Sex and Pronouns

blue 3d human face and shoulders

I’m writing a novel in which you are dead and your society is only vaguely remembered in a scattering of confused tales.

It’s a scifi novel. The characters in it are your potential great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren, take or leave a great or two,  and for several weeks now I’ve been pondering what to call them.

In my novel the concepts of sex and gender are of no more significance than, for example, a person’s height or ear-shape. That may be hard to imagine for most current-day humans. Consider the almighty fuss that commenced yesterday when it was announced that the next regeneration of Doctor Who will be played by a female actor. And the good Doctor isn’t even human! Still, I think we as a species are slowly detaching from this obsession with clearly defined sexes and their socially-allocated properties, so in my story-under-construction, the characters are no longer defined or limited by their physical sex. Most of them are still sexed in the old-fashioned way.  They’ve not evolved that far from us yet. Some, like the main character, are biologically female, others are male, yet others are hermaphrodites or any of the many possible variations of sex and gender in between and besides those first three options. And then there is a small, but distinguished group of genderless individuals: the unans.

The unans, being sexless, are not burdened by the primitive hormone-driven urges that plague their more sexually inclined contemporaries, and as such they are able to devote themselves completely to the pursuit of sophisticated goals such as science, spirituality and general poshness. Hence, the unans are seen -not in the least by themselves- as vastly superior to the gendered rabble.

I have a problem with them. I may be their creator, but as I am also a particularly primitive specimen of the above-mentioned gendered rabble, and I cannot decide how to talk about an unan.

The English language offers us the words ‘she’ and ‘he’ to refer to others in the third person, but there’s no commonly used gender-neutral third person personal pronoun. That is a bit silly, because all other personal pronouns are gender-neutral in English, but it is how it is.

If I were to be completely true to my novel-society, I’d ditch ‘he’ and ‘she’ in favour of a single sexless pronoun for everyone, regardless of their gender. That be the logical thing to do. But I, and also my potential readers, are living in the here and now, and we are so accustomed to reading ‘he’ and ‘she’ that to most of us, a different pronoun just doesn’t look right. I already managed to rattle some members of my local writers’ group by using an ungendered pronoun in my first chapter.
So in order to keep my novel readable I decided that for now I’ll stick with ‘she’ and ‘he’ for those characters who are (approximately) female or male, and ‘it’ for a few underclass citizens who are not considered to be quite up there with the actual humans.

But that still leaves the unans. No one in their society would dare refer to them with ‘it’ or even with a simple ‘she’ or ‘he’. Those words would not only be inaccurate, but they are also the Pronouns of the Plebs. The unans would never settle for that.

The singular ‘they’, which is often used in our current society, won’t do either. I just don’t like it. Utilising a perfectly good plural to denote a singular is confusing. Also, the characters in my novel might use the singular ‘they’ much like we do: for discussing an unknown individual, or an individual of unknown gender. Unans are not unknown and their gender is clear: there is none. The unans demand their own, classy pronoun.

I could make up my own pronoun, and I tried that, and it was rubbish.
I could use an existing gender-free pronoun from another language. I tried that too, but it was a bit too unlike English, plus I couldn’t be certain that I was using it correctly.
Alternatively, I could look up and use one of the many ungendered pronouns that have been invented for the English language. I did that too, and at the moment I use one of those: the pronoun ‘Ne’, as in:

The unan strode over the lane. Ne was tall and elegant, and nir clothes were made of the finest materials. Humble servants followed nem with nibbles, drinks, and blister plasters.

I’m quite pleased with this one. What do you think? Should I stick with ‘ne’, or should I use something else? How do you feel about using genderless pronouns in science fiction?

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2 thoughts on “Sex and Pronouns

  1. Hoe about “wey” in youre sentence it would be wey, wey’s and wey. Ik know it sounds a bit like a name but it is a wink towards we. He and she are we so to speak.
    Just a thought

  2. I think ne, nir and nem works very well. I remember a book from the 80s where the possessive pronoun was ‘per’ short for person’s, rather than his and her – per book or per cloak, for example. But the others were rather clunky.

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