Spirits, Sci-Fi, and se-XY Pronouns

Genderless pronouns. Good, bad, or just post-modern nonsense?
  • Genderless pronouns: not a new idea
  • Can they be used constructively, or are they just too confusing ?
  • What about the Sci-Fi  / Fantasy genre ?

If you think attempts at genderless pronouns are a new idea, thing again. Wikipedia sports a rather good summary [1].

It’s a complex topic, especially since many languages don’t have gender-specific pronouns. Mandarin, for example, traditionally didn’t have them at all. Now, recent attempts to invigorate debates on genderless pronouns (in languages where absent) seem a bit tainted by identity politics. And some have ridiculed the whole notion as post-modernist mumbo-jumbo. However, does that necessarily mean epicene pronouns are a bad idea?

Well, Imperial English has always allowed for the plurals they / them / their as gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns. Ergo, epicene pronouns in English already exist. That’s the language I grew up with. As opposed to “he / she/ it  went …”, “they went …” can refer to anyone at all who “went” without reference to whether they were a girl, boy or some planet-of-the apes monkey, really. But using they, which is normally understood as a plural, can be somewhat confusing unless the context is well understood.

For example, lets look at the biblical passage of Matthew 28:10-11: 

“Then Jesus said to them [the women], “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They [the men] will see me there.” While they [the women] were going …”

Koine (biblical) Greek had gendered  plural pronouns, so it’s clear who they are in the original language. But not so so in English; it has no such gendered plurals. And for millions of readers, English isn’t their primary language, so one (Aha! A gender-neutral referent!) can appreciate that using they as an epicene or gender-blind pronoun might not be such a great idea. And that probably explains why there are about 15 different serious attempts at trying to introduce an alternative to the singular they over that last 120 years [1]. 

English isn’t the only language being challenged like this. Until recently, Swedish lacked a gender-neutral personal pronoun [2]. ” hon / han went …” that is  “She / he went … ” may now be rendered as “hon / han/ hen went …” that is “she / he / singular-they went …”  And  an attempt at a gender-inconsequent personal pronouns is likewise seen in the case for ri  in Esperanto [3] — a single person, gender unspecified, not an object or some repurposed plural.

There’s no shortage of similar examples in other languages.

Now that we have some idea of the issue, why should we care?

Well, politics & postmodernism aside, I see the Sci-Fi &  Fantasy genre as having a practical need. Whether or not one believes in androgynous aliens or Watchers (Angels, Jinn, spirits, demons etc.), at some point the literary language of imagination will need to accommodate ungendered states of intelligent being. For instance, are demons & etc. boys, girls, or neither?  What about a race of intelligent snails? Or worms? You see my point. Language paints a picture, and the finer the brush, the better the portait.

Back to Wikipedia. Honestly, call me crazy, but I reckon the primary article [1] makes fascinating reading. The proposals for a genderless personal pronoun ranges from E (1890) to zhe (2000). Of these, Spivak’s (1983)  e  /  em  /  eir instead of they  /  them  /  their doesn’t sound too bad, really,  does it?

Personally, I think the ancient Koine (biblical) Greek got it right-er than English. Gendered plurals are awesome. Nevertheless, the issue at hand is sex-less states of intelligent being, not gender-political correctness. So, with that in mind, how do we treat that in an elegant literary sense, and with minimal disruption?

Laugh if you will; I’m laughing with you. But I’m proposing a modification to Spivak’s (1983) attempt. Instead of they / them / their as singular genderless pronouns, how about dey / dem /  deir ? I think my near-homophonic approach using dey / dem / deir better leverages custom — impacting spelling, but speech hardly at all. Ergo, the way, we speak won’t noticeably change, but the way we spell the singular they will certainly make the meaning clearer. After all, clarity of meaning is what this entire argument has been about. 

In my book Enok and the Womb of Gods, I have a race of genderless ethereals, the Saraf,  and this has been the my challenge: how do I refer to them without using it / she /he ?  You see my dilemma. Now, perhaps you have your own alternative to my solution?

But this is all prime nonsense, isn’t it? Honestly, what were you expecting? This is blogdust, after all.

[1] Gender neutrality in languages with gendered third-person pronouns. Wikipedia (2020 Aug 24, at 1:57 UTC). Retrieved 2020 Aug 30. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_neutrality_in_languages_with_gendered_third-person_pronouns

[2] Hen (pronoun).Wikipedia. (2020 Aug 09, 09:00 UTC). Retrieved 2020 Aug 22. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hen_(pronoun) 

[3] Gender reform in Esperanto. Wikipedia.(2020 Aug 22, 6:07 UTC). Retrieved 2020 Aug 30. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_reform_in_Esperanto

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Lost World Tributes

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André SkoroBogáty.

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