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For context, I am nonbinary, and also East Asian.

My language of fluency is English, but I know other languages and also have an anthropology degree. (Japanese, Korean, a tiny, tiny bit of Mandarin, French, and a smattering of other languages).

From knowing Japanese and Korean in particular, I know that third person pronouns aren't always gendered and in those particular languages you have to go out of your way to do so. (Keu Nyeo, for example, is "that woman" in Korean. Keu Nam is "that man." but the default is "saram" or "person" and saying, "That woman" in the wrong context can be rude. Also Korean is more context-driven than English, which I find persnickety at times.)

In my world building which is Asian-ish, I decided to make the world's language follow those rules. No third person gendered pronouns, which BTW, are in the minority in real life anyway. (I looked it up. It's a TINY fraction of the world's languages.)

The problem is navigating that in English to show that the third person pronouns aren't gendered at all. Is there a smooth way to reflect this in the dialogue, etc?

Most of the guides online go on about how to follow English and build languages around English (BTW, knowing several languages and linguistics, this is just straight out a bad idea for so, so many reasons). But I don't think gendered third person pronouns make much sense. First person gendered pronouns make more sense to me, such as in Japanese (which is more gender fluid about it, though).

I'm mildly annoyed with writing in pronouns when I've designed the language to go without gendered third person pronouns.

It's more annoying when I have NB characters running around, so there is nothing such as preferred third person pronouns, because there is no need for it.

If neither the PoV character, nor the target characters know that gendered third person pronouns exist, (See also Persian and Chinese, which popped up when I typed this up) what is the most graceful way to introduce the concept?

5 Answers 5

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You cannot gracefully represent the grammmar of one language in another. This is not only limited to gender, but to grammatical case, grammatical tense, syntax and so on, as well. If your characters speak and think in one language – real or imagined – and you write in another, you have to translate what they say into the language of your readers. And if your character language doesn't have gender but your reader language has, then that is how it is.

You can explain the linguistic problems you faced in your "translation" in a foreword. Tolkien, for example, did so in the introduction to The Lord of the Rings. There, he explained how the original languages of hobbits and elves work and which decisions he made during his "translation" of the book written, supposedly, by Bilbo, Frodo, and Samwise.

What convention you choose is up to you. You can use gendered pronouns, because that is how English today works. Or you can use one pronoun (e.g. she) for all genders, as Anne Leckie does in Ancillary Justice. Or you can introduce a new pronoun (e.g. ze) or a new usage (singular they), just as those who propose gender fair changes to English in the real world. But the farther you deviate from common English, the more your writing will feel inelegant and awkward to all but the most ideologically driven readers, and all of these auxiliary solutions will hinder the fluency of reading and understanding.

That is what you have to deal with if you want to force concepts into a language that it doesn't (yet) contain. You have to decide if you want to write for a more general or a more specialized audience.

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  • Very thoughtful answer, and I both agree and disagree. Deviation need not be inelegant, nor must it hinder comprehension; it can be a highlight of a story, viz Strange and Norrell or Clockwork Orange or myriad archaic writing where interpretation is part of the allure. But I agree that it absolutely makes the act of writing extremely challenging, requires a great degree of skill and style, and may still alienate readers no matter.
    – kmunky
    Nov 22, 2023 at 21:08
  • @kmunky From grammar deviation always inelegant is.
    – Ben
    Nov 23, 2023 at 8:35
  • I've read Ancillary Justice both in English and its French translation, and I will say: Ann Leckie's usage of pronouns works well in English, but translates very badly to French due to how grammatical case is handled differently in French than in English. (A better translation is maybe possible - the translator tried to faithfully translate the pronouns as-is, and the result is that the grammar cases in nouns and adjectives look all wrong)
    – Stef
    Nov 24, 2023 at 9:23
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Just use They

The gender neutral third person pronoun in English is "they".

While there have been attempts to create new gender neutral pronouns, the singular usages of "they" is long established and natural for native speakers. I would use "they" unless I was trying to make some kind of statement by using a "synthetic" English pronoun like ze.

