Gender neutral pronouns for alien races

LeonStevens

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My latest book in progress has an alien of unknown gender (although, it is safe to say that an extra-terrestrial can't really be identified as male or female unless there is a knowledge of one carrying the offspring, right?).

In my first draft, I referred to the alien as "the being" or "it", but the more I looked at it the less appropriate it seemed. With non-binary becoming more common in society, with many not identifying with a specific gender, What is the best pronoun to use?

I've seen:
  • they/them
  • Ze/hir
  • Xe/xem
  • Hy/hym
  • Co/cos
Thoughts?
 

DAgent

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If I recall correctly Peter David wrote some non binary or gender neutral characters in his Star Trek New Frontier novels, using different pronouns some of which I think you might have listed above, but it might be worth looking up his work for a baseline.

It might even be best to at first refer to the character as they/them initially until the all characters properly understand it's biology and it's wishes on how to be addressed. If the alien is truly Asexual and reproduces in a truly Asexual manner, they/them might be the best to use all the time, unless of course they have a preferred term in their own language.

On a side note, I've just gave the Chronicles of Narnia a re-read and noticed that when it came to Talking Beasts, C.S. Lewis had a habit of switching between referring to a character by a specific gender, and referring to them as "It" which seems odd. For example Reepicheep the mouse is sometimes referred in "narration as twirling it's whiskers like a moustache with it's hands" or "garbed his sword to threaten anyone who insulted him" and I for one can't decided if this was an oversight or not and just how Lewis saw the Talking Beasts in this regard.
 

Abernovo

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I'm not sure if you've read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. She created a scenario where standard manners within the galactic diaspora was to refer to any person, human or otherwise, whose gender you weren't aware of, as Xe/Xir. So, maybe the thing to do is create a framework on how the culture works, and how you see your alien.

With non-binary becoming more common in society, with many not identifying with a specific gender, What is the best pronoun to use?
If you're not familiar with non-binary people, it may be an idea to run it by someone who is non-binary. Either as a beta reader, or perhaps a paid sensitivity reader, to check for anything which sticks out. Trans and non-binary people have always been around, for example the 18thC Public Universal Friend, so it's less about being more common in society, and more about the ability to be more open. I'm sure you are already aware of that fact, but this is what I mean about running it by someone. :)

If the alien is truly Asexual and reproduces in a truly Asexual manner, they/them might be the best to use all the time, unless of course they have a preferred term in their own language.
And, of course gender identity is different from sex, and sexuality, as well as reproductive biology. However, having terms in their own language makes a nice touch, and could lead to a discussion which creates richer, deeper characters.

Most of all, good luck with the story! :)
 

LeonStevens

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I'm not sure if you've read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. She created a scenario where standard manners within the galactic diaspora was to refer to any person, human or otherwise, whose gender you weren't aware of, as Xe/Xir. So, maybe the thing to do is create a framework on how the culture works, and how you see your alien.


If you're not familiar with non-binary people, it may be an idea to run it by someone who is non-binary. Either as a beta reader, or perhaps a paid sensitivity reader, to check for anything which sticks out. Trans and non-binary people have always been around, for example the 18thC Public Universal Friend, so it's less about being more common in society, and more about the ability to be more open. I'm sure you are already aware of that fact, but this is what I mean about running it by someone. :)


And, of course gender identity is different from sex, and sexuality, as well as reproductive biology. However, having terms in their own language makes a nice touch, and could lead to a discussion which creates richer, deeper characters.

Most of all, good luck with the story! :)
Yes, I meant, more open rather than more common.

I haven't read that book yet. I figured that more sci-fi writers are using gender-neutral pronouns, so this is a good start.

Thanks
 

Phyrebrat

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Funnily enough I’ve just been listening to a really interesting podcast on The Kingcast with Bryan Fuller. He makes an excellent observation that trans people are exhausted having themselves defined by CIS/het-normative people.

