19

In my fantasy novel, I have a species that is fully hermaphroditic: all individuals have both male and female reproductive organs. Like garden snails. Consequently, they have only one gender.

They explicitly state that they don't mind when confused humans refer to them as he/she/it/they. Humans consider "it" to be impolite, but that's a human thing. However, what pronoun should members of this species use when talking about each other (to a human)?

  1. "He was my mate"
  2. "She was my mate"
  3. "It was my mate"
  4. "They were my mate"

All four don't sound quite right, do they? I should perhaps add that I don't want this species to sound awkward. They're supposed to be, in some ways, higher being than humans.

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    Is there a reason why they can't use names? i.e. Kelly was my mate – Thomo Mar 21 '18 at 0:20
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    @Thomo "Kelly was one of the oldest and wisest among us. Kelly was my mate. Kelly supported me when... I wish to avenge Kelly's death." My first thought was to just use the name, but it gets clunky to use it again and again in a paragraph. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 21 '18 at 0:33
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    It could be, if you did it that way. A simple rearranging of speech can remove a lot of the issue, and "they" is suitable impersonal, non gendered and non-impolite. "Kelly was one of the oldest and wisest amongst us...I would avenge my mates death"... – Thomo Mar 21 '18 at 1:21
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    Here's an afterword by Ursula Le Guin discussing the use of pronouns in Left Hand of Darkness (wherein most characters don't have a fixed gender): theliterarylink.com/afterword.html – André Paramés Mar 21 '18 at 9:53
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    Does the species speak English natively? If not, then they're unlikely to differentiate to begin with. Speakers of other languages that don't use gendered pronouns generally mix them up all the time. A species that doesn't even have distinct gender would likely not even recognize the significance of the difference and just use them interchangeably without consequence. I would image, more often than not, it would be the human being offended by being called the wrong gender, not the other way around. – msg45f Mar 22 '18 at 1:47

14 Answers 14

16

Unlike the engineered hermaphroditic humans in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan universe, who might be speaking a future version of English, your hermaphrodites are an alien species and do not speak English among themselves. They will therefore have a pronoun in their language that has no correspondence in contemporary English.

If you want your narrator to convey this linguistic feature to your readers, you may invent (part of) that alien language and use that alien pronoun in your narration. This should not be a problem to your readers after some introductory explanation (in text or in a preface) and a few reminders every now and then during the narrative.


If you want to write in English without using words from another language, you could look at what translators do when they translate text into English from one of the existing genderless languages.

In my opinion, the best you can do, if you want to represent the absence of gender in a gendered language such as contemporary English, is:

  • use neuter pronouns (it/its/itself)
  • use one gendered pronoun (either he/his or she/her) consistently throughout the text, and explain your usage either in text (through the narrator) or in an author's note prefacing the text
  • singular they
  • use one
  • avoid pronouns

he or she

I have frequently seen the second option employed in published fiction, often with female pronouns, often by feminist authors, and mostly for human or humanoid species. Sometimes this was done without the explanation, as a conscious play on gender expectations in the reader.

A recent close example is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, in which English "she" is used for both genders in a culture that "doesn't much care about gender" and does not have gendered pronouns in its language:

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn't entirely certain. It wouldn't have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don't care much about gender, and the language they speak – my own first language [represented by English, in the book] – doesn't mark gender in any way.

it

The first option (using "it") would emphasize the fact that your beings aren't human, which might or might not be something you want. A clear advantage is that your readers wouldn't have to constantly remind themselves that "she" doesn't mean "female".

they

Singular they isn't commonly accepted as correct, so I don't see it as an option for most writers. As the English language changes, singular they may eventually become Standard English or even replace gendered pronouns, but today too many readers see it as grammatically incorrect or "policing speech". I wouldn't use singular they in my writing before it has been accepted by the majority of my target audience. Other writers may want to take a stand for gender neutral language and use singular they in their writing as a political act.

one

This is the option I prefer. It is free of prejudice, clearly singular, and its slight suggestion of Broken English fits the fact that it is spoken by aliens perfectly.

(no pronoun)

Certain languages have no third person pronouns and their speakers use nouns (such as boku "servant" in Japanese) to refer to other persons. Small children use their names to refer to themselves. Something akin to this will give a decidedly alien touch to your aliens' speech.

This is my second favourite option. It's not the first, because it will take quite an effort to worldbuild the aliens' culture to find a term that works well.

