genderless human beings and using “it” to describe the denizens. Only problem was, my main character was dealing with “maternity” issues, and I kept inadvertently referring to “it” as “she” without even realizing that I had done so. Even though I really, consciously, tried to self-edit myself as I wrote, I still ended up having to do a fair amount of search/replace on the proofreading.

    Try as I might, because of what we are conditioned towards as a society, I couldn’t refrain from placing my genderless characters into separate gender classes. The protagonist’s partner, for instance, was most definitely male in my mind’s perception. And I even colored the character with more traditional “male” characteristics than the protagonist.


  66. ajay,

    Actually, the exact quote from The Player of Games is too good not to reproduce here:

    “Those of you unfortunate enough not to be reading or hearing this in Marain may well be using a language without the requisite number or type of personal pronouns, so I’d better explain that bit of the translation.
    “Marain, the Culture’s quintessentially wonderful language (so the Culture will tell you), has, as any schoolkid knows, one personal pronoun to cover females, males, in-betweens, neuters, children, drones, Minds, other sentient machines, and every life-form capable of scraping together anything remotely resembling a nervous system and the rudiments of language (or a good excuse for not having either). Naturally, there are ways of specifying a person’s sex in Marain, but they’re not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it’s brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over.”

    On another Banks-related note: DavidM @ 41, I noticed the second-person narrative in Halting State, and I don’t think it’s that terribly uncommon. Maybe it is a Scottish thing, though, since the first example of it that springs to my mind is Banks’ Complicity, which pulls the same trick with some of the narrative. The book is otherwise told in the first person, though, and second-person is used in certain sections to help obscure the identity of the actor in those sections, who may or may not be the narrator.

  67. You really don’t know anyone who’s intersexual and doesn’t self-identify as male or female? That surprises me, considering that you’re a well known midwestern writer who goes to cons like WisCon and Minicon.

  68. Really, I don’t. I’m not sure why it’s entirely surprising, though. Also, I’ve never been to Minicon.

  69. Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language” comes to mind:

    Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.

  70. 66. Mark Whybird

    Actually, as I understand it, English is the only language where there isn’t a separate word for “male human” from just “human.” It wasn’t always that way. There used to be “werman” and “wifman” back several hundred years. “Werman” went away, and “wifman” became “woman,” and here we are today…

    69. Stacey said: Maybe the Asians have a handy word for it that could catch on here.

    As it happens, Mandarin Chinese has a third-person pronoun that is gender neutral. It’s “ta” (first tone). It’s used in exactly the same way as “it” except without the derogatory connotations. (Hmmm. I’ll have to investigate whether this is also true for other east Asian languages….)

  71. Eventually, I used “it” and “one”, myself. I thought about “hir” for a little while (subverting it from its original gender-neutral purpose to straight hermaphrodite (no pun intended)), and even used it in some early drafts, but eventually went back to “it”. I’m happy to say that the editor only caught one instance where I used “him” instead of “it”…but Heron Meed was a male-dominant hermaphrodite, so it wasn’t a case of being culturally primed to use “he” instead of “she”, for example.

  72. As it happens, Mandarin Chinese has a third-person pronoun that is gender neutral. It’s “ta” (first tone). It’s used in exactly the same way as “it” except without the derogatory connotations. (Hmmm. I’ll have to investigate whether this is also true for other east Asian languages….)

    As I understand it, it’s not quite that simple. There are two separate characters for “he” and “she” in written Chinese, but in Mandarin they are pronounced identically. Therefore, the gender distinction exists in written form, but not in spoken. (I’d half-deduced the spoken aspect from listening to native Mandarin speakers occasionally swap “he” and “she” in English, before my wife explained it to me.)

    I was also wondering when Raphael Carter was going to come up in this discussion (and half-suspected that’s who Mris @ 1 might be referring to…)

  73. I’ve been using “they” for years to replace the awkward “he or she”, “(s)he” and “he/she” that have been promoted in the name of gender equality. In some cases, using “one” works better, but not always. For example, one could say “If there’s a person out there that disagrees with me, they can post a reply to this message.”

  74. Pronouns in Chinese: ISTR that those Chinese ideograms for gendered pronouns were in fact introduced in order to translate Western works.

    In Egan’s Diaspora, those characters were not merely genderless, but “virtual” — essentially software-based. The “v” pronouns flow more smoothly than many of the alternatives. Perhaps one could use an “x” series for those who are definitely gendered, but outside the usual binary.

  75. Yo! Yeeks. The folks who wrote that article about Baltimore kids “inventing a promoun” seem to have totally missed that whole intarwebs thing. A quick google of the term “yo” includes:

    - Ne-Yo, recording artist active since 1999
    - Chris Brown’s song “Yo” from 2005
    - Yo! (!!!) MTV Raps, which just recently had a 20th anniversary

    Jeebus. Talk about lazy researchers. Urban kids been usin’ Yo for at least two decades–even MTV knows that. Those folks need to climb out of their ivory towers.

    Oh, and, yo’ mama. (That would be an inclusive yo, to mean whichever you are, your mama, too.)


  76. I think they were aware of the several uses of “yo,” bitfidget. They were discussing this specific use, which had not otherwise been documented.

  77. Returning to this topic, let me urge y’all (in fact, all y’all) not to use “herm” as a genderless pronoun. I urge this in the Strongest Possible Terms. If you don’t know why, consult a good dictionary. Or a book about Greek statuary.

  78. Actually, I have a hermaphrodite character by the name of Jacy who prefers to not choose identifying with either gender.

    I always refer to them as ‘they’ or ‘them’, because, yes, I agree that using ‘it’ seems demeaning. I refer to objects and animals that I don’t know the gender of yet as ‘it’.

    ‘It’ seems best left to the inanimate.

  79. The problem is, when you get to his/hers, no matter what letter you start with, you have to do either (eg. ‘kis’ or ‘kers’ which puts a definitive bias on the gender.

  80. In the furry fandom we mostly use a pronoun that combinds the sexes Male and Female as of

    Male: he/him/his

    Hermafrodite: shi/shir/hirs

    Female: she/her/hers

    Transgenders/sexshifters: hy/hym/hys

    I may be late but I come with some thing that has is printed in the Furry and Manga/hentai sub cults!

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