I think that speaks to the wider point of minorities being defined by the majority. In that regard, your species might be able to define themselves in your novel. It might lead to interesting stuff in the narrative(?).

My own personal experience of this (in trans and non binary matters) is not in how I use my students’ preferred pronouns when working with them individually, but as part of a group. For example I have a non-binary student in a class of girls. I had to correct myself from using ‘you guys’ as a generic term for a group (which is problematic anyway from a patriarchal bias before we even get into non-binary discussions!!) because I realised it may offend them.

They’re a close group, and as a result, I’ve asked them - and the class - to pick a collective term. It can be existing or a made up term. That way the agency is given to them rather than bestowed on them by me.

Can your alien define it for your characters? Also might be interesting to note that ‘alien’ is a problematic term, too. Maybe all this could work it’s way into your story?
 

LeonStevens

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Can your alien define it for your characters? Also might be interesting to note that ‘alien’ is a problematic term, too. Maybe all this could work it’s way into your story?

No, there is rudimentary communication, and the characters have given it a name (See? "given it" makes it sound like an animal of object). So, I can use the name, but that gets repetitive.

I could probably have stuck with "it", "the being/creature", etc., but I thought that it would be better to use what is generally accepted today - which turns out to not be as simply as that.
 

Mon0Zer0

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My latest book in progress has an alien of unknown gender (although, it is safe to say that an extra-terrestrial can't really be identified as male or female unless there is a knowledge of one carrying the offspring, right?).

In my first draft, I referred to the alien as "the being" or "it", but the more I looked at it the less appropriate it seemed. With non-binary becoming more common in society, with many not identifying with a specific gender, What is the best pronoun to use?

I've seen:
  • they/them
  • Ze/hir
  • Xe/xem
  • Hy/hym
  • Co/cos
Thoughts?

Male and female apply to earth bound creatures that are sexually dimorphic. There's no reason your aliens need to conform to earth bound sexual dimorphism, they could reproduce asexually or even have hundreds of sexes like Physarum polycephalum.

I'm inclined to agree with @Bick that neo-pronouns like Xe will most likely trip up a reader as awareness of them, outside of a small number of people, is still pretty low. As an experiment, I tried to write a story where everyone was referred to by they / them and it became confusing pretty fast.

We tend to refer to animals that we're unfamiliar with as "it" in real life - it's unlikely you'd refer to a slug or a housefly by their sexual category, so if it's likely we'd naturally refer to an alien species as it. I doubt an alien species would be that concerned with our linguistic conventions to take offence by being incorrectly sexed.
 

Abernovo

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In your opinion, Bick.

All language is made up. The use of they goes back centuries - take it up with Chaucer and Shakespeare. If an alien, in this case, was equivalent to a person in terms of legal process, but *you* could not determine whether they were male or female, it would surely be considered rude, and discourteous to refer to them as 'it'*.

I'm not going to get into the politics of this, as I'm well aware of your views (you've made them clear multiple times), but people might consider actually showing other people respect about how they wish to be addressed.

Leon, please feel free to PM (start a Conversation with) me if you want me to have a look at a particular section. I don't know all the answers, and certainly do not know every viewpoint, but I can give a personal opinion of the writing, from being one of those affected by the pronouns and comments people use about me.

*Mon0zer0 got in while I was replying.
I doubt an alien species would be that concerned with our linguistic conventions to take offence by being incorrectly sexed.
I think your reply is quite nuanced, and pretty balanced, but I would disagree with you on this. It has been discussed by science fiction writers in the past that incorrect language could cause extreme offence, and indeed, one of the basic tenets of diplomacy is proper interpretation. So, I wonder if (on perhaps a wider scope to this story) the concept and understanding of proper interaction, and intent, might not be a major part of any first contact.
 

Bick

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In your opinion, Bick.

I'm not going to get into the politics of this, as I'm well aware of your views (you've made them clear multiple times), but people might consider actually showing other people respect about how they wish to be addressed.
I'm not making a political point and I'd thank you to be respectful to what was genuine writing advice. 