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.