Tue
Jun 3 2014 1:00pm

Post-Binary Gender in SF: ExcitoTech and Non-Binary Pronouns

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Last week I was interviewed with Tori Truslow at a meeting of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), where we discussed many topics, including post-binary gender. Towards the end, an audience member asked (and I paraphrase): “How can non-binary gender be written with pronouns that aren’t clunky?” A month or two ago, I was in a conversation about non-binary pronouns on Twitter, when an author talked about the prosody of pronouns and the danger of jolting readers out of the text.

I want to talk about this.

The problem is, of course, unfamiliarity. In English, we’re used to two gender pronouns. We’re used to two genders, until we learn better. Non-binary gender and pronouns are unfamiliar to many people. The problem is culture(s)-wide, not individual—but only individuals can change a culture-wide problem.

We—you—need to learn better.

You need to learn not to be jolted out of the text by singular “they” as a personal pronoun (and its usage in sentences: “they are”/“they is,” etc). You need to learn familiarity with Spivak pronouns. You need to accept that there are more English-language pronouns than “she” and “he,” whether or not you’ve encountered them before. There are a lot. Wikipedia provides a useful introduction.

Non-binary gender exists—it is not new, it is not confined to people in one cultural or linguistic group. Non-binary pronouns are in use by real people. The future, whether it incorporates non-binary gender(s) or goes beyond the binary—and it will do one, or both, of these things, in reflection of the reality of non-binary gender—will see shifts in language. It is absurd for science fiction not to reflect this. It is especially absurd in a genre used to language invented for the story.

I don’t intend to draw a direct equivalence between race and non-binary/post-binary gender in SFF, but I do think it’s useful to consider Junot Diáz’s excellent statement, that:

“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”

Science fiction and fantasy are full of words invented for the story—whether conlangs, words for technological advancements that don’t currently exist, words for magic—and these are accepted by almost all readers as long as context or an explanation makes their meaning clear. Readers expect a certain amount of unfamiliar language. Put non-binary pronouns in, pronouns that are real and used by real people, and suddenly it’s clunky.

I know, I know: not everyone likes all of the invented words in SFF. Tech-related vocabulary has a tendency to swiftly fall out of date. Not every conlanger has a sound grasp of linguistics.

You might not like the Elvish, but Spanish is a real language spoken by real people. They’re not the same.

You might not like the “iBrains” and “ExcitoTech” and badly-devised alien conlang, but singular “they” and Spivak pronouns and even invented-for-the-story pronouns express gender(s) that exist in reality. They’re not the same.

SFF is about invention and change, yes, but it is rooted in the real: in people. It ought to reflect that better. Conlangs are fun, but not if readers reject real languages. ExcitoTech is fun, but not if readers reject the words used to describe people of real genders. Having fun at the expense—the exclusion—of real people is not actually fun. Here’s a radical idea: we can have ExcitoTech AND non-binary pronouns. All we have to do is learn to read “invented” pronouns as the real words they are.

If non-binary pronouns don’t “flow” in the prose, that’s a problem with the readers, not the writer—with cultures where non-binary pronouns are not yet normalised.

The readers—we—you—need to get used to non-binary pronouns, because it’s the only way to the future.

Getting Used To Non-Binary Pronouns: A Starter Kit

In the interest of normalising the usage of non-binary pronouns in SFF, I’d like to point readers to several examples of writing that uses non-binary pronouns: a starter kit, if you will. This is not a definitive list, just 4 examples of writing with 4 different pronouns that I had to hand.

1) Melissa Scott, Shadow Man (1995)

“The Old Dame—Lolya Masani, ðe owns the company—doesn’t approve,” Reiss said. “Partly it’s ðe doesn’t want us getting in bad with either Customs or IDCA—there’s some stuff, semi-recreational, that we export that’s strictly controlled in the Concord, and Customs could make life very hard for us if they wanted—and partly ðe doesn’t like the idea.” He grinned suddenly. “ðe’s got this tape ðe gives to every newcomer, where ðe lays down the law to them. No new drugs unless ðe clears them, and absolutely no trade. ðe’ll fire anyone who sells a permit or a residency. And ðe’s done it, too.”

2) Nancy Kress, “My Mother, Dancing” in Asimov’s Science Fiction (2000) (reprinted in Aliens: Recent Encounters)

“But... oh! Listen. Did they just say—”

Hirs turned slowly toward the holocube.

Harrah said at the same moment, through hirs tears, “They stopped dancing.”

Cal said, “Repeat that,” remembered hirself, and moved into the transmission field, replacing Harrah. “Repeat that, please, Seeding 140. Repeat your last transmission.”

3) Benjanun Sriduangkaew, “Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade” in Clarkesworld Magazine (2013)

“Why am I required? It is no trouble to flatten Tiansong.”

Isren has knelt so they are level; they have a trick of arranging their bearing and their limbs so that the difference in height doesn’t intimidate. “A bloodless solution is sought.”

“There are other Tiansong personnel in active service.”

