Month: February 2018

How I Use Pronoun Systems to Reflect Conlangs and Concultures

So, I started doing something very different during the first decad of February — writing a story in the universe of Seven Papers that makes use of the pronouns he and sheLe is also there, but is not used for every character.

Epiphany and stories like it use GNP for everyone, and I’ve gone into some reasons why in the additional documentation for Epiphany — there are many genders, and I want to emphasize both the conlang context and the cultural experience of gender. My short stories in Seven Papers also use gender-neutral pronouns. Here’s how I determine what kind of system I’m using:

  • First person: Is the character speaking a language without gender-inflected pronouns? And does the setting have more than two culturally contextual genders? Use GNP for everyone.
  • Third person (which is usually actually first person in a roundabout way): In the setting, would this story be written in a privilege language that uses gender-neutral pronouns? And does the setting have more than two culturally contextual genders? If so, use GNP for everyone.

The story I’m writing now is the first third-person story I’ve written where the privilege language is Classical Atarahi. Classical Atarahi is a Sāqab language that dates to a few thousand years after the human colonization of the planet Atara. It’s the international standard language on that planet, coexisting alongside many languages that evolved from creoles or the passage of time. Speakers learn it alongside their native languages. Upper classes typically take names in Classical Atarahi; middle and lower classes typically have names in their native languages.

To take a bird’s eye view, Sāqab cultures have restricted gender-inflected pronouns that correspond to he and she. They’re restricted because they cannot be used for anyone who has not completed a gender initiation ritual, and they’re bestowed on men and women. Gender initiation practices mean that Sāqab rarely ever use gender-inflected pronouns for cultural outsiders, barring diplomats.

This leads to a host of misunderstandings, such as the idea that he and she are desirable status markers. The Sāqab peoples ran the last interplanetary empire before its collapse, so Sāqab cultures exist on four planets: Ameisa, Atara, Mntaka, and Qamaq. (Although, to be honest, Mntaka has significant Leissi and Hǫ́ Tiá influence, too, and there are a few diaspora communities on other worlds.) On Ameisa, the Great Peninsular Sāqab countries confer higher status on women due to some significant cultural shifts, so many Tveshi, Iturji, and Narahji speakers mistakenly identify she as a formal pronoun. Karatau Meiyenesi, a character who appears in many of my stories, asks to be referred to using the Malzmā language’s she in formal settings and le in less formal settings to emphasize that jomela in Tveshi culture do receive initiation into their gender and are not sselē. Le knows Malzmā well and is completely aware that le’s queering usage.

In Sāqab cultures, those without initiation, including children, use a pronoun set I am translating as le. Men and women learn distinct writing systems; sselē (the culture’s other gender) can learn all systems, and they can move between men and women’s segregated spaces in households and society freely. Gender initiates lose the ability to move freely. In some Sāqab countries like Midway Island, only sselē are eligible for Chancellor, the chief of the executive branch of government. In other countries like Demza, Chancellorship is open to anyone, but sselē typically occupy the office.

So what happens when you’re talking about someone who grows up in a story? In most cases, adults will use le when describing someone’s childhood, with a marker in the introductory sentence that means le who eventually took she. It doesn’t translate easily into English. The words girl and boy are typically not used until a child’s mid-teens, and they indicate someone who is a candidate for womanhood or manhood — le’s going to preparatory classes for gender initiation and can’t use a gender-inflected pronoun yet.

Here’s an example: Īðī māqomu us mīki hēramōkotgēzi gotomis. Tisoðwō ramōkotgēzi. At five, le herself loved rain. Le danced in it. The -gēzi on the verb indicates gender-neutral third person singular. Gotomis is the standalone pronoun for a woman, which translates to both she and herself. Subsequent sentences use -gēzi without the additional pronoun. There’s also a special standalone pronoun for children, tīta.

One of my favorite things to do while writing a story is to figure out how to best convey culture/language through my own language choices. When I need a gender-neutral pronoun (GNP), I almost always use le — at least in fiction writing. Singular inflection is important to me, but the initial consonant is also very clear even for speakers coming from non-l/r distinction languages. None of the characters in stories set in the Seven Papers speaks English, so I can focus on what I want out of GNP — a pronoun that reflects the social mores of the work’s reference language.

Outside of the Seven Papers setting, I use whichever GNP makes the most sense, and that really relies on knowing the story and its character(s). I have one that uses some singular they because it takes place in 2013 during the Anthesteria, it is written in close third person, and it makes sense given its common usage. Another story uses ze; this is set in the close future (several centuries ahead). In both, GNP coexists with the gender-inflected pronouns he and she. I’ve got an idea percolating for a story set a few more hundred years from now where they is singular and th’all is plural.

I hope that y’all have found this interesting as a linguistics groupie and conlanger’s perspective on making active choices about choosing pronouns to use in stories. Otherwise, I’m happily chugging away at this outline about an Atarahi librarian apprentice.

Reflections on Writing in 2017

Writing-wise, 2017 was an interesting year. This is the part where I talk about a variety of projects related to writing and constructed languages and what happened over last calendar year (and into January 2018).

