Monday, December 29, 2014

Those pesky pronouns

A little less than a year ago I was reading Anne Leckie's Ancillary Justice (and if you haven't, you should read it immediately, if not sooner. A lot of people say it starts out slow then proceeds into the breakneck tale of revenge that made it the darling of all. But I'm digressing) and I had this nagging sense that I was missing something, I just couldn't put my finger on what it was exactly. It took Breq explicitly pointing out that personal pronouns were hard for her for me to realize that she was using the same pronoun about all the other characters. My native language, Finnish, has only one pronoun "hän" that is used about everyone. Male, female or in-between. So while my command of the English language is better than some native speakers, I keep getting tripped up on the pronouns. Especially whenever I'm tired I either start mixing them up or just dropping one altogether.

A few weeks ago I took to facebook to note about my slight problem and a friend supplied me with this link: Sex-based and Non-sex-based Gender Systems. It's an interactive map on various languages and the pronouns they use categorized on whether or not they're gender-based. The thing that becomes obvious pretty soon once you start playing around with it is that gender-based pronouns are in the minority.

Map illustrating the prevalence of gendered pronouns across world languages. Image via Wikimedia
This makes me slightly sad. So few speculative fiction titles use the possibilities inherent in the variety of human language. For example in Grebo (a language native to West Africa, roughly speaking Ivory Coast and Liberia) there are four different pronouns, split into two groups; humans and other large, important things and everything else. So, for example a spaceship and a human could be referred to by the same pronouns. And that's just one of the possibilities. Pretty much my favorite possibilities but you know, who's counting?

The few pronoun systems used in fiction that I can think of are all gender-based (with the exception of the Imperial Radch series). Which seems to me very much like a wasted opportunity given the strangeness of all the different kinds of aliens we writers have come up with over the years. In A Fire Upon the Deep the Tines become an actual sentient individual only once four to seven dog-like units form into a group. In the book, the Tines speak in a 20th century American accent, which was apparently a conscious move on Vinge's part, to make it easier to relate to the aliens given how strange they were to begin with. How many other fully fictional, but humanoid races, however culturally and biologically different all nonetheless operate under the same gender-based pronoun system as native English speakers? Why is it naturally assumed that however much languages vary based on culture that all of them would still have the same pronouns?

Probably mostly because it's easy. Some of it may also be about our own blindness to the assumptions we make based on the culture we live come from. I am fully aware that I'm mostly blind to this myself. Until a few weeks ago I couldn't imagine there being a pronoun system that wasn't either based off some definition of gender (which is a whole other post) or a "one pronoun to rule them all" type situation. But I also think it's a colossal waste of potential in terms of reader transportation.

So, given the variety humans can come up with, given their different cultures but biological similarities, what is the pronoun system of your alien race?


  1. Ancillary Justice sounds like an awesome book! And I say this in spite of the fact that I am the lone Proser who doesn't already love space operas. Perhaps this one will change my mind. I'm adding it to my list immediately. Partly just so I can see what you mean when you say she uses the same pronoun to describe all the other characters.

    That is a fascinating graphic. I wouldn't have guessed that it would go that way. I wonder what it would look like if the size of the dots were changed based on the number of people who spoke the language...Very interesting blog post, Nina. Thanks!

  2. Melanie, don't worry about if you hate space operas - it's not one at all. I'm 1/3 of the way through now, and I'm really liking it. Also, I too hate space operas.

    Anyway, I've been meaning to respond to this post for ages. When you first put it up, I spent a very long time staring in fascination at the map, but I love that site, and I need to explore it more SOON. Personally, I've always thought English needs a gender neutral pronoun - and no, "It" doesn't count.

    The only example in media that I can think of where gender pronouns are played with is this one episode/movie of Futurama, "The Beast With a Billion Backs." But that's hardly a serious example. I have to say though, before your review, I'd just started the book and I hadn't noticed yet that everyone in Ancillary Justice was being referred to as a she. The weird thing is how much it bothers me; I'm always trying to guess whether a character is male or female. I'll be interested in continuing to examine my stubbornness while I read the book.

    Awesome post.


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