Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gender in Language: A Worldbuilding Hangout Report

This is a report on the Worldbuilding Hangout that I held two weeks ago, on November 16th. I was joined by a large (wonderful!) group including Cheryl Barnett, Dale Emery, Glenda Pfeiffer, Harry Markov, Janet Harriet, Kay Holt, and Kyle Aisteach. Our topic was Gender in Language, and boy, did we have fun with this discussion!

We started out brainstorming examples of language that stood out to us for their portrayal of gender. I mentioned the phrasing in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness that has tickled me ever since I first read it: "my landlady, a voluble man..." What do you do when you're trying, as LeGuin did, to portray someone with no gender? Well, sometimes she alternates as above, to confound our expectations. When she wants it not to stick out, however, she picks one.

Kyle talked about using "zee" for non-gendered pronouns. One of the hazards of trying to find a new pronoun is to retain the sense of specificity while gaining a sense of neutrality. The pronoun system is notoriously resistant to change (that is, when it comes to keeping readers with you). Cheryl mentioned Melissa Scott's "Shadow Man" which uses five genders - now there's a challenge, but clearly it can be done well!

Of course, the most common solution to the problem of gender neutrality is to use the plural pronoun "they." This has become extremely common, though I wouldn't say it's become part of accepted grammar. Kay and I both remarked that language doesn't tend to create a lot of "new stuff" - it has accepted regions and methods of creating new words, but doesn't do much to change the core elements (like pronouns). Kyle and Harry mentioned how German concatenates nouns to create new vocabulary, and in fact languages do a lot of borrowing words back and forth to create new concepts. As you may know, German has masculine, feminine, and neuter articles associated with nouns of each category.

I mentioned that the lack of gendered nouns in English (English is unusual in this regard compared to most of its direct relatives). Apparently there was an early confluence between English and Old Norse, which didn't have gendered nouns, and it was at that historical point that English lost its own use of gendered nouns. Finnish uses no gendered pronouns at all, but languages that do assign gender are extremely common. We speculated that this might have originated (back in the mists of time) from the human tendency to anthropomorphize things. However, there have been salient examples of flexibility, or at least unusual usage. When women came to power in the age of the Pharaohs, they were referred to as kings, not queens.

Though we've worked very hard to start using words that are gender neutral (congresswoman -> representative, steward/stewardess -> flight attendant), gender still has enormous influence on language and thought. I once read a study where young French- and Spanish-speaking children were asked to create cartoon characters out of objects. Without fail, they chose to assign genders to the characters that corresponded to the genders of the nouns in their language. I once also linked here to a great NPR article which talked about the influence of gender on language - it turns out that people tend to associate adjectives to nouns according to their gender. For example, people speaking languages in which the word "bridge" is masculine will talk about bridges as heavy, tall or strong while people speaking languages in which "bridge" is feminine will talk about bridges as light and graceful. The gender of the noun influences the perception of the genderless object.

Kay mentioned that colonialism can force a language on people - such as Spanish in the Phillippines, and that this can change the use/perception of gender. Cheryl mentioned the French invasion of England, which brought in a lot of new words, but didn't re-gender-ize the nouns (excuse my creative grammar, Cheryl!). It is very hard to eradicate a language, unless you eradicate all the people who are using it (which can be done, sadly). Kyle mentioned that after the French invasion of England, French was used as the language of the court - and the courts! - so that it wasn't until the reign of Edward II that English was reinstated in the courts so the accused could understand what was going on. Latin was maintained as the language of the Church for hundreds of years. Other languages have gone underground, such as Gaelic, Korean during WWII under Japanese occupation, or Bulgarian during the Ottoman invasion (thanks for adding that one, Harry!).

Some languages have different dialects in which gender is assigned differently. Kyle mentioned different dialects of ancient Greek. Dialects emerge over time as language use is isolated in an area, and all kinds of changes can potentially emerge.

We returned to the question of gender by talking about Japanese women's language. Though women in Japan don't use "their own language," the style in which they speak is very distinct from the style in which men typically speak. My husband, who learned for years from female teachers, was once told by a friend that he had to "stop talking like a girl." Women tend to speak more formally using honorifics, verb endings, choices of more formal vocabulary, and using different emotive particles on the ends of sentences (these indicate if you're exclaiming, questioning, etc.).