When Isren smiles there’s something of the flirt in the bend of their mouth. “None so brilliant as you. Xinjia of Pale Cascade is a labyrinthine opponent. She has brought awareness of the public sync to her world and had the opportunity to spread the idea before we imposed embargo. She boasts… disconnect. In essence she’s become an infection.”

“Has she achieved it? Disconnect?”

4) Seth Dickinson, “Sekhmet Hunts the Dying Gnosis: A Computation” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (2014)

And Sekhmet wants to tell Coeus that this myth of algorithms ze offered to her was the best and closest to the truth, for it is a wonder to her to be named so well by something so small.

“We failed,” Coeus whispers. “The singularity stumbled before takeoff. We cannot find an end to your hunt, a way to set you at peace. The failure may run deep, into the very algorithms... we cannot calculate the way forward. I came to plead—”

“Set offers sterile fruit,” rumbles Sekhmet. “He failed you. I am the way. I compute the future of all life and matter and time.”

“We had found a way between you,” Coeus insists, struggling as if by formality in her grip, aware, perhaps, of what awaits. Always aware. “If only the algorithms could be reconciled. If only the hunt could end.”


Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld, Interfictions Online, Gigantic Worlds, Solaris Rising 3 and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (forthcoming in late 2014).

43 comments
Scott Silver
1. hihosilver28
I think some of the problem for post-binary pronouns is that there isn't a standardized set. It's going to be jarring for readers as they go between even the four example books that you listed. Or at least it would be for me. I would have to readjust each time. I know that a standardized set won't exist until non-gendered writing and awareness in the culture is greater, but it's difficult to make it greater when there are so many different ways to write non-gendered pronouns, without a standard. (I really don't like the first example. Mainly because I have no idea how in the heck to pronounce that word)

Anyway, that's just my thoughts on non-gendered pronouns and a possible reason as to the difficulty to proliferate them.
Zoe W
2. Wolverina
Bloody good point Alex.

Bloody terrible point person that beat me to commenting first.
Sunshine
3. Sunshine
@Wolverina

Why is that a terrible point? I think standardization will help a lot, too. I'm glad Alex wrote this article, and I hope more people will realize there are non-binary people (plenty of them) out there, and that they should appear in and star in genre fiction, too.
Alex Dally MacFarlane
4. Alex Dally MacFarlane
I'm a fan of there being more than one pronoun: "non-binary" is an umbrella term rather than a descriptor of a single gender, which means that a single pronoun is unlikely to suit all.

In SF, using multiple pronoun systems across multiple cultures/species (once we include aliens) makes a lot of sense: it neatly expresses linguistic and cultural differences. In day-to-day usage, I expect we'll see one or two pronouns settle out as the mainstream additions to "she" and "he" ("they" is a strong contendor, perhaps followed by Spivak).

Adjusting to pronunciations and multiplicity just needs to happen.
Sunshine
5. Crane
I think it's certainly fair to say that readers should get used to non-binary pronouns.

On the other hand, I think that when your non-binary pronoun is "ðe", you're being actively unpleasant to your readers. How exactly do I pronounce that? "eth-ee"? "eeth"? "edhay"? Something else? I couldn't even make a guess before I looked up the character to remind myself what the hell ð was.
JoeNotCharles
6. JoeNotCharles
I write with "they". I don't care what I see when I read, as long as it's not "he" intended to be gender-neutral, because honestly, you can tell what a pronoun means by its place in the sentence structure, whether it's a commonly used pronoun or something the author made up. I've never been confused about the meaning of a non-binary pronoun even the very first time I saw them with no warning whatsoever.
Scott Silver
7. hihosilver28
@Wolverina
Why is that a terrible point? I completely agree with Alex that people need to accustom themselves to non-binary pronouns. I also feel that having a non-standardized set can make that difficult. "He" and "She" (and the sets that go along with them) are universally acknowledged. There isn't a universally acknowledged set for non-binary pronouns.

@Alex Dally MacFarlane
If you have multiple words for non-binary gender that would apply themselves to various situations, wouldn't they have multiple definitions? Would you mind giving me some other examples besides the gender-neutral?
Sunshine
8. Ginger
I don't have a problem with any of the non-binary terms; as pointed out, we're used to non-English languages, futuristic terminology, and the like in our F/SF books -- why is a pronoun so difficult to accept? I vote for a diversity of pronouns in our books, to match the diversity in other F/SF words that we routinely accept as part of our reading.
Christopher Andrews
9. DrBlack
I found the tone of the article a little confrontational. As the author says -- the pronouns aren't normalized. The words not flowing is not a problem with the reader, it is a problem with the language. There is something like five or six different approaches just in the article, and few more in the referenced pages. So, how can non-binary gender be written with pronouns that aren't clunky? They can't. Our options right now are synthetic pronouns with no widespread acceptance, or the seemingly more accepted use of singular they, which works in many instances, but is jarring in others ("they is").

I will agree that within a book, if you can accept made-up words, you should also be able to accept made up pronouns (or uncommon ones), but that won't make them less clunky, that is just saying it should belong to a class of similarly clunky things that most readers seem to be able to deal with. I hung out on MOOs back in the day -- I got used to Spivak, but it took a while.

