The source language in question is Standard Chinese. It is a gender-neutral language. One big thing that English speakers complain about English is the gendered pronoun, namely the third person singular pronoun. In contrast, Chinese does not use pronouns as heavily as English speakers. Sometimes, pronouns may be inserted to indicate emphasis on possession, but it's completely fine to remove the pronoun altogether. When a Chinese text does use pronouns, the pronoun may be 他/她/它 (pronounced identically as Ta), but historically, in literature, 他 was not used to indicate gender, and 他 also means "other", as in 其他.

There are ways to convey gender. One way is to use Chinese kinship terms, but this is only relevant in specific circumstances. Another way is to directly ask the person in the conversation about the sex/gender of the person, because 他/她/它 are all pronounced the same. And another way is to assume a gender for the unknown person. As part of the Chinese Internet culture, some people may use TA, because 他 is too masculine, 她 definitely implies the feminine, and 它 implies an object. Aside from that, Chinese is the most gender-neutral language in the world since antiquity.

How does one indicate the gender-neutrality of Chinese with English dialogue? There is the English singular they, but English speakers seem to use it for a specific purpose - to indicate that the gender of the person is irrelevant, unknown, or that person's chosen gender. But the listener usually does not assume gender at that point, probably because it's culturally accepted that "they" is the gender-neutral pronoun. Chinese, on the other hand, works a bit differently. Even though the listener hears TA, the listener may actually assume male or hold no such assumptions but then directly ask the other person about this unknown person's gender.

The author cannot simply ignore it either. Sometimes, writing English naturally means you have to think in English and insert in pronouns that would have been left out in Chinese. These pronouns indicate gender. The Chinese language not only allows removing pronouns, but also the entire subject from a sentence; and Korean and Japanese also do this. So, as a result, the Chinese-language writer can easily write a whole paragraph without a single gendered pronoun. Meanwhile, the English-language writer has to insert some kind of pronoun (he/she/it/they).

  • I do not quite understand what you're trying to do. Are you trying to write about a character, without indicating their gender? Sep 6 '18 at 23:10
  • 1
    @Galastel No. In Chinese conversations, the listener may not know the gender/sex of the person, until the gender is explicitly mentioned or the person is met. Sometimes, people may automatically assume the male gender, which has nothing to do with language at all. This kind of behavior seems to be difficult to translate across in English contexts, because English forces the writer to put something as the pronoun - he/she/it/they. Maybe a character keeps saying Ta. Another character assumes that the other character is talking about a male, but becomes surprised when the person is female.
    – Double U
    Sep 7 '18 at 0:19
  • 1
    "Aside from that, Chinese is the most gender-neutral language in the world since antiquity." Yeah, no. It's hardly unique. Just as one example, in Inuktitut the third person personal pronoun una is absolutely genderless: it means "he/she/it". The verbal affix for the third person -juq is also genderless: nirijuq "she/he eats". If you heard someone say "Natsirasugiaqtuq.", all you know is that someone has gone seal hunting, but without specific mention you don't know if it was a man, woman, polar bear, or sentient robot. Feb 26 '19 at 21:38
  • @KeithMorrison one of the most gender-neutral, then.
    – Double U
    Feb 26 '19 at 22:04

The only way I see to maintain the effect you're talking about is not to use pronouns. You can use the character's name. You can use their profession / rank / etc. You can say "we did", "they did" (talking about multiple people) since the plural hides gender. If you're describing a group situation, it's easier to hide that you're doing this, since it makes better sense to give names all the time when you're talking about several people. You can talk about inanimate objects instead of the person manipulating them (e.g. "the gun fired" instead of "she fired the gun").

For example:

We were together at a pub yesterday. Alpha was telling this joke, we were all on the floor laughing. Then Echo says [..], and that annoyed Whiskey. So suddenly, Whiskey up and draws a gun on Echo, and Alpha gets between them to try and stop this madness.

You can assume, but you have no idea whether Alpha, Echo and Whiskey are male or female.

