Monday, December 29, 2008

Schoolhouse Rock: Pronouns

Last week I got the DVD compilation of Schoolhouse Rock from Netflix. This dates me, but I remember really well watching TV as a kid and hoping and hoping that one of those songs would come on, all the while never quite being able to track when they would appear. So having the DVD at home has exposed me to some songs I was familiar with, and also some that I've never heard before. Blast from the past for me, and my kids love it. Niall is constantly coming out with snippets of songs and information now. It's great fun.

My favorite song of the moment is the pronoun song. For those who may remember, it's entitled "Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla" and the most memorable line in it for me is "'cause saying all those nouns over and over can really wear you down."

Needless to say, that got me thinking. In fantasy and science fiction there are a lot of tough names and concepts, and sometimes when I read I feel people are overusing nouns when I would prefer a pronoun. The trick of course is to have the pronoun link back properly to the noun so the reader can track it. ("It"=a pronoun linked back to "the pronoun" :) ) My son is working on tracking pronouns in his reading right now.

I would encourage people to look through their prose and track their hierarchy of reference. This just means how you refer to something when you introduce it the first time, refer back to it the second time, then the third time, etc. The most flexible element in this hierarchy is the straight pronoun, i.e. he/him/her/it etc. but there are also phrases using demonstrative pronouns like "this man" and "that alien" and of course there are definite noun phrases like "the alien" etc. Generally the complexity of the phrase undergoes a successive decline across the number of references, except when there is a possible confusion and you need to reestablish the reference in contrast to that.

This isn't the only thing that pronouns make me think of.

Since I have a language design workshop coming up in February, I'm going to start doing a few language design topics to get people thinking, and pronouns are wonderful things to play with. The English pronoun system says a lot about our concepts of individuality, gender, and relative position, for example. Compare our use of the word "I" with the Japanese pronouns for "I": we've got one pronoun and we use it all the time, while Japanese has more than six different ways of saying "I" but much of the time people don't use any of them at all. They just drop the subject of the verb completely and leave the listener to infer the information. The pronouns themselves vary depending on whether the speaker is a male or a female and how formal the situation is - demonstrating the importance of gender and formality in Japanese society.

So what do you do with pronouns if you've got a language of your own? Well, think about the social structure of the place and try to determine what identity parameters are important. Do your people think of themselves as individuals? Do they divide themselves primarily by gender, by some other criterion, or both? Do they consider the formality of the situation to be relevant in how they refer to themselves or others? Or are there other factors involved? For example, would they refer to themselves in one way in the presence of a member of an oppressor race, but in another when alone with their own kind?

The tiny little pronoun can do an enormous job in showing (not telling!) how the social structure of your world works.


  1. I fondly remember Schoolhouse Rock too. Never got the LP if there was one, but did have Multiplication Rock.

    As to pronouns: I have a project buried deep in the bowels of the computer wherein the characters, some of them anyway, can gender shift. Accordingly, they need a gender neutral third person pronoun analegous to he and she. Simple. That pronoun is se. If only everything about that story were as simple as the pronouns.

    Happy New Year!

  2. I, too, have a project buried deep within the bowels of my computer, with an alien race that gender-shifts.

    Every individual is capable of shifting, except for a few unfortunate individuals who get stuck halfway.

    For those that can successfully shift, their pronoun (at least, as much as I've thought about it) is determined by what body-form they are currently wearing. But since they are fully functional in both sexes, they can currently be a different gender from what they were when they fathered/gave birth to a child.

    This can lead to some interesting phrases eg. "He's my mother."

    A gender-neutral pronoun for those caught in between? Still thinking.

    And a Happy Gnu Year (this is the year of the Bewilderbeast, isn't it?) :)

  3. Okay, guys, since you're both gender-shifting, you have to - I mean have to - read The Left Hand of Darkness, if you haven't already. Most impressive exploration of gender issues I've ever seen (probably that most people have seen, given that it won Hugo and Nebula awards).