In truth, this is a problem that goes beyond writing fiction or even non-binary gender. English is in need of a gender neutral pronoun in general. As a professor who lectures and writes papers in a technical field, I can't make words up. I could get away with alterative pronouns during lectures, but I certainly can't use them in my writing. It is a bug in English. I'm sure that it will eventually sort itself out through colloquial drift. Judging by the current drift, it will probably be the singular 'they', which will have the unfortunate side effect of making the language more ambiguous, but it is the only one that I see getting any regular use.
Luis Milan
11. LuisMilan
Of course this problem will repeat itself when you translate these stories from English to another language where there's no neutral plural (as in Spanish with "ellos" / "ellas" that's used for male and female plurals).
Sunshine
10. Amblemorn
Great post. IME, it's easy enough to juggle unlimited variations of non-binary pronouns in fiction (as a reader) or in writing (e.g. composing an email or a tweet that refers to a person who prefers a certain NBP). On the fiction point, in SFF, it makes even more sense to create new ones as that's what art is all about. I can't see the logic in limiting that. There's a poetry in it, and fiction has a long, rich tradition of using "unfamiliar" words the reader isn't sure how to pronounce.

But for all of this, I agree with Alex's comment in the tread that *spoken* pronouns will probably settle on just one or two varients because we actually think differently when we talk (rather than read or write) and speech is so fast. It's definitely getting tricky learning every declension for the 8+ variants preferred by people in my life--everyone prefers something different, and tripping up is amplified as speakers (1) try to remember who prefers what NBP and (2) how to decline all the forms. The closer we are to that person, the easier it is (becomes routine faster) but not everyone is an "everday" person in our lives, and that's what memory can fail. I'm looking forward to the day when using NBPs comes second-nature for the whole population, and standard speech pronouns will help this process, IMO.
Sunshine
12. Latrani
@Sunshine

People don't really expect standardization on other identity factors though, like names, so why expect it here? Come up with as many different standardized categories as you can, and I could find you someone who doesn't fit into one of them.

To me, what we need is actually simpler than standardization, it's just visibility. Most people don't fret much when someone has a name they've never heard before, because variation is expected there. I'd like to think we could get to the same point with pronouns.
Sunshine
13. Latrani
@DrBlack

Quick side note; I've never really heard anyone seriously suggest 'they is', usually 'they' goes with the same verb conjugations it always does, we already say 'you are' so 'they are' for singular doesn't seem that unreasonable.

I hadn't thought about your point about academia, but it's a good one. There are certainly places where a standardized 'gender not specified' pronoun would be really helpful, so I'd love to see one for that reason alone. But individual people would still likely desire to use others. ;)
Sunshine
14. Latrani
Also, while I'm on a posting spree, may I suggest an addition to the list? :)

5) Greg Egan, Distress
I turned. The speaker was a … twentyish? asex? Ve tipped vis head and smiled, teeth flashing white against deep black skin, eyes as dark as Gina's, high cheekbones which had to be a woman's—except, of course, they didn't. Ve was dressed in black jeans and a loose black T-shirt; points of light appeared on the fabric sparsely, at random, as if it was meant to be displaying some kind of image, but the data feed had been cut.
(Also used, more extensively, in Diaspora)
Scott Silver
15. hihosilver28
@Latrani
I like what you said in your comments, though I do disagree with your initial statement "People don't really expect standardization on other identity factors though, like names, so why expect it here?", because pronouns is the one place where people do expect standardization (in the largely binary world). I think that a standardized NBP set would assist the largely binary world start to notice and accept those who are not binary.
Sunshine
16. Latrani
@hihosilver28

I think I see what you mean there, yeah. Do see my comment to DrBlack where I think standardization is useful. I suppose in general I'd say a standard gender-neutral pronoun is necessary, but not sufficient. :)
Sunshine
17. Sunshine
@Latrani

"Most people don't fret much when someone has a name they've never heard before, because variation is expected there."

I don't want to remove the focus of this conversation from non-binary pronouns, but I do have to take issue with the above. My real name is not Jim or Sarah or anything "normal," and I get a hell of a lot of ugly reactions to it. Variation from Western names (even sometimes within Western choices) is anything but welcome with a lot of Western people.

That said, your other point is something I'll chew on.
Sunshine
18. Latrani
@Sunshine

Thanks for pointing that out, that sort of situation had actually crossed my mind when writing and I hoped it'd be safe to qualify to 'most people'. Sorry to hear that most people aren't as reasonable as I'd hoped, and sorry to hear it hits you personally. :\
Jonas Schmiddunser
19. Jineapple
I agree with hihosilver. Widespread usage won't work without standardization. Most likely it will be the other way around - increased usage will result in one or two sets of pronouns being used, with others fading in importance, but an agreement upon one (or a few, if one turns out to be too much of an umbrella term) would speed that process up.
Comparing names to pronouns is off, one is meant to be individual, the other is not.
And while readers while get a hang of the pronouns you use quickly enough no matter if you just made them up on the spot or use one of the existing sets, imho that's a misuse of language. If you use a neologism, there should be a reason for it, and having dozens of different pronouns for the same meaning because we can't agree on one isn't one (in a literary sense).
Morgan Nichols
20. Latrani
@Jineapple
Comparing names to pronouns is off, one is meant to be individual, the other is not.
That's where our opinions differ, I guess. :)
Deana Whitney
22. Braid_Tug
@ hihosilver & Jinapple:
"Widespread usage won't work without standardization."
If we were talking about formal writing, or everyday usage in our day to day lives, I agree. If English drifts to include them, great.