  • Example: In a certain online RPG, a mineral–based species reproduce by gemmation — their pronoun is “kra” because they are the “Kran”. – can-ned_food Mar 22 '18 at 4:01
  • I'm confused how you would use "one" as a substitute for "he" or "she"; I've heard it as second person (e.g. "one does not simply walk into Mordor", standing in for "someone" or an abstract "you"), or first person (e.g. "one is not amused", like "we are not amused" standing in for "I"), but can't imagine it as third person (e.g. * "John paid the cashier and then one left the shop" standing in for "...and then he left the shop"). – IMSoP Aug 5 at 16:58
  • @IMSoP I've read lines such as "this one thinks that..." or "you have given this one much to think", with 'this one' referring to oneself. After a while it gets heavy and stilted, and "royal", but works, somewhat. – Pablo H Aug 6 at 12:28
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    @PabloH The phrase "this one" is not the same as the pronoun "one". In the examples you give it's a substitute for the already gender-neutral "I" or "me", not "he" or "him"; I guess you could use "that one" as a third-person form, but that seems even more dehumanising than "it". My instinct if I heard it used that way would be that the author is not a native speaker and is translating an idiom from another language; I guess that's the "suggestion of Broken English" mentioned in the answer. I certainly wouldn't consider it more standard/acceptable than singular they. – IMSoP Aug 6 at 14:01
30

You have a number of options:

  • If the narrator of the book is a human, it would be entirely acceptable to use "he" or "she" (no point in switching between them) throughout the book as standard, with an explanation for this usage by the narrator. Ursula Le Guin's "The Left Hand Of Darkness" used "he" throughout the book, and referred to her androgynous species as pretty much always male. I think the key point is to mention that you're writing for a human audience, so it needs to be understood easily by them first.
  • You could attempt to use "they" as a singular, this was used by Shakespeare, amongst others, when referring to indeterminate gender.
  • Since it's a fantasy novel, there's nothing to stop you from creating terms that they as a species would use as replacements for him and her, and using those instead. Some examples could be pronouns related to social standing, age etc.
  • Related to this, even though they're hermaphrodites, it's plausible that many may naturally adopt a particular outlook that we'd consider to be male or female, and then they can be addressed as he or she accordingly (or, as I say, perhaps they have their own terminology for this). And, for those that routinely change this outlook, that could have a specific term as well.
  • You could take some tips from the transgender community in real life, and look at gender-neutral terms that they use.

For a good discussion on this topic, I recommend having a look at this article entitled Pronouning Your Hermaphrodite that I came across. The article and subsequent discussion covers a few of the points I've made above, as well as gives some excellent references to other books that have tackled this issue.

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    As a counter-example to Left hand of darkness though, also read Enemy Mine where the narrator uses "it" throughout for the Dracs, including those who become his closest family and friends. – Graham Mar 21 '18 at 13:48
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    @Graham Yes, that's a valid point, I left out suggesting "it" though, because humans consider it derogatory. Of course, the narrator could have animosity towards them, and intentionally refer to them as "it", or maybe the aliens have one "catch-all" word whose closest translation is "it" in English. – Craig Sefton Mar 21 '18 at 13:51
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    I believe LeGuin herself said that, looking back, she was disappointed she had not invented a pronoun to refer to the creatures in Left Hand of Darkness. This doesn't make your point less valid, though. – FFN Mar 21 '18 at 20:22
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    @FFN Yes, I was unaware of that until I read the article another commenter poster with Le Guin's commentary on the subject. When I read the book, I assumed she'd chosen masculine pronouns because of Genly Ai's perspective as a male, but I was wrong. Still, as you say, I don't think it invalidates the point. – Craig Sefton Mar 21 '18 at 20:36
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    A friend of mine once used "shis" to substitute for "his/hers" until I pointed out that fast readers may imagine an unintended "t" – WGroleau Mar 22 '18 at 15:16
9

Several notes pop into my head when considering this. First is representation. Beware your race isn't token-ified by the troublesome humans of our world. "They don't mind being called 'it'. They see 'it' as just another pronoun. So why you are making such a big deal out of it?" My advice, consult actual hermaphrodites and ask them if they are okay with it (off the top of my head, asking on Quora would be a decent (not good, but decent) place to pose that particular question.

Next. Why is it this race doesn't have it's own language? Even if you only hint at it by means of using certain words? (borrowing from your own comment) "Kelly was of the eldest and wisest among us. Illa (their language's gender neutral pronoun) was my mate. Illa supported me."

You might also want to consider things like:

  • How does this race view hierarchy?
  • Is everyone equal?
  • Since there's no gender differences, how do they organize? (hierarchy question, expanded).
  • Is 'elder=wiser' a thing for them?