  • Suppose in the middle of the conversation, the other person keeps talking about this one person, using Ta. You assume that Ta is male, but your language does not distinguish gender. Then, you are surprised to learn that this person is female, when you meet that person a few days later. Alternatively, that person talks about a third person, and you ask whether this third person is male or female.
    – Double U
    Sep 7 '18 at 1:38
  • Also, in Chinese circles, people often introduce themselves by describing their names because of the number of homophones in Chinese. It's like saying, "Rose, as in rosehips; and dog as in doghouse." This kind of interaction can reveal the exact characters in the name, which can determine the gender of the character. A person may have a very feminine name in writing. It's like naming someone Maria in an English-speaking setting, but Maria in spoken form can be masculine or feminine, but the written form is definitely feminine.
    – Double U
    Sep 7 '18 at 1:47
  • 3
    @DoubleU How does this answer not keep the gender unmentioned? If no pronouns are used, then no gender is ever referred to. The reader can assume whatever they like until a gender-identifying pronoun is used or the gender is specifically mentioned. It seems to specifically address your question—and I find your comments here confusing. I read a book in which the gender of its antagonist was kept hidden until the end of the book. This was done by never using a pronoun. Sep 7 '18 at 5:00
  • 2
    @DoubleU English is not the same as Chinese. There are things you can do with one language that you can't do with another. The best you can do is get creative and try to get close to the desired result with the language you write in. Sep 7 '18 at 6:24
  • There are two ways to solve the issue, a technical one (which is what @Galastel describes) and a pragmatic one, which involves a lot of re-writing and re-interpreting. This is something inevitable when dealing with translations from very different languages. Ask Murakami's translators...
    – user16555
    Sep 7 '18 at 6:45

In the 1990s, I was really hoping that the Z or X pronouns (zie & zir, xie & xir) would win for the non-gender-focused option - they follow the he/she pronunciation style, which indicates sapience (which "it" does not).

This link https://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/tag/zie-and-hir/ shows several different ones and their conjugations.

Would any of these map onto your situation?

  • 1
    The problem with many of the proposed gender-neutral pronouns is that the people who propose them create something that looks good on paper but is far less useful for the method most people still use to communicate, speaking. That link offers examples where it might be confused due to the last phoneme of the preceding word, but even by themselves they're problematic. Imagine trying to distinguish between "zie/xie" and "she" in a crowded room with everyone else talking. And the person speaking has an accent. Feb 26 '19 at 21:12
  • When I read, I don't "voice" things the same way as if I'm reading aloud, so "xie" and "zie" feel very different to me, even if I were to pronounce them the same way. So if the goal of this writing is a novel/story/text-to-be-read-internally, then a consistent but not-as-perfectly-pronounceable option seems like it could work. Obviously, if writing for a podcast/audiobook/script explicitly, then the weighting changes. Feb 26 '19 at 21:15

So one way to convey this idea in English is that many common English Names are unisexed names OR have diminutive names that are unisex. For example, Jesse is both a male name and a female name (Though often, it's accepted that the spelling Jesse is male, and the spelling Jessie is female, both are common variants. Another is the French Gene/Jean which in English are pronounced the same way and usually follow male/female though the latter is usually an acceptable male spelling.). For pet names, Alex is acceptable diminutive for Alexander (Male) and Alexandra (Female). A less common one is Mike, which is almost always a diminiutive of the male Michael but occasionally finds it as a pet name of a female Michelle. Gabe is short for either Gabriel (Male) or Gabrielle (Female).

English has a benefit of being a language that is filled with a high volume of lone words especially in names (in fact, most if not all common English names are anglicize versions of Hebrew names, owing in part due to the Israeli influences of Christianity. In fact, a great number of names with biblical sources have a feminized version in most European Languages (Gabriel/Gabrielle are both named for Gabriel, a "male" angel (biblical angels aren't really gendered... or even humanoid... that was Roman depictions of them. They're actually so bizarre looking that their catch phrase is "Fear Not")). This isn't just an English Phenomena, as most Europe did this Most European Languages have gendered words. Another one is the traditionally female name Ashley to a Modern Ear was originally a very exclusively male name.

While it is a bit dated, (though not so much, I'm old enough to remember when it was still acceptable) that if the gender was unknown, it was acceptable to default to He/Him as pronouns for animals and most professions (if it was traditionally a female profession, like teaching, it was defaulted to She, but Doctors are Hes until told other wise... so are engineers... and soldiers). It's not uncommon to see plots where the mean dog with a masculine name like Brutus or Killer was in some distress and the heroes were worried him... until they realized that Brutus wasn't a he because the cause of the distress was that "he" had gone into labor and was really a she. The gender neutral "He" and the use of diminutive names (especially in American naming conventions) would allow for similar gender reveals though writes do have to mind their pronouns, it's easy to avoid as certain roles have certain assumptions.

  • My go-to gender-ambiguous English names are Pat, Leslie, and Lee. (I grant that the last can be Leigh for women, but I know female Lees too.) Feb 26 '19 at 22:26
  • 2
    @MonicaCellio I have a running gag that one of my mains has an ambiguous sexuality. Since he's not a POV character, every time he refers to his dating life, he's always dating a uni-sexed named person.
    – hszmv
    Feb 27 '19 at 12:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.