(Found) Short story - person on spaceship studying culture with five genders

NannyOgg

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I think I came across this short story as part of an anthology. Would probably have been some time in the 80s, if that helps at all.

The story was told in first person; I believe the person telling it was female and living on a space vessel of some kind, and her job involved studying the language of alien cultures. The particular group of aliens she was studying at the time of the story had five genders (one for egg-producing, two for sperm-producing, one for gestating, and one for transferring sperm and egg to the host). Each gender had a different dialect, which made language very complicated (there was also a separate dialect, or I think more like different inflections, for children, who didn't manifest their gender until fairly late in development).

There was a child involved. I remember her as being called Jo, which I may have got wrong. As I recall, she had been rescued from some kind of trauma and didn't initially talk due to the shock. She starts talking when she hears the linguist trying to say something in this species' language to one of her co-workers, because the linguist has actually made the embarrassing mistake of using the wrong gender dialect and Jo (if that's her name) thinks that's funny and corrects her. The linguist realises that Jo has spent time on this planet.

There was some kind of showdown which I'm very hazy on but which I think involved Jo trying to kill someone who has wronged her and getting killed herself. At the end, the narrator is thinking about a custom in the culture of the species she's studying - the gender who transfer sperm and egg to the host are supposed to have a particularly special and dependable relationship with their children in order to make up for the fact that they don't pass on any genetic information to them. As a result, the language has a particular word - I think it was 'shilel', but googling on that isn't getting me anything helpful - to refer to the act of doing something that betrays that bond. It's one of the worst insults within that culture, because this is considered such a grave thing. I think the last sentence was the narrator thinking 'In a way, I, too, was shilel.'

Sorry to be so vague on details. Any bells rung here?
 

Lisalbaylor

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Would love to read that story. Sorry I cannot help. Hoping I will get notified when others reply here.
 

Danny McG

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there was an alien race in some of the early Frank Herbert stories that has five genders. they were called the Pan-Spechi .... can't recall much else about them
 

NannyOgg

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Figured I'd give this a bump, as it's been so long - maybe someone new recognises it!
 

Tannin

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<Unhelpful reply>
We are not talking about gender here, we are talking about sex. Gender has to do with social divisions. (For example, in most western societies, we have two genders, only one of which wears lipstick. There is no particular biological reason for this and it has no biological significance, it's just a cultural habit.)
Sex has to do with biological differences. In this story, we have five sexes. (Possibly only four, if the two sperm-producers are identical but for some reason you have to have two of them.)
</Unhelpful reply>

PS: the annoying thing is that I have a very, very vague memory of reading something along these lines, perhaps in the mid to late 70s. Can't remember anything else about it though. Sorry.
 

NannyOgg

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I found it!!

Diana Paxson, 'The Song of N'Sardi-el'.

The word 'shilel' that I remembered was the key to finding it. My mistake was trying to search in general search engines - 'shilel' seems to be an actual Hebrew word, so I was getting all kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with the story. But today, I had the idea of searching on books.google.com - and I promptly found an anthology with the story in.

Which didn't at first get me much further forward, since the anthology only had snippet view on books.google and I couldn't find the name or author of that particular story. But the snippet view did have a couple of other alien terms in, and googling one of those got me the details.

Found another anthology with the story in that's available cheaply on Amazon, ordered it, and should have it within a few weeks. Result!

So, maybe that'll be of help if anyone else is wondering about this one (Lisa Baylor?) Or maybe it'll give someone some inspiration about how to track something down from one detail!
 

otistdog

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Thanks for posting back with the answer. I'm sure it will be helpful to others in the future.
 

Danny McG

"Aye, you're right there, Obadiah"
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And if ever somebody is looking for a species with seven genders there are the alien enemies (the Wyzhñyñy) in Soldiers by John Dalmas

Quote from the book...

"There are, he told them, four genetic genders and three nurture-actuated, "exalted" genders"
 

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