Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Gender-Neutral Pronouns

In the preproduction stages of the space opera project, I've been reading a lot of novels. Sooner or later I'll post my reading list, when I get it finished (hopefully sometime in April), but the last few months have been a real eye-opener. I've previously mentioned my late discovery of Cordwainer Smith's genius, but that's the tip of the iceberg. I've had loads of hands-t0-forehead, "How long has this been going on?" moments recently. Last week it was Dan Simmons' Hyperion, which ripped the top of my head clean off. The week before it was Iain Banks' The Use of Weapons (I'd read Consider Phlebas years ago, but clearly it was years before I was ready for it, since I recall liking it, but not loving it), which is an almost perfect novel.

In any event, last week I discovered that I adore Greg Egan. I've enjoyed his short stories over the years ("Singleton" and "Oracle" in particular, for reasons that should be apparent to anyone who's read Here, There & Everywhere), but Diaspora was the first of his novels I'd read. It is, in a word, awesome. Mind-expanding stuff, that had the effect of messing with my worldview for a while after I finished reading it. One thing in particular that worked its way into my consciousness was his use of the gender-neutral pronouns ve, ver, and vis, for polis-citizens who are not gendered.

In my in-progress space opera, the probe Xerxes, broadcast back into human space by the Exode at Ka-Band frequencies, doesn't self-identify as either gender. I'd toyed with just referred to Xerxes as "he" and "him," for the sake of convenience, and then thought about using "it" instead, but I wasn't happy with either option. After reading Diaspora, I considered using "ve" and "ver," but wasn't too keen on the idea of ripping off Egan so blatantly.

Well, a bit of googling over the weekend turned up the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ, which in addition to being fascinating reading in and of itself, revealed two interesting tidbits: first, that Egan wasn't the originator of the "ve, ver, vis" pronoun, and second, that there was another pronoun I much preferred.
(1975) — S:ey, O:em, PA:eir, PP:eirs*, R:eirself*. —
Good: Complete set of distinct forms, acting as the singular form of the already-existing pronoun set of "they, them, their, theirs, theirself."

This is genius. I already use the third-person plural whenever possible, when describing someone of unknown (or indistinct) gender, but it becomes problematic when using it to refer to a specific individual. The idea of dropping the initial dipthong to make the plural into a singular form, which would inherit the gender non-specificity, is brilliant.

So when Xerxes wants to refer to another like eirself, ey'll have a full set of pronoun declensions available to em. That solves eir pesky pronoun trouble nicely, I think.

I'm currently reading Ian McDonald's River of Gods and in that book, the gender-neutral pronouns used for the "nutes" are yt and yts (for possessive). This works out well since it's close enough to "it" and "its" to not hinder readability yet it offers the extra benefit of distinguishing between people and things.
Egan first used the ve/ver/vis pronouns in his novel Distress; I highly recommend the novel, but it's set on Earth, so it may not be as interesting to you right now.
Thanks for the tip, John. I've got River of Gods in my To Read pile, actually, and I'm hoping to get a chance to start in on it next month. It's a monster of a book, isn't it?
Ted, Distress was recommended to me today by Lou Anders, too; it must be a sign. I'll have to hunt down a copy, though you're right that it'll probably stay on the bottom of my To Read pile for the moment, if it isn't far future and/or set in space. I've got a pretty one-track-mind at the moment!
Sure, 578 pages is longer than many, but it's a very good read. I won't say it's a quick read with so many Hindi words, but sometimes you can get into a groove and whip along fairly fast. I like that Pyr has made the print a decent size instead of using TinyText ™ to save some paper. They're good like that.
Ah! Brings back memories. I went through the same process with _The Resurrected Man_--after reading Greg Egan's _Distress_, as it happens. It's such a curly area. I ended up inventing my own, in the end, as I wasn't entirely happy with the "v" system or the other you mentioned. While removing the "th" from the existing pronounces made perfect sense, it didn't quite scan for me. The sentence "Ey went to the shops" would have my brain instinctively thinking, "A *what* went to the shops?" But maybe I'm being too picky. My own version, the Third Gender Protocol or EsErE pronouns, with "e" filling in for he/she/it, hasn't set the world on fire. :-)
For the sequel, which remains unwritten, I was mucking around with "ey" as a pronoun suitable for group-minds, neither singular nor plural. One day maybe I'll take that further...
I've got Resurrected Man on my To Read shelf, actually, Sean, so I'll bump it a bit higher in the queue and see if I wouldn't rather steal from you, instead!

I'm intrigued be the notion of pronouns that are neither singular nor plural, though. That's not a idea I think I've come across before.
I'm sure some writer somewhere has considered it before (there's always one!) but as there's no need for such a pronoun outside science fiction I doubt other people have ever felt the need.

I'm actually writing a piece at the moment with a human gestalt as a character. Maybe it's time to start taking the idea more seriously. :-)
John C. Wright has a gestalt character in his Golden Age trilogy. If I recall correctly, he uses the singular pronoun to refer to the gestalt, and employs phrases like "One of his bodies" to indicate the individual constituents.
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