But why should a reader expect standardization in their books about made up worlds?

We adapt to the 20+ words used to reference what 21st century people would call a computer. We adapt to learning the word used to describe the alien culture encountered - be they insects, fish, or energy beings. It's called a glossary or an in book learning exchange.

So since there is no current standardization the current English language, why should we ask authors of greatly different types of fiction to agree to pick one and use it? I've just finished reading all the Hugo nominees for best novel - wide net of styles. I dealt with the made up words each one used.

The one that bugged me the most? "She" for a CULTURE that did not recognize gender. IMO, a culture of that nature would “translate” their pronouns into something different than modern English “he / she.”
Any of the above examples would have worked: vir, hir, de, etc...

And Stross really missed an opportunity to use a gender neutral in his meta-humans.
Scott Silver
23. hihosilver28
@Braid_Tug
You have a very valid point. I think of it in the terms of everyday life and usage, not in SF/F. In those terms, yeah there's no reason that an author has to use a specific set of non-binary pronoun terms for their stories. And I completely agree with you in regards to Ancillary Justice and Stross's novels. But I didn't love AJ like everyone else seemed to. Just some story tics that I couldn't get behind. All that said, most of my reading has been solely in a gender binary sense, and it's been good for me to expand my horizons to worlds that don't exist in a solely binary gender world.
Eric McCabe
24. Zizoz
It's been pointed out to me that, at least for some people, learning new pronouns is considerably harder than learning new nouns or verbs. Even so, I agree that we ought to accept new pronouns in SFF. Imagining different ways language can work seems to me completely in line with the point of SFF.

In regards to the real life situation, I suspect (but note, I am not a linguist, or an expert in any relevant field) that there is a cognitive purpose to having a limited number of noun classes, making "everyone chooses their own pronoun" ultimately unviable. I think the appropriate reaction to realizing that there are an infinite number of variations on gender is thus not to invent an infinite number of pronouns, but to give up the one-to-one correspondence between pronouns and gender. One option would be to refer to everyone as "they". The other, which seems more likely to happen, is to add some number of new pronouns. I think the optimal number of such is one.

Note that I do not count singular they as a new pronoun. It should continue to be used for persons of indefinite gender, as it has been since 1375 (per the Oxford English Dictionary). It might be necessary to extend this usage a bit, but it's worth having a separate nonbinary pronoun, so as not to imply that nonbinary people's genders are unknown, or that a person of unknown gender is nonbinary.
Sunshine
25. Alf
This is probably a stupid question but what happened to "it"? Is that not a gender neutral pronoun? Perhaps folk get their feathers ruffled because it could be seen as 'objectifying'? Wouldn't it be just as effective to recondition society to remove any negative stigma attached to "it" as it would be to invent new language?
Sunshine
26. Angiportus
What Alf just said. The stigma needs to come off "it". Even while new pronouns can be added. And "they" still comes in handy in a lot of places.
The day I worked up the nerve to use "it" for a non-binary-gendered being, instead of either standard one, I felt like a great weight had been lifted off me.
I think part of the problem people have with "it" is the attitude that inanimate things are somehow "mere" and unworthy. As a things-and-ideas person, I ran afoul of that one early on and it was not pleasant. People who devalue the things I like are devaluing my good taste, and thus devaluing me. I eventually figured it out--things are strong, having no feelings , and people are delicate, so if I just treat people right, I can like things all I want. Okay, it's not quite that simple; basically it's how much brains you put into whatever you are getting into. I've seen enough people buy crap they don't need to impress people who don't deserve to be impressed. But a fine craftsperson, or an appreciator of good art or engineering, need not be ashamed of the strength of their feelings. And I've about gotten to the point where I just don't do "mere".
It still jars me, though, when some Victorian writer refers to a child, not just a baby, as "it". Like somebody is/was being hypocritical or something, filling the air with all this stuff about nature and life being more noble than machines or something, and then calling some kid an "it".
I say the more choices the better.
Sunshine
27. Jim Henry III
My own preference is for singular "they". I've tried to analyze why the various neologistic gender-neutral pronoun sets feel awkward to me, more so than many neologisms of other kinds even though I intellectually agree with most of the stuff Alex has been saying in her posts, and I think it comes down to the difference between open classes and closed classes, in the linguistic sense.

Any given language has one or more closed classes, into which new words are coined or borrowed only very rarely, and one or more open classes, in which new coinages and borrowings are routine. In English, the open classes are traditionally nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and maybe interjections, while conjunctions, articles, and pronouns are closed classes. In Japanese, if I understand correctly, pronouns are an open class. But this difference between open and closed classes may explain why people are more open to neologisms of some parts of speech than others.