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  • I just read (or rather, attempted to read) a book in which the writer used singular they. Every few paragraphs I was confused whether the word referred to one or more persons, because both the context and linguistic convention seemed to point to a plural meaning. It made for rather awkward reading. (The book was traditionally published by a large publishing house, so I assume it was professionally written and edited.)
    – Ben
    Nov 23, 2023 at 8:30
  • @Ben - It's possible the author intended for there to be confusion for artistic reasons. Or maybe they just missed the mark.
    – codeMonkey
    Nov 24, 2023 at 14:57
  • [yes, the utterly un-ambiguous use of the "singular they" in my previous comment is intentional]
    – codeMonkey
    Nov 24, 2023 at 14:59
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Conventionally, the normal English pronouns are used

Every language has its quirks. However, most media isn't a lesson in learning other languages (especially not conlangs), so foreign dialogue is usually "translated" completely into the language the audience speaks (in this case, English). Therefore, a woman would be referred to as she/her because that's what's idiomatic in English. (Likewise, a non-binary person would usually be referred to as they/them, which is accepted by many or most English speakers.) This affects every facet of the "translated" language. Adjectives, articles, or verbs lose their gender. Pro-drop becomes no drop. SVO or GTFO.

Some non-English is accepted

Sometimes a limited amount of non-English gets included in the dialogue, usually relying on context to convey the meaning. You can also have a character reflect on the meaning of a word, with Lilo & Stitch's "Ohana means family" being a good example.

Foreign pronouns (or neopronouns) will almost always look exactly like nouns (or specifically a nickname) no matter what you do, though that's perhaps not really a problem — pronouns are nouns. Unfortunately, overusing such a pronoun is likely to annoy at least some of your audience, though some instances of third person singular pronouns can be reworded out or replaced with a name or a regular English noun.

Outside of dialogue, there's even less reason to use anything other than typical English, doubly so with a third person narrative.

In speculative fiction, anything goes

If you're writing about a society where gender (or sex) works differently than in the real world, then you have license to do whatever you want with pronouns (or at least singular they/them). If you're writing "LGBTQ fiction" (indicating the primary audience while also being a genre label in itself), then your audience is more likely to accept this too.

For example, almost every single character in the webcomic Fluidium goes by they/them. This needs no explicit explanation in the story, because in their society everyone is born with two bodies, one male and one female.

I've also seen "because aliens" used in other stories to similarly justify some or all aliens using they/them. However, this is considered a problematic trope by some since it equates non-binary people to aliens.

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The smoothest way is to invent your own alternative protocol.

For example, always refer to a person by their name, or first syllable of their name, that is the norm in your language. If you don't know their name, use "they". Make use of English constructs where the subject is assumed:

Jolene picked up the hammer, then used it to break the vase. Jo carefully moved aside broken shards, and found the coin within; holding it up triumphantly.

The shadowed person behind Jolene raised something in their hand, a flash went off. Jolene spun around, startled, only to see them vanish into the hallway.

"Who was that?" Jo exclaimed. "How did they follow us?"

A syllable doesn't use any more time or effort than a pronoun. If you feel it necessary, have this explained to a foreigner early in the story; but I think within a page or two readers will figure it out for themselves: Your language doesn't have pronouns, it has a different convention, and they will get used to it.

You condition readers to not care by just repeating the convention. Avoid adverbs when you can, use either non-gendered pronouns or the first syllable of the name if needed for clarity. That first syllable does not need (and probably should not be) the character's nickname; to avoid confusion, and names that start with actual gendered English pronouns should be changed.

It's your language. You are translating it to English for the reader, but you want to preserve the non-gendered nature of your language.

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Focusing on your literal question

Is there a smooth way to reflect this in the dialogue, etc?

At risk of oversimplifying: to introduce it smoothly would simply require smooth writing. Whatever the dialogue where you address the matter, it should happen organically, within context and apropos of the intent of the story. In other words, including it in convenient conversation will make it conspicuous, and offering it in exposition: didactic.

Subtlety (or subtext) would be the most graceful: don't explain it, or call it out at all; just write it consistently so that it becomes part and parcel to your characters and their world. In storytelling, immersion is always the best vehicle to convey ideas (e.g. Unifying Theory of 2 + 2) as well as the most convincing; we tend to embrace epiphany, but resist paradigm shifts.

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