The list really can go on. But I've been plotting out multiple races, so I'm kind of going overboard on worldbuiling for me. Speaking of which, you might also want to consider posing this question on SE-WB.

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    Just to flag up (in reference to "consult actual hermaphrodites") that 'hermaphrodite' is no longer a term used scientifically or by most people as a self-descriptor. A clearer and more current term would be 'intersex' with the awareness that it can describe a number of different situations. But the advice to consult intersex people is spot on. – dbmag9 Mar 21 '18 at 9:33
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    @dbmag9 I thought so, too. Until I spoke out about it, and a hermaphrodite corrected me says they preferred that term. Perhaps that one was the exception and not the rule (sorry, I'm not aware of them having a preference for he/she, so I'm sticking with they). – Fayth85 Mar 21 '18 at 10:50
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    ‘Intersex’ is indeed the commonly preferred term in modern LGBT+ communities that I know of. I often see the acronym LGBTIA, where the “I” stands for intersex. isna.org is a good resource for anyone interested :) – sudowoodo Mar 21 '18 at 16:24
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    @sudowoodo Actually, Intersex is the umbrella term for anyone with a deviation from the most common genetic mixture of biological sex factors (chromosomes, gonads, genitalia, and endocrinal hormones). Hermaphrodite simply refers to a single state where the genitalia are clearly both male and female (or their most common configuration). So all hermaphrodites are intersex individuals, but the term hermaphrodite only refers to a single instance within the spectrum of intersex conditions. I understand why Intersex is therefore the more common term to use, but that doesn't make it the correct one. – Fayth85 Mar 21 '18 at 18:17
  • (sorry, I talk a lot about biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles, so this kind of always sticks in my brain.) – Fayth85 Mar 21 '18 at 18:18
7

However you answer this question or choose to even begin answering this question is conditioned heavily on the kind of story you want to tell. If your vision of this species and the role they played in your story was complete then the answer I think would either come naturally or not be entirely relevant to their portrayal. It is hard to believe that the way individuals of a specific species are addressed in your story would not be relevant to their portrayal, so thinking more about what kind of species they are and their role in the story might help the decision regarding what pronouns they should be referred to as come more naturally.

Regardless of what kind of creature they are, humans are the kind of creature where there are primarily 2 distinct genders and a great many qualities are attributed to the expression of each. These qualities range from emotional to behavioral to physical. This means that if, for example, the species was entirely genderless and yet every single individual was identital and looked remarkably like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, us humans would pretty much exclusively refer to them using the pronoun "he" regardless of what reproductive organs they had underneath their clothes and it would be weird to use "she" or "it" from our perspective regardless of if these were technically just as accurate.

What do they look like? How do they behave? Do they act aggressive or do they advocate peace? Are they competitive or cooperative? Are they emotional or are they stoic? Would they make better engineers or would they make better nurses? Are they tall or short? What do their voices sound like? How do they walk? How do they take care of their offspring? All of these, for better or for worse, might influence what pronouns us humans would naturally attribute to them.

That said, what pronouns they would use, when speaking English, MIGHT be a different matter. They would either use the same pronouns humans use, or not, depending on how they chose to approach translating their language to English. You say in a comment to your original question:

"Kelly was one of the oldest and wisest among us. Kelly was my mate. Kelly supported me when... I wish to avenge Kelly's death." My first thought was to just use the name, but it gets clunky to use it again and again in a paragraph.

And you are correct: it would be awkward for a member of such a species to speak this way. The thing is, however, that they might have no reason to speak this way. Presumably, in order to speak English, some of the specific qualities of their language would carry over. For example: if none of their verbs are ever tensed, they might have a hard time using tense. This would be the same for pronouns. Say, for example, their language has no notion of a pronoun. The sentence:

Kelly was one of the oldest and wisest among us. Kelly was my mate. Kelly supported me when... I wish to avenge Kelly's death.

MIGHT actually be naturally and literally translated by a member of this species to:

Kelly, among us both the oldest and the wisest, who my mate was, who I supported by was when... will I wish by me be avenged.

But that might just be a literal translation. A more appropriate and less awkward translation might be something like:

Kelly, the oldest and the wisest among us, who was my mate, who supported me when... will be avenged.

If they don't have pronouns their sentences (in their natural language) would naturally be formed in a way that avoids pronouns, and so their attempts to translate their natural language into English would reflect this.