    I'll tell you, I have a group of people who are male and female, but who believe that everyone has male and female sides which can take precedence over one another in different contexts. The pronoun used depends on the person's gender stance at the time (and there is one for both, in cases of confusion!).

  4. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my alltime favorite books. That might be because Ursula Le Guin is one of my alltime favorite writers.

    Funny thing about that book. As I may have mentioned, I'm visually disabled and "read" by listening. First read The Left Hand of Darkness in an NLS (Library of Congress) recording. These recordings are generally superb, done by actors, announcers and others who are fine readers. One time, though, I got the recording of the book from Recordings for the Blind & Dislexic (RFBD), whose recordings are done by volunteers. Well, er, let's just say the recording team who got stuck with The Left Hand of Darkness had *no* concept what to make of it. I think that was, bar none, the single worse recording of a book I have ever heard. And, the thing is, it's not a particularly difficult book to grasp. So some of the pronouns get scrambled occasionally. So what? I guess some people just can't cope with unusual ideas.

    DAvid, get stuck inbetween? YOWCH! My people don't have that problem, largely because I never thought of it, thank goodness. My people are human BTW. Fantasy world as opposed to SF.

  5. In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, there's a world or parallel universe where each person has a "demon," a sort of alterego. Each person's demon has the opposite gender of the human it is part of, or a projection of, or whatever. People from our world who get into this world discover their demons, which BTW have animal forms. Interesting conceit.

  6. Okay, now I have to add the Left Hand of Darkness to my already overlarge pile of Books To Be Read :)

    Catreona, your "YOWCH!" shows me that I have accomplished something every writer must accomplish -- I have made you care about the fate of the characters.

    The idea is this -- as a race, these near-humans believe that one of the most important things they can do is have children and raise them right, so they can face the future with pride and confidence.

    Those rare unfortunates stuck in-between cannot have children. They also have a rather ambiguous legal position as far as the local equivalent of marriage is concerned. Who wants to give up their reproductive rights by chaining themselves to one who is infertile?

    Also, the way their (fortunately rare) wars are waged grows directly out of their biology. Think about gender-shifting. Now think about how the First World War pretty much destroyed an entire generation of young men.

    Must get around to writing that story :)

  7. Definitely, David. I'd be interested to read it. You have gotten much further in the building of this world than I got with the building of mine. I focused on one couple and their troubles, without getting much further than a general physical idea of the world they inhabit.

    I've suffered so many computer crashes and recoveries... Hope I can find that fragment. I'd like to look it over again.

    ARG! So much to do!

  8. Alas, most of it is planned out in my head. Very little has reached the words on paper/pixels on screen stage.

  9. But how do you demonstrate these pronoun systems in English. All of my created languages thus far have rather robust and definitely UNEnglish variations. But say that a culture has two sets of pronouns for everything: those who are part of the culture and those who aren't. (There's more, but I'm going for simple here.) Now, if I wanted to say you (part of our culture, or "blooded" as it is translated) vs. you (not blooded), how would I demonstrate that in English?

  10. Ms. Payne,

    Yes, this is a challenge to render in English. The "translation problem" is always an extra layer of work for a language designer who wants to write a story that's legible by humans. Dr. Stanley Schmidt himself (editor of Analog) told me he had a story rejected because his aliens had three pronouns and the readers just couldn't process it. So if I were to make a suggestion, I'd say try to make the pronouns compounds, like blood-he or other-he. It will still be distracting, though - you might want to expand the blooded and unblooded marking through other parts of the language rather than (or along with) sticking it into the pronoun system. English speakers don't have a lot of flexibility in their reception of pronouns, unfortunately.

  11. Thank you for the comments. Still pondering my dilemma... Looks like for all intents and purposes, certain things just don't render well into English and you have to show through implication and the way people think and respond instead. Hmm...

  12. I might remark that I'm working on a story with atypical use of pronouns - it involves a character who entirely avoids first person singular pronouns. This is very challenging, but doable.