Maybe it would be good to try to modify English so pronouns are an open class, like in Japanese. But it would be much bigger and more difficult change than coining hundreds of new nouns or verbs. And maybe getting one new set of gender-neutral pronouns widely accepted -- the Spivak set, for instance -- would be hugely easier than making pronouns and open class and letting people coin more continuously.
Sunshine
28. Xomic
At one point during your post, you tell us that being 'jolted' out of the writing is the fault of the reader, not the writer, since it's the reader who's unfamiliar with the pronouns... yet, in the four examples you give each and everyone of them is clunky and awkward.

Painfully so.

I had to look up the first letter in the first 'non-gender pronoun' you quote, as did another reader; not only is it problematic on the face of it that I had to do research to figure out this non-standard english character, it's using characters not even used in modern English. That's just bad writing.

The second is awkward too; while I've seen 'hir' tossed around, I've never seen 'hirs' used before. It looks like a possesive pronoun, yet it's not being used as such.

Moreover, I don't think it's unfair to say that the same criticism I raised about the first example is true of pronouns trying to make use of 'z' or 'x', which are the least used letters in the english language. For such rare letters, it's odd that certain authors insist on using them for pronouns.

While I agree that, if used continually, people will get familiar with the pronouns and eventually come to use them, the problem is that there is no way of generating any sort of familiarity with a pronoun. Everyone seems to think they can (and should) pull out some new set of gender-neutral pronouns for the usage in their story, and it doesn't strike me as particularly appealing that have to familarize myself with a new pronoun sets everytime I open a new book or short story. Despite the comparsion you draw between them and conlangs/made up words, they're actually quite different and more disruptive. Pronouns are, in a sense, more fundamental to any language any nouns or verbs are, which is why they have their own grammarical term. English, like most languages, is capable of expanding one's volcabularies in those areas, but not necessarily in areas like pronouns or articles-- which is why you'll probably never see people making up new indefinite articles, for example.

I'm not saying that gender neutral/non-binary pronouns have no place or shouldn't exist, but if they're going to exist, they have to be A) common sense based, following the conventions and traditions of English, or they won't mesh well and B) standard across the board.
Birgit
29. birgit
ð is the phonetic symbol for a voiced th. Using it in a pronoun is not a good idea when it is not on most people's keyboard.

It still jars me, though, when some Victorian writer refers to a child, not just a baby, as "it".

In German das (it) is the normal pronoun for Kind (child) (and for Mädchen (girl)!).

Pronouns are always a closed class. Japanese has more than languages like English and there is no grammatical difference between nouns and pronouns, but there is still a limited set.
Chris Meadows
30. Robotech_Master
Little surprised to see no mention here of "shi" and "hir," another set of hermaphrodite pronouns that have been used on the Internet, in roleplay and stories (for example, the "Chakona Space" shared universe setting (warning, probably not work-safe) which has been ongoing since 1995). They're just as much a part of the Internet's non-binary gender heritage as Spivak.

Frankly I'm also a little surprised that the Internet's non-binary gender history hasn't been addressed in any of the articles in this series so far (apart from that mention of Spivak), at least that I've noticed. It's nice to see it get representation in published works, of course, but the Internet is where non-binary gender has lived and breathed and thrived where it couldn't in the real world, ever since the first scattered and isolated LGBT folks started coming on-line and realizing, "Oh my God, I'm not alone!"

There have been stories and stories and stories written exploring questions of gender identity, non-binary gender, dual gender, and so on. Most of them will never show up in a book, and, granted, many of them are poorly-written, but that doesn't make them any less real, or less enjoyable for the people who write and read them. To concentrate on just those few works that make it into print is to miss out on a considerable amount of non-binary gender's heritage.
Sunshine
31. Leehallfae
Might I point out that some languages such as Thai have a complicated set of personal pronouns relating to social status, and often in personal communications, don't actually use pronouns at all?

Now I've set the pigeon among the cats, might I refer to one David Lindsay, which I see you have no knowledge of whatever ....
Then he experienced another surprise, for this person, although clearly a human being, was neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but was unmistakably of a third positive sex, which was remarkable to behold and difficult to understand. In order to translate into words the sexual impression produced in Maskull's mind by the stranger's physical aspect, it is necessary to coin a new pronoun, for none in earthly use would be applicable. Instead of "he," "she," or "it," therefore "ae" will be used.
...
As he continued staring into those strange, archaic eyes, he had an intuitive feeling that aer lover was no other than Shaping himself. It came to him that the design of this love was not the continuance of the race but the immortality on earth of the individual. No children were produced by the act; the lover aerself was the eternal child. Further, ae sought like a man, but received like a woman. All these things were dimly and confusedly expressed by this extraordinary being, who seemed to have dropped out of another age, when creation was different.
Pamela Adams
32. Pam Adams
I can remember when 'Ms.' was considered clunky,unusable, and unpronounceable. Now, it's a commonplace word.

