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Non-standard pronouns

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
I'm contemplating a story in which non-standard pronouns may make sense for at least one characters. I've seen this used most recently in a couple of books by Greg Egan, where he uses ve, vis, ver, etc. I've read other discussions where people advocate using a singular "they" instead.

I'm leaning toward Egan's approach, but I'm curious what others have done or encountered, and how effective they found it.
 

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
A friend of mine used xe/xir in a story she wrote. This was with the intent of identifying a person of indeterminable gender. To me it felt slightly awkward when reading it, and whenever it showed up it broke the flow of the prose and took me out of the story. It wasn't a deal breaker though, and I eventually finished the story. The character in question wasn't playing a major role and didn't show up very often.
It's possible that if they had been around more I would have gotten used to it.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
I wonder if there would be any difference to the reader between xe/xir or ve/vis/ver. Egan's Diaspora uses the non-gendered pronouns heavily throughout. It didn't bother me--I became accustomed to the usage fairly quickly.
 

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
I wonder if there would be any difference to the reader between xe/xir or ve/vis/ver.
I'm inclined to say there would be a difference. The pronunciation of ve/vis/ver is more intuitive to me than of xe/xir and I think that's a factor. I don't say the word out loud when reading, but even then the words are still pronounced internally when I see them.
A word like vis reads a lot more intuitive than xir to me, and I think I'd have gotten used to that faster.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
I'm inclined to say there would be a difference. The pronunciation of ve/vis/ver is more intuitive to me than of xe/xir and I think that's a factor. I don't say the word out loud when reading, but even then the words are still pronounced internally when I see them.
A word like vis reads a lot more intuitive than xir to me, and I think I'd have gotten used to that faster.

Good point.
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
Kameron Hurley uses xe/xir to good effect in her Worldbreaker Saga (which in my hurley-burley brain sounds a lot like she/her, which might be why it sticks better for me). I think it all comes down to consistent usage and clarity. The reader will pick up either alternative pronoun in good order, since their vowel endings aren't all that exotic when sounded out.
 
I have to comment that whenever i see xe/xir it drives me absolutely crazy and I struggle to even read it. Never seen the other one but I suspect it would sound similarly awkward. I advocate the use of the singular "they."
 

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Leadership
They/their is also an option (do you hear the similarities in pronunciation?), especially in a binary construct, but sometimes societal constructs advocate for an entire third, fourth, or even fifth gender, and for that we need extra pronouns. Plus, sometimes characters simply choose for themselves, much like people.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
I think I've decided on using the non-standard pronouns, it's just a matter of which ones. Someone on Twitter made an interesting point, which is that fantasy readers will read made-up words all day long, learn Tolkien's elvish, or learn Klingon, etc., but when confronted with non-standard pronouns seem to have a negative reaction. It does seem a bit incongruous, except that the difference is the pronouns are ubiquitous in the writing. In my experience, while the use initially drew attention to itself, very quickly it seemed natural enough and didn't pull me out of the story.
 
I know some fantasy readers who don't like xe/xir. Never heard anyone complain about ve/vis, or say that they'd read anything with those pronouns. Personally, the use of either one would not stop me from reading the story.
 

CupofJoe

Myth Weaver
They/their is also an option (do you hear the similarities in pronunciation?), especially in a binary construct, but sometimes societal constructs advocate for an entire third, fourth, or even fifth gender, and for that we need extra pronouns.
Or the society had de-gendered the pronoun already. There will be something generic like it or they and then a personal identifier. I like the idea of it being them [general], one [personal] and you [specific]...
 

Gryphos

Auror
I'm not a huge fan of made-up pronouns like xe, ve, etc. I think it's better in most cases just to use the singular 'they' when talking about a character who's genderless or unidentifiable (say, if their face is covered). I mean, I've met several people in real life who prefer being referred to as 'they'. Although, if the character is non-human and genderless, but still sentient, you could try using 'it'. I'm actually quite fond of this in such cases.
 

Dark Squiggle

Troubadour
You can use 'it' for people regardless of gender, as long as they are either chill enough, dumb enough, or incapable of doing anything about it. It is something that people do :)
The xe/xir or anything like that makes me nuts, not enough to throw me enough reading a book, but enough to push me in that direction. People use they/their in conversation, and it just seems smooth, why wouldn't you want to use it? Are you trying to throw in something quirky into your story?
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
You can use 'it' for people regardless of gender, as long as they are either chill enough, dumb enough, or incapable of doing anything about it. It is something that people do :)
The xe/xir or anything like that makes me nuts, not enough to throw me enough reading a book, but enough to push me in that direction. People use they/their in conversation, and it just seems smooth, why wouldn't you want to use it? Are you trying to throw in something quirky into your story?

"They" and "their" are routinely used for people of all genders. The story will have the usual binary genders, but also a race for which those genders do not make sense. Using "they" or "their" seems unnecessarily vague given the other uses of those words, where as ve/vis/ver are explicit gender references.
 

Dark Squiggle

Troubadour
Why don't the regular pronouns make sense? Are they a gynogenestic race (Amazon Mollies, Poecilia formosa come to mind), a species with more than two sexes? Why not try to keep it simple? As complexity builds, the book will become harder and harder to read, and need to be longer and longer to give the readers a chance to immerse themselves in the story, until you have an unwieldy monster rather than a novel.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
Why don't the regular pronouns make sense? Are they a gynogenestic race (Amazon Mollies, Poecilia formosa come to mind), a species with more than two sexes? Why not try to keep it simple? As complexity builds, the book will become harder and harder to read, and need to be longer and longer to give the readers a chance to immerse themselves in the story, until you have an unwieldy monster rather than a novel.

I don't agree that the usage will make it complex or harder to read--at least not for a fair number of readers. As I noted above, Greg Egan uses these non-standard pronouns extensively in Diaspora. The regular pronouns make less sense because they're less concrete and specific. Again, "they" and "their" are used with respect to individuals who do exhibit one of the two binaried genders. Ve/vis/ver are not. Thus, the latter are more specific designations.
 

Gryphos

Auror
All words are made up, right? Invented by humans to relate concepts to other humans.
Yes, of course. Believe me, I'm no language purist. I just think language can't be forced to evolve, if you get me. And I think that pronouns like xe, ve, etc aren't the right way to go.
 

Steerpike

Felis amatus
Moderator
Yes, of course. Believe me, I'm no language purist. I just think language can't be forced to evolve, if you get me. And I think that pronouns like xe, ve, etc aren't the right way to go.

I look at it somewhat like the arrival of other new terms into the lexicon: cyberpunk, cyberspace, photobomb, microaggression. Those are all relatively new words that we've pulled into the language. In the case of pronouns, a perceptual shift is required in addition to simply adopting the new words, thus the resistance.

In any event, the discussion is an interesting one. I tend to like more concrete or specific terms as opposed to more vague or ambiguous ones, which is why I lean toward the approach taken by Egan and others.
 

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
There's also the cultural issue of neutral gender pronouns. This may not be an issue in this case, but it's still an interesting thing to bring up. A few years back Sweden introduced a gender neutral pronoun (hen) into the dictionary. From what I understand it's seeing some use and slowly gaining acceptance as an everyday word, but it's not without struggle.

As I understand it the controversy isn't in a new word being added but in what this specific word represents symbolically. Getting into a discussion about it would probably lead to the "no politics" rule getting violated real fast, but if anyone's interested you can look it up online.

The first few years after it was added I rarely saw it other than in the context of people making fun of it, but these days many of my friends back in Sweden are using it in their social media updates. In another generation or so it's unlikely anyone will bat an eyelid at it.
 
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