Tuesday March 2, 2004

Pronouns in Marain

These posts on Language Hat and Long story; short pier discuss various proposals for, and fictional accounts of, gender-neutral pronoun systems. I was immediately reminded of a passage in the novel The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks.

This is one of Banks' novels of the Culture, an advanced interstellar civilization characterized primarily by meddling in other civilizations' business and feeling superior about it (at least, that's my characterization—I'm not sure Banks would agree). At the beginning of part 2 of the novel (p. 127 of the Harper paperback), the narrator says:

Little textual note for you here (bear with me).

Those of you unfortunate enough not to be reading or hearing this in Marain may well be using a language without the requisite number or type of personal pronouns, so I'd better explain that bit of the translation.

Marain, the Culture's quintessentially wonderful language (so the Culture will tell you), has, as any schoolkid knows, one personal pronoun to cover females, males, in-betweens, neuters, children, drones, Minds, other sentient machines, and every life-form capable of scraping together anything remotely resembling a nervous system and the rudiments of language (or a good excuse for not having either). Naturally, there are ways of specifying a person's sex in Marain, but they're not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it's brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over.

(Speak for yourself!)

So, speakers of Marain have done away with gender in pronouns—or, rather, with sex in pronouns. Marain's pronouns do mark gender, it's just that the genders are "animate" and "inanimate". This hardly seems worth feeling smug about, but, well, it's the Culture, and that's what they do best.

[With apologies to Anoop Sarkar at Special Circumstances, who I probably ought to have let field this one, given the name of his blog.]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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In a language with only gender neutral pronouns, one encounters "the gay porn problem" (i.e. disambiguating "he put his hand on his leg"). Translating from a language with gendered pronouns to one without, you have to use people's names more frequently and even rearrange sentences.

Is there any evidence for a language moving from one state (gendered or non-gendered pronouns) to the other?

Posted by: Qov at Mar 3, 2004 4:39:52 PM

I suspect that's the sort of problem that doesn't seem like a problem to a speaker of a language with genderless pronouns. Suppose you spoke a language where there were two different pronominal forms, one for strangers and another for people you know. If you pointed out to an English speaker that "He is over there" (or even "I touched him on the leg") fails to distinguish whether "he" is a stranger or not, I suspect the English speaker's response would be, "So what? If I had wanted to make that clear, I could have mentioned it."

(Oh, and Qov, I'm not sure how to break this to you, but I'm pretty sure your blog is in Klingon.)

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 3, 2004 5:15:10 PM

Rats! I thought I was finally getting the hang of Heiltsuq Kwakiutl. Does this invalidate my ideas? Klingon *does* have only gender neutral pronouns.

I agree that the non-gendered pronoun, or any difference across pronoun systems merits a "so what" from the speaker, but I imagine that even in the absense of sexism, this so-called problem would help to maintain differentiated pronouns, just as gendered nouns stick around in the languages that have them, making it possible to say things like "I dropped the plate on the floor and it cracked," while making it clear which one cracked.

Posted by: Qov at Mar 5, 2004 12:14:09 AM

Of course, some languages disambiguate such sentences by other means, like proximate/obviative distinctions, long-range reflexives, switch reference etc.

Posted by: Tim May at Mar 7, 2004 11:23:17 AM

I just happened across your Linguistics in SF section, and have been browsing through it. Good stuff.

Wanted to comment, two years too late, on this post about pronouns in Marain.

Or rather, I wanted to mention two other notable uses of pronouns in SF:

1. Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, "in which" (to quote Wikipedia) "the pronouns he and she reveal the speaker's sexual interest in the subject rather than the subject's biological or social gender."

2. Melissa Scott's Shadow Man, set in a future with five genders, each of which has its own set of pronouns. Scott takes the unusual tack of using the archaic letters [eth], [thorn], and [yogh] in the pronouns: [yogh]e, [yogh]er, [yogh]im, [yogh]imself for hermaphrodites, for example. (Actually, it may not be a yogh; I've been reading it as the IPA character pronounced /zh/ that looks like a yogh or a 3.)

Anyway, thanks for the nifty entries! And I second the suggestion one of your commenters made that you do an entry on Delany's Babel-17.

Posted by: Jed Hartman at Mar 22, 2006 9:59:00 PM


I just found this blog by accident - I'm going to study English philology myself and your entries are truly very interesting to me. This one caught my eye, because I come from Finland, a culture where we have no distinction between genders. We do have the pronoun "it", but it's also commonly used (especially among younger people) for "he/she".

Like someone already expressed, in this kind of language the distinction or meaning is usually explained by mentioning the person in question, pointing at them etc., so it's really not such a strange thing - at least for one who has spoken this language all her life, such as myself.

And now, although a bit late (being that you wrote this all the way back in 2004), I present my personal view on this matter: I feel that speaking a language where there's no gender distinction in the word he/she gives much freedom compared to a language where this distinction must be made. I read and write a lot of poetry, where this feature of the Finnish language has been widely exploited. How much more can you say with the sentence "Oh, how I long for her", if you can't tell from this little piece whether I'm head over heels for a guy or a gal... Well, I must admit I'm not good at explaining, but I hope you realise my point.

Posted by: Cornflower at Mar 16, 2007 6:23:55 AM