Again, this is all taking a rather realistic approach to the question, I.E. by answering the question of what pronouns we might realistically expect humans to use for them and how we might realistically expect them to translate their own language into English. You might find that the realistic answer does not fit in well with how you want the species to be portrayed, or what you want their role in the story to be. The reader will inevitably read how they speak and how they are referred to and create an image in their mind of the species that fits that portrayal, so ask yourself which pronouns best match the portrayal you are going for after asking yourself which kind of portrayal would be more appropriate to your story and why.

5

Speaking as a nonbinary person:

  • Singular they is correct and has emerged as the standard way of referring to nonbinary-gendered people in English. It's one of the 3 English pronouns available on Facebook, for instance. The Washington Post changed its editorial guidelines to accept singular they in 2015 and it was the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year in 2016. If you're not used to calling individuals whose identities are known to both speaker and audience "they", it's because you're not hanging out in circles where nonbinary trans people are accepted yet--I know literally dozens of people who are called singular they and many of the youth these days especially are going to be used to using singular they.
  • "It" is a transphobic slur when used to refer to people. Like there was a trans person who was murdered and had the word "it" carved into his flesh by his attackers--it's really seriously triggering/insulting to many trans people. Unless you really want to underscore how alien this species is (in terms of not understanding human customs), I would not mention that they're okay with "it" in your writing. And even if you do want to underscore that ask if there's a less-triggering way.
  • "Hermaphrodite" is also offensive to the intersex community. I would minimize use of this word if I were you--while it does seem like the technically correct term in your use-case, it'll have personally violent connotations to some of your readers and also since everyone in this species will be the same sex-wise, it doesn't make sense for the word to come up a lot, just saying the species name should be enough.
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    The only issue I see with this (and I'm not disagreeing with the answer), but the species the OP is referring to doesn't mind any of the pronouns. Even though "they" is the preferred one (at this point in time) for us humans, these species are not human... therefor they wouldn't have any emotional attachments to any pronoun - They explicitly state that they don't mind when confused humans refer to them as he/she/it/they. – Carlo Mar 22 '18 at 0:42
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    Excellent input! Even if the characters in the fantasy story do not have these connotations, OP should at least be aware that their readership might. – sudowoodo Mar 22 '18 at 10:08
4

I like Kate Bornstein's pronouns: ze in place of he or she, and hir in place of him or her.

4

I don't have this problem in my writing, but this would be my suggestion: If they are not distinguished by gender, then you need a general term any random person. I would latch onto something they do have in common: They are all persons, citizens, or subjects. Or at least when their language formed, they referred to their group of people as something; fellows, members, soldiers, partners. In the USA we now refer to soldiers of either gender as Troops; a squad of twenty troops may be all female, all male, or any mixture. It isn't a stretch to think the plural Troops becomes the singular pronoun Troop. Much like Cop stands for a police officer of either gender. Or Kid or Child is genderless.

So here are suggestions: It may be common in their language to use Child as the pronoun for everyone, everyone is a child of somebody, after all.

Another choice is to take a generalization they all share and explain that in their language the pronoun is a single syllable that means Subject of a Ruler, so in English they say Sub.

Or Citizen becomes Cit. Or, if the earliest history of the species was particularly militant (which is not inconsistent with their current elevated condition), perhaps in their language every adult is a Soldier and every child is Child.

3

Craig has an important point hidden in his excellent answer:

Gender is more than just sex organs. A not insignificant number of humans have a gender identity that does not match their biologicial gender.

You should decide whether your fantasy species has only one gender in every way or if they do actually have male/female brain differences. There is some interesting science in this pointing to as many as 10 points during early development where a male/female split is made in things such as brain chemistry and various physical aspects including the obvious ones but not limited to those (I dimly remember from sports classes that even muscle structure is different beween men and women).

So depending on how strong you want to make your "one gender" rule, you might actually need more, not less, terms to differentiate genders. Without an obvious factor such as primary sex organs, the species might make more nuances differences.

  • To take a leaf from the excellent book, "Sapiens" by Harari, he makes a clear distinction between the terms "male and female" and "man and woman", arguing that "man and woman" are largely social constructs. What we consider to be a man and woman changes constantly, but "male and female" are largely concerned with the scientific aspect. Could be helpful approaching it from that point of view. – Craig Sefton Mar 21 '18 at 13:59
  • Indeed: saying that they have only one gender does rather imply that they don't form groups of multiple parents each fulfilling different roles with fostering the children — because that's what the word gender meant, once upon a time, if I remember correctly. – can-ned_food Mar 22 '18 at 3:56
3

Despite the rest of the answers giving very valid points, I'd like to add that you can always invent your own expression that doesn't necessarily have to conform to any predefined standards.