In 2017 (and January 2018 — I didn’t finish editing a novella until midway through the month), here’s what I did in long-form writing, for a total of ~334,000 words:

  • A novella about sisters, ghosts, and a mountain goddess: 37,715 words (done)
  • Plowing through writing The Seven Papers: 282,509 words (in progress)
  • Ossia (a serial intended for podcasting): 4,530 words (in progress)
  • An epistolary novel set during Ameisa’s Blackout period: 9,320 (in progress)

This doesn’t include all of the hours I’ve spent working on Epiphany, as that was edited back in 2016. There had been an earlier version of Epiphany online before I worked through a lot of the problems I had — primarily with how to explain Tveshi and Narahji culture — and I wrote the original text of Epiphany in my early 20s. I didn’t switch to using GNP in most of my stories about the Seven Gardens until I was 27 or 28, after I had an epiphany (lol) at Smith College ConBust and realized that I could fix translating gender in my stories about those worlds if I just didn’t do it at all.

It’s not going to make it any harder to get published given that my stories are generally about people we would consider queer doing things other than coming out or falling in love. There isn’t a place in the industry for that. What makes the stories better is, ironically, what makes them even less publishable and destroys their market viability — I care more about producing good work, and I have the freedom to do that because I have a full-time career outside of writing. Since I only have 10-15 hours each week that I can commit to writing, I don’t want to waste my time with things I don’t love.

In short form, I wrote 5-6 poems that I would consider publishable — this doesn’t count devotional religious poetry I write because I don’t consider it ethical (for me) if I’ve already given a poem to a deity. The only appropriate venue for devotional poetry would be a self-published collection, and I’d give the proceeds from that to Hellenic polytheism-related orgs.

Technically, I wrote and submitted 5 short stories, but I stopped submitting the 10K one and turned it into a novella. 3 of the other short stories (4,100 words; 6,200 words; and 1,900 words) are set in the universe I typically write in. The final one is … okay, also set in that universe, but is near-to-us future (7,500 words). I’ve also got a gorgon story that I’m editing right now that was technically written in December/January (3,900 words). So that’s ~23,600 words of short story writing. Based on what I’ve submitted places, I’ve tweaked Duotrope to block listings. It’s a weird block list because it consists of everything Orson Scott Card (who is homophobic) is involved in plus markets I have failed in enough that I know they’re a waste of my time.

In summer 2017, I took vacation time and spent about a week conlanging my heart out to produce better versions of Mamltab, Narahji, and Khessi. And then, of course, there was #lexember, when I worked on my Tveshi dictionary and made significant progress in the revisions.

I started submitting to short fiction and poetry publications in March 2017 for the first time since my early twenties. 26 of the 29 submissions I made in 2017 were rejected, 1 submission was published, and 2 are still pending. I find it hard to tell the difference between personal emails and form letters, so I think I checked form rejection in Duotrope for all but 2 pieces. An essay among those rejected actually never received a response, but it was a bit rant-y, and I don’t think many in science fiction or fantasy beyond me care about how poorly worldbuilt or researched most depictions of polytheism are (by admittedly white Western writers).

The published submission was a poem, “What Remains in the Ruins,” which I wrote after reading The Final Pagan Generation and its section on the priests who followed Christian officials around to vandalize and destroy non-Christian religious sites. It focuses on women’s religious experience in Classical polytheism and is a very angry poem.

Poetry is the one type of writing outside of academic articles and essays where I feel an internal locus of control — although the jury’s out on novellas. (I felt really good and in control while writing the one I just finished. I wrote a bunch of novella-length work in my teens and realized midway through the one I just wrote that I have a better handle on novellas than I realized going in.) I won local poetry competitions in my hometown (in my age category) and have written poetry since fifth grade. I went to a several-day writing camp at Southern Illinois State University during summers as a teen, and I surprised the adults with how good the poetry I chose to read actually was. I have always made a clear distinction between the poetry I jot down and the poetry that is appropriate to share with others. My self-esteem folder of nice things people have said about my work is generally about poetry I published in my early to mid-20s under my given name.

The poem I shared at that writing camp, incidentally, is set in the same universe as Epiphany and The Seven Papers. It was written long before I realized that gender-neutral pronouns were the solution to the gender things I was struggling with in the work. It also uses pre-reform spellings of Narahji terms:

Song of Menarka

My heart sings of Menarka as she rises out of time; 
The mist, her hair, flows over her face in a rainbow spray of color.
My heart sings of Menarka; her rocks are overgrown
With the sweet perfume of a thousand flowers.
My heart sings of Menarka, whose walls hold the music
And lifeblood of my world, my Ameisa.
Shall I withhold the sweet ecstasy of her name?
Dare I not cry “Menarka!” at every golden moment?
Menarka is an emerald jewel cascading over the rocks
Of the sharply dropping cliffs—indeed, she is the cliffs themselves!
She is the epitome of all desire, standing before the mountains,
Her white dome glistening in the sunlight and moonlight.
The people cry her name with rapture as they experience her,
Running through her cavernous depth of rock.
Menarka, we have made our homes in your very bedrock!
We have fashioned ourselves from your beauty! We honor you!
See her reflect in the river far below us; see her smile upon us!
Her walls are the most beautiful in the world;
Her greens are the most luscious; they smell of euphoria!
She is my Menarka, rising out of the mists,
Lifting sweet perfume to the air, dancing in the revelry of music!
My heart sings of her unspeakable beauty.

That’s it for Jan/Feb 2018 updates! I’m moving into a new apartment on Thursday, but will probably be on Twitter with banter about conlangs and writing.