The singular 'they' grates on my sensibilites. However, if that's what works in the end for most people, I will gladly give up 'she or he' in a heartbeat.
Michael Grosberg
33. Michael_GR
"They" is confusing. "ze" reminds me too much of its german origin and whenever I read it I can't help but imagine a Hollywood villain with a bad german accent.
ð is not even a valid English letter. With all due repsect I don't think a gender neutral pronoun is such an outlandish concept as to necessitate the insertion of a new letter ot the alphabet.

Xe and Zhe both work for me in a written text. Both are based on the same template used for the male and female pronouns (as opposed to the spivak "ey"). I'm not sure how "xe" is pronounced, so I guess Zhe is my favorite so far as a sound, but I wouldn't mind if it were prnounced zhe and written as xe.
Theresa Wymer
34. Tekalynn
@33: The edh and thorn letters used to be part of our alphabet. I see no reason we shouldn't reintroduce them. They are used for voiced and unvoiced "th" respectively.
Sunshine
35. Rose Lemberg
1. It is up to nonbinary people to choose which pronouns to use. With all respect to binary-gendered female and male commenters, it is not about the comfort of the binary-gendered people. Yes, the world is mostly binary, and yes, I know the argument goes that if non-binary people want recognition, they need to find a way to make the binary people comfortable. But - and this is crucial - the world is already vastly more comfortable to binary than to nonbinary people. Binary people have to deal with adjusting their language. Nonbinary people have to deal with verbal and physical violence, unwanted questions, erasure, and discrimination at the workplace, to name but a few.

2. Standardization does not exist in English. There is no Supreme and Utterly Respected Academy of All the English Languages as they are Spoken that unifies things like pronoun usage across many variants of English, and which would dictate to authors How to Write. The absence of such an academy is actually excellent: this means that writers of various Englishes have a much greater flexibility, freedom of expression, and potential for expressing variation than they would have if a standardizing authority existed. Pronouns are only a small subset of the variable usages in the range of Englishes people speak and write around the world.

To demand that nonexistent standartization be applied for the pronouns only is naïve at best.

3. Yes, some things are more malleable in language than others; pronouns are less malleable than nouns as a class. But that does not make them a closed class. If you look at the evolution of the Proto-Indo-European pronoun system from where it began to where it is now, in various modern Indo-European languages, you will see both stability AND changes in pronominal inventory. Most strikingly, while Proto-Indo-European had a first and second person pronoun, it did NOT, in fact, have a third person pronoun . Demonstratives ('this, that') were used instead. The history of gender distinction in PIE demonstratives is extremely interesting, and outside the scope of a blog comment.

Pragmatically motivated systemic changes in the pronominal system are possible. English, famously, drifted away from separate singular and plural 2nd person pronouns to a 'you' that can contextually be understood as both singular and plural. As a learner of English coming from another Indo-European language that has not lost this distinction (Russian), I found this confusing. Those who find the singular usage of "they" confusing may be able to relate.

I learned to deal with the dual usage of "you". I am sure you can learn to deal with the dual usage of "they", especially as the singular "they" is extremely well documented in English.

4. Written pronouns, invented or otherwise, are not as huge an issue as some people think it is. Emotional fear of unfamiliarity interferes with learning. If you are told that it is extremely difficult to study foreign languages, or math, you internalize it, and it will become extremely difficult for you to do so. However, left to their own devices, brains are incredibly flexible and fast when it comes to learning. Brains have an incredible ability to decipher text from cues (* - there are exceptions - e.g. given dyslexia, autism, and other neuroatypicalities, processing may be different). As a rule, we don't usually, as adult readers, spell each word letter-by-letter as we read it; our brains recognize forms of words as they decode meanings. After a page or two of unfamiliar pronouns, your brain will adjust and your reading will be smooth - unless you emotionally prime yourself that this particular feature of the text is making you uncomfortable. In other words, your brain will take over and make your reading experience comfortable regardless of unfamiliar features - unless you convince it not to do this.

It was harder for me to get used to Ann Leckie's "she" (a gender-marked pronoun in Engish, used in the novel supposedly neutrally) in a universe where the narrator absolutely was invested in paying at least some attention to people's assignment; it was jarring for me as a reader to need to pay attention to assignment despite the narrator's protestations to the contrary. (I loved the book otherwise.)

@robotech_master: I appreciated your comment. I would love to read more about the issue of nonbinary pronouns online. Do you have any links to writeups or similar I could look at?
Birgit
36. birgit
Closed class doesn't mean that the language can never change, just that it is a limited set at a specific time and changes more slowly. You can't say there is a specific number of nouns in a language, but you can list all the pronouns. Closed class words usually have grammatical functions, while open classes are content words.
Sunshine
37. Ondrej
(As I am non-english speaker and as my English can be improved only by reading or writing on the Internet, I apologise in advance for mistakes made in my post)