There are also gendered variations of English usage, as Kyle mentioned (this isn't just for languages in faraway lands!). Generally in English the use of qualifiers and indirect approaches is considered more female, and the use of more direct approaches is considered male. There is also a female style many of you may recognize in which statements are delivered with the intonation of questions (i.e. going up at the end). There are internet metrics available now which claim to be able to tell whether a writer is male or female, but Cheryl told us those tend to pick her academic writing as 90% male, and her fiction as 90% female, so there's obviously something else going on besides gender!

Finally we attacked the question of what this all means for worldbuilding. Gender has a deep influence on any people's unconscious view of the world and on the way they speak - so it should do the same for the worlds you create. Harry suggested people could use a special Bulgarian style of insult, where someone will use the wrong gender for a person, and then when they get called on it, deflect by claiming that they were talking about a gendered object nearby. (I'd never heard of that one, and we all loved it!) If you're working with aliens, you can consider animal gender behaviors and assign language use based on them. Avian aliens might have variations in plumage and singing style based on gender. It's always fun to challenge or change gender expectations. A seahorse alien would probably assign male gender to a pregnant human (and misunderstanding and/or hijinks might ensue!).

It's important also to keep in mind that gender is not simple or exclusively bimodal, even in our own world. Some harrier hawks are born with female plumage and engage in female behaviors. Gender is all over our DNA, and resides as much in our brains as it does in our bodies, physically. It is also surrounded by elaborate patterns of cultural behavior, and the two intertwine.

I mentioned that I have a friend in the Netherlands who does speech therapy, and during one of our visits she told us she had a transgendered client who was getting her help to learn how to speak in a feminine way. That if nothing else should tell us that gender has an enormous influence on language use, and that this influence is cultural rather than physical. Cheryl recommended an interesting link about how to speak androgynously.

This is a never-ending topic, but that was where our discussion closed. Today at 11am we'll be talking about colonialism and imperialism, so I hope you'll join us!


  1. Another wonderful report! I'd have to disagree with you on two points: that pronouns don't change and that "they" is not accepted usage.

    Just look 300 years ago and people were saying thee, thou, thine and thy, and ye and you were only used for plural cases. Now we have you, and, not accepted academically but functioning as pronouns in speech, you all, y'all, you guys, and, still in NY, youse.

    The OED cites they as being used as a singular pronoun since the 16th century, and becoming more common, again, in the 20th because of efforts to avoid sexist language.

    But yeah, efforts to manufacture pronouns to avoid sexism have mostly failed.

    One of these days a hangout it going to coincide with a day off and I'll be able to attend!

  2. Nicole, thanks for the comment! I don't believe I ever claimed that pronouns "don't" change. Every part of language changes historically and across dialects, as you've noted. I'm just saying they are resistant to change, that is, that if you try to introduce an entirely new pronoun system in your world, readers will be tossed out of the story more often than not. It's important to try to use existing dialectal variants to your advantage. What I meant about "they" was that I'm not sure I'd try to use it in any academic writing for fear of running afoul of the style mavens. ;) Thanks for the great examples!

  3. Inventing new pronouns is an uphill battle. I tried to invent one for a story (not genderless; instead the pronoun was a specific status marker used for high-caste, sort of like modern address of "thee" and "thou" for God, but I didn't want to do that) but it was a headache and Stan Schmidt (in his gracious rejection of the story) convinced me this really hard to do.

    I'm not saying one shouldn't do it, just adding my own experience with trying...

  4. Thanks for the comment, CWJ, and thanks for sharing your experience. At a panel with Stan about language, we talked about pronouns, and he mentioned he'd had similar difficulty with a pronoun system he'd invented for a novel. One should take on a project like that with caution and foreknowledge, I think.

  5. As a genderqueer ally I've made it a point to know what gender neutral pronouns are in common usage in the genderqueer community, and have tried to incorporate them into my stories. The information is out there and I believe it's just going to take persistence to bring them into the mainstream. I've had various success with using them. One editor knew exactly what I was doing and published the story, others really have no clue what I'm talking about and it can be quite frustrating (and bordering on discrimination).

    It's not just about finding the right pronouns to avoid sexism, the genderqueer deserve recognition and the pronouns they identify with.

  6. Amanda, thanks for the comment! I'm sorry you didn't mention any specifics. This is a wide-ranging topic and we can only cover so many things in an hour. I believe the genderqueer were represented in our discussion. If you are interested in writing an article for me about this topic, please do let me know.