So I'm writing a story and the setting is that there are two worlds: the world of humans and the world of (insert species name here).

Now I'm wondering if it's okay to use the terms/words "people," "man," "woman," and "person" even though the character from that different world is not human? Or should I create a term specifically for it?

Note: In that different world, while they know about humans, they don't think humans actually exist. It's just like a legend to them.

  • 3
    Steven Brust in the Vlad Taltos series does an interesting thing: Dragaerans, the most populous sentient species where the books are set, refer to themselves as "humans", despite there being a number of actual humans (who they call "Easterners") running around. After all, they are the main race, not those interloping Homo sapiens. Of course, the easterners/humans disagree on this linguistic point.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 20:31

5 Answers 5


It's a translation.

Let's take this to the logical extreme. Your story is set in a different planet. Your story is likely not written in English. The people in your world who would have told this story would not have used any of the same words you're using, because they probably don't speak English, and even if they do, it's probably about as similar to our English as Old English is to the modern kind. (Which is to say, not at all.)

However, you're not publishing there. You're publishing here. And that means that whatever language these people use to talk about their experiences, you need to make understandable to readers today. In effect, you're publishing a translation of the original.

In the process of this "translation", you should use words and phrases that your readers are familiar with. If the aliens have three genders instead of two, or one gender, or engage in a weird practice called kemmer (see: The Left Hand of Darkness), then you might need to create words to describe these peculiarities. But to prevent from alienating your readers, you should attempt to "translate" as much as possible.

Ancillary Justice does a pretty good job at presenting the spoken language as non-English, and it's the only example I can think of off-hand where non-humans are main characters. In The Summer Prince the characters just use non-translatable words as they are, and the readers figure it out as they go. The last example I'd use of books that use coined words is The Fifth Season, which only uses them to describe elements of the magic system that are unique to the book.

Note that these books use as many ordinary words as possible. Unless using a neologism is absolutely crucial, you should prefer the ordinary English translation. Don't just go for unique words to emphasize how unique your story is.

Relevant XKCD

(XKCD Source) You don't want to risk losing your readers over nonessential neologisms. Save it for things that are crucial to the reader's understanding of the story.

Side Note

"But what's crucial?" you ask. "How do I tell?" I don't actually have an answer for that. It depends on your aliens, on the kind of story you're trying to tell, and on just how different the thing is from what we're used to. Even if the alien's telepathy is central to the plot, we already have a word for that: telepathy. There's very little good reason to go around calling it squillian.


You can just have the humans call each other He, She, Person, People.

The other species' then have their own variations of those words. I assume, in your work, that the two species eventually meet up. You can then have the humans do something like the below to teach the reader more about the alien species.

At dawn we were woken by who we assumed was our guide ... we learned our guide was a 'he' due to the scarcity of his clothing, and though we met others of his species we never saw what could be considered a female ... over the weeks working with our guide we began sharing bits and pieces of our language and culture.

I introduced myself as Jack and my partner as Wendy, our guide slapped his chest hard and emitted a sound like "A'chug'nuz", though the 'nuz' sound was beyond the abilities of our body to pronounce. The guide responded to "Achug" and took no offense at our no-doubt butchering of his name. We were overwhelmed with relief that the Achug was intelligent - he immediately grasped that we were interested in his world and readily, even enthusiastically, pointed out things and spat their names out in his brutal language, sometimes giving a brief demonstration of how such things were used.

... you get the idea. You slowly but surely feed the audience bits and pieces of the other species' way of thinking and their culture and their language. If the language is foreign then you, as the author, decide what the aliens call each other and simplify it for the reader. This, I think, reduces the likelihood of grotesque infodumps which could be provided to the reader in a more immersive manner.

Edit: short answer: You CAN use he, she, they, people, person in reference to the alien species. Achug is a "He", if their are females they are "She" or "Her", a collective of individuals is a "They" or "Us" or "We". They may call themselves something like "A'Tirkma" which you can simplify to "Aturk" and then call the species "Aturks". "Man" and "Woman" are more human designations so I would recommend finding something else to call your alien species.


Think of how you talk about other species in reality. There are no "women" or "men" among dogs, chicken, or ants. The words "man" and "woman" specifically denote human males and females.

But there are other terms that we use. We have specific names for the males and females of certain domestic and game animals. For other animals, such as eagles, we simply use the gender terms themselves and speak of a "male (eagle)" or "female (eagle)".

Apparently, when using words for representatives of a gender, we distinguish between humans and non-humans.

Therefore I think that when we meet an intelligent alien species, the terms that we will use to refer to their genders will depend on how we perceive them. If we feel that they are in some basic way similar to us and that we can live together with them equally in the same society – that, in other words, they are fundamentally "human" in a non-biological sense –, then we would eventually share a common language and speak of each other's genders using the same terms.

If, on the other hand, we felt that the aliens were completely unlike us and their society was so different from ours that integration was impossible – that they are "non-humans" –, then we would either use the terms that the aliens used for their genders, or a translation of those terms (if the language was unpronouncable to us), or create our own terms.

Insect genders are often called by their function. Bees, for example, are not called "males" and "females", but "workers", "drones", and so on. If the insects in your novel fall in the "unlike us"-category, they might be given names dependent on their function, instead of their chromosomes.

Given how some people do not perceive certain other humans as human and deny them the terms reserved for humans – for example, calling dark-skinned people "nigger" instead of "person" –, I am sure that even if much of humanity accepted the human-like aliens as peers, there would be many who would not see them that way and use derogatory words. Which words would aquire this racist, or rather "alienist", meaning, I don't know. Maybe it would be terms from the list of words we use to refer to animals, or we would use typical names, just like male Jews are sometimes referred to as "Abie" and male Italians as "Guidos".


How does your fantasy race view humans?

  1. They don't like us. In their legends, we're stupid, brutish and disgusting - basically, "human" is their version of "troll". In this case, I'd recommend coming up with new words. It would seem strange to make them use words that mean "troll", "male troll", and "female troll" (except as insults).

  2. They feel a kinship with us, or admire us. In their legends, we're something similar to them, perhaps idealized versions of themselves - sort of like elves, in some of our stories. In this case, it should be safe to use "person", "man", and "woman."

  3. They don't feel strongly either way. If it isn't really a big deal, I'd recommend sticking to using "human" terms, just to keep things simple.


Sure you can. These are the accurate terms and not just a translation convention.

Person and people

The word "person" doesn't mean just humans and it never has. Definitions for "person" tend to be of the form "something with an intellect and a will, but not too weak of an intellect because that's an animal". Humans are the only kinds of people we see on a regular basis, but in philosophy and in fiction it is a well-entrenched idea that the word "person" extends to elves and Martians. Many religions believe that their god is a person. The debate over whether a robot can be a person dominates most stories about robots.

Man and woman

You can use the word "man" and "woman" for non-humans, but you should be careful. "Man" used to mean human, and "woman" etymologically means female human. Tolkien was comfortable using "Man" as the name of our species in contrast to other kinds of people like hobbits and elves. More recent writers are more comfortable using "man" and "woman" for the adult males and females of other humanoid species so you can easily find usages of "Vulcan man" and "elf woman" without irony. I would be happy to use those words for any species that looks human, has two sexes, and reaches adulthood, unless I was deliberately trying to be old-fashioned or using a lot of Tolkien's tropes.

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