And again I am coming back to asking - what about translations to other languages? As I've pointed out in my previous comment, I would love to read more SF/F in my native language, but some of these examples don't really work in Czech. I've read your previous discussion with authors originating from non-English languages and found it really good, so I was hoping for some more investigation going in that way.
And by the way, I don't think I've knew about Hungarian language composition, I've just knew, it's completly different from anything else (besides Finnish) on European continent. I guess we are not learning much about our near neighbors language, if we are both countries with under 10 mil people speaking it.
The problem with SF/F literature is that our small markets allow for maybe one or two major writers to be able to focus on their writing. I know only about Jiri Kulhanek, who can just sit back and collect royalties and Alraune, who went from fan writer and journalist in local fetish scene to full blown writer. But Alraune can do that in part, because her husband owns the biggest SM club in country and Jiri Kulhanek is our biggest name, often called The Master, he was the first big writer in SF/F after Velvet Revolution who made it big.
I was trying to show you, that our writers don't really have time and focus to produce a lot of good books, because they have to work their normal jobs, income from writing is secondary (albeit a welcome one), so the only reliable source of good books are translations from English.
And to be honest our translators are beginning to suck. Years ago translating books was a job for professional translator, language expert and such, but now publisher are paying microscopic fees to students to translate books for them. And quality of translations is deteorating. And if you throw new pronouns, these green translators would have to INVENT the grammar around them. Because our language structure is very simmilar to Russian and that means everythign is gendered. And that would hurt translation even more. And of course it would hurt sales, which means the same publisher would probably not picked the same writer again, which would meant there would be no more books about non-binary gendered characters my little brother (he told me to call him "him" in Czech and who I am to argue with him) could relate to. Even now he complains about that.
But he's not really able to read anything in English without use of dictionary, so he has to wait for translations to come out. And we are back at the cycle.
Sunshine
38. mkesctt
As the person who originally asked Alex at BSFA meeting how to use non binary gendered pronouns i am really glad this debate has got going. Though at the time i generally meant to ask it as a technical writing question, as a way of not jolting the reader out of a story and that makes using non gendered pronouns sound not only natural to the reader, but also as invisible as using 'he' or 'she' to describe someone.

The clunkiness that i was talking about occurs a lot in SF/fantasy because writers by their nature end up using a lot of newly made up words and concepts, ('the cathedral of Azzzshrah, past the wood of Krruh' etc) and the trick of truly great SF is to use these in a way that impresses the reader but also very quickly feels natural.

It is hard to do, one of the great stylistic strengths of the novel clockwork orange is that although when you read the first page it feels like an alien language within the first chapter it all makes perfect sense, and then you stop noticing the individual words. the same is true in books like 1984, and maybe brave new world as well - new phrases and words are coined, and then they enter common language.
If anything that is surely the point of good SF - to take concepts that are new to people and present them to people in a way that makes them feel natural. I really do hope that SF/ fantasy writers can do this with non gendered pronouns in English, because there are still more than a few people out there who have a hard time getting their head around the idea that you can't just reduce people down to birth defined 'he' or 'she'.
Sunshine
39. Lenora Rose
Hi. I'm a cis female who uses the pronoun she.

A thing I have observed is that, all the protestations above to the contrary, the vast majority of invented pronouns follow very closely on the standard usage forms for he/she (De is cuddling des cat while it tries to keep dei from typing on the computer...). The main exception is the singular they, which usually works like the plural (Or like the singular you) instead, and since we already learned that particular set of rules, it's not a painful variation.

When it's done in parallel to an extant pronoun, as it usually is, a non-binary really is easy to learn. In one sentence above, I just provided ALL the information needed to absorb that new pronoun for the next 300 pages of a novel, with the POSSIBLE exception of how to pluralize two non-binaries, and for that, you can use... the plural they.

Incidentally, I read Shadow Man within the last year. Reading a paragraph out of context (And followed by several different examples) may feel jarring, but it was not in the book. Really, within a few pages, they go nigh-invisible, same as other pronouns, except you slot characters into three or four columns instead of two.
Tasha Turner
40. TashaT
Fantastic post Alex. Thanks for reading recommendations.

I've been using they instead of he/she possibly since pre-1985 and I've had few complaints outside of teachers/professors. In reading Ancillary Justice it took a chapter to adjust to "she" as the default and I'd had no warning as I received a review copy months before it was released. I might be an unusually versatile reader although I don't think so. I don't remember much about AJ. I wasn't bowled over by it. I'll be rereading for Hugo voting.

I find all these complaints at how difficult dealing with new pronouns is/would be in SFF kinda.... when I think about all the different words and worlds I deal with all the time. Robert Jordan and David Weber - trying to keep track of characters, titles, geography, magic/technology, all the new and strange words between just the two might be 500+ and reading the series at the same time... Yet somehow people manage not only to keep track but to complain about author (perceived?) inconsistencies across the series (for Jordan ~3 million words).

Outside the US most people learn 2-4 languages as kids. In the US we maybe take a couple years of a foreign language in HS and many don't know that English is different (words, spelling, punctuation) depending on what country you are in so technically we don't know are own language all that well. Elvish and Vulcan are fun; non-binary not so much? When I was first getting back into SFF in my 30s I complained a lot about all the strange words but as I continued reading I adjusted... Well I still complain when 500+ page novels have people referred to by names, titles, and nicknames for some 100+ characters but the strange words and weird spelling and fake languages - yeah I'm good with that. I even look forward to new worlds which means learning more of all that stuff.