The expression I/We/Gaia that Isaac Asimov uses in his Foundation saga comes to mind. In this case, Asimov refers with this (in my opinion) elegant solution to his collective of beings with a single consciousness. Your particular case could use a similar expression. Something like heshe, s'he, etc. or even an entirely new word.

There's an added, entirely optional, challenge of introducing the new word to the reader as if it is a well-established word, and giving subtle hints to its meaning until it becomes a well-known word throughout the novel. This adds to the depth of your work.

3

If the speakers aren't speaking English at as a native language, then they're unlikely to differentiate between gendered pronouns at all. Even among humans, people whose native language does not use gendered pronouns tend to mix the gender pronouns when speaking English all the time.

A species that doesn't even have distinct gender would likely not even recognize the significance of the difference and just use them interchangeably without consequence. I would image, more often than not, it would be the human being offended by being called the wrong gender, not the other way around.

2

David Weber uses a consistent convention in his Honor Harrington books where the speaker uses their own gendered pronoun to refer to someone else when they don't know their gender. (Even if the reader does know that information.)

"The opposing Admiral really knows her stuff." said {female character}. "I agree he's got us on the ropes." responded {male character}.

This would obviously only help you assuming you are always writing from a human character's perspective. In speech a member of the alien species could always follow the previous speaker's convention.

As others have suggested you could also adopt a completely different set of pronouns. Wikipedia has some suggestions; Third Person Pronouns, I personally have always liked Xe, Xem and Xyr.

1

As it's 2018, you can potentially let your reader choose how they prefer it, through some humble assistance from an online publishing partner. Anyone skilled in the computer science discipline of Natural Language Processing and only slightly open-headed may enable that. Since we no longer rely on pre-printed dead wood for distributing reading materials and even Coca Cola bottles came with person-specific personalization for a while. Things like hir and stuff are probably odd and annoying to most currently living people, and that kind of revolution may have to take place before a book uses them. That said, it could be cute using them, if a preface explained them to the user in a way compatible with the book's style :-)

  • Welcome to the site, matanser! Could you explain a little better this answer? Are you saying OP should make a digital book with changeable pronouns? – FFN Mar 21 '18 at 20:37
  • I think this would be abusing the function, though. Customized CYOA and translations issued for dialects — neither are quite the same, methinks, as a pronoun which is actually part of the story however small. – can-ned_food Mar 23 '18 at 13:38
1

In colloquial American English, it’s become common to use they for an individual of unknown gender, so this probably would not sound strange to a Millennial or younger. I think, if hermaphrodites appeared on Earth today and didn’t say what to call them, they is probably what most people would go with.

There are, however, other literary precedents. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness called hermaphrodites he, although the author herself was ambivalent about that. The mythological Hermaphroditus was also called he. It has also been common from the early days of the English language to call a small child with no visible indication of sex it (as the Germanic word kind was grammatically neuter.) The Spivak pronouns, or other invented pronouns, will probably be familiar to many readers of a SF story about hermaphrodites and are not hard to pick up from context if they aren’t. If they look female with their clothes on, most people today would probably call them she.

If the characters themselves would have a preference, in-universe, you should go with that.

0

Here's an angle to consider: What is the default for non-hermaphrodidic organisms on their planet?

The basic plan for an organism is going to be more like one sex or the other, with modifications to produce the complementary one. If the embryo looks female in the early stages and only later in development do male traits form in a male, then you could say that female is the default.

Whatever the default tends to be on their planet, that's the pronoun to use.

Or, for a less scientific basis, you could go by their creation myth. Say, the gods created them one sex then the other, but later the gods made a severe blunder and as a side-effect of it ended up splattering them everywhere and when they put them back together, they couldn't tell what went where and ended up producing something like Frankenstein's Monster, which when they reproduced gave birth to mercifully better-looking hermaphrodites that their people are descended from. The pronoun could come from whichever sex they think the gods created first (and thus consider the default, regardless of whether science backs it up or not).

  • I'm confused: why should there be a default for non-hermaphroditic organisms? We certainly don't have a default. I mean, what's the "default" for non-hermaphroditic plants? Or look at planaria: different species are either hermaphrodites, or they reproduce asexually. You could argue that hermaphrodites are the "default", and everything else - modifications. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Sep 5 at 8:39
  • Admitttedly, I was going on something half-remembered for this one. I vaguely recall listening to a discussion where one of the participants mentioned something about a female default and that asexual organisms were female as a result. I can't remember who it was, but he was at least pretty well informed on matters of biology, though probably not a professional. Even if this isn't right, given you're dealing with aliens, you could justify it as a quirk of their planet's ecosystem. – Rohan Sep 5 at 13:18

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