@Rose L - great points. English is an amalgamated mess. Learning it as a second language I'm told is a nightmare as we import so many words from other languages and have more exceptions to rules than most languages. And yes the non-binary should get final say in which words will be chosen if life were fair...

@Ondrej - translations always are problematic. Non-binary is a discussion happening outside of the US/Englush speaking world from what I hear and a number of languages have non-gender pronouns. I'm Jewish but can't read Hebrew. When studying Jewish text I try to have multiple translations so I get a better sense of the words. Many non-English speakers have some English so if they want more accuracy they might want to read a book in both languages - native and English. Making a decision to ignore a discriminated against group because "translations" would be to ignore people's real pain and hurt and to continue to magrinalize them IMHO.

@Lenora R - loved your example :D
Ian Gazzotti
41. Atrus
Late to the party but I had 2 cents to throw in...

I learned English as a second language, and my primary language is highly gendered (nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc. are all binary identified), so I once used to agree with Alf@25: English already has a third-person neutral pronoun that is widely used and taught in schools, so it seemed kinda odd not use that, or build upon it, rather than creating new pronouns from scratch.
I can obviously see, however, how people would not like to be lumped in with inanimate objects and animals - repurposing "it" in the collective mind would require just as much effort as instroducing a wholly new pronoun.

Nowadays I just try to go with the flow, though the overabundance of options is what's making this difficult.
Adjusting to a single set of pronouns inside a single novel is fine (though, if there is a flow problem, I *do* blame the writer, like I would with any made-up word or language: words are their craft, not the reader's).
But, since everyone is making up their variant and/or has their singular preference for how to be addressed, it can quickly become dissonant as you move from one article or writer to the next in the span of a single day, or hour.

Personally I prefer to use singular "they" as a generic identifier
(like you would use in a manual) because it's already existing in the English language and, in context, there's minimal loss of information from the plural they.
I respect it as preference or when used to address a specific person, but -especially in FSF- there are several instances where it creates more ambiguity than it resolves.
For example, a review I read used to address GLaDOS (from Portal) as 'they', and several readers of the review thought this meant that GLaDOS was a gestalt entity rather than simply addressed as gender-neutral because of the ambiguity.

On the other hand, if we determine a pronoun to be used to address anyone regardless of gender (rather than just those who do not identify as either he or she), I would like one that has some similarity to what already exists in English.
If someone, unsure of my gender or pronoun preference, addressed me as 've' or 'zie', it would irk me. It's irrational, I know, but to me those pronouns shout gender-other rather than gender-neutral.

tl;dr: lots of questions, little in the way answers, I would like it were easier to make up a gender-neutral pronoun in Italian :)
Steven Lyle Jordan
42. Steven Lyle Jordan
I am simultaneously embarassed that I've spent very little time considering this, and amazed at how many versions of non-binary pronouns have been tried by other writers in the past. I know that, in past writing, I have used "they" when I did not want to specify gender (between male and female); but I've never written a non-binary character, so the need for a new pronoun has never come up. (Something I have to keep in mind for future writing projects.)

Personally, I agree with @35 Rose that it is up to nonbinary people to choose which pronouns to use. I happen to think "Ve" sounds workable, and I could see using that in my writing; but if non-binaries decide they want to use something else, including characters that aren't even easily accessible on my keyboard, who am I to oppose it?

And when a word assumes popular use, and becomes standardized by acceptance in the popular dictionaries, I guess this discussion will be over. The sooner the better.
josie francis
43. josief
Hi : According to a few gender specialists and my own gender study ; baised on mind type body type and love partner / possible baised on phernomes; humans have sixteen, yes 16 genders. Each one totaly seperate from the others , and with a possible five subsets in each. Love Josief
Sunshine
44. sfigato
Late the the game but I wanted to agree with Zizoz that having multiple pronouns for multiple types of non binary genders is not a good idea. I don’t think that kind granularity needs to be represented by a pronoun. “He” refers to anyone who identifies as male, no matter their sex, age, virility, sexual orientation, or how macho they are. A six-week old boy and a sixty-year-old man are both “he.” A manly man’s man who spends all his time shooting guns, watching football, pumping iron, and drinking beer is a he, as is a guy who is a total dandy and who can’t even change a lightbulb.

The very fact that one of the proposed pronouns is unpronounceable and untypeable by most people is symptomatic of one of the big issues that i see around gender identity politics: there is a desire to be included to normalize non-binary and trans genders, but there is also this pull to preserve each persons unique identity and perspective. That’s all well and good, but it is really confusing. In theory I agree with having non-binary people choose the pronoun, but in practicality having 10 different pronouns that people feel really strongly about seems like a non-starter. It also seems to defeat the purpose. If the purpose is to say “non-gender conforming people are around, have been around, and will be around in the future, and we are a part of this culture,” then wouldn’t it make more sense to choose a term like “they” which is already in English and already used as gender-neutral third person, rather than invent a new term that only reinforces the idea that this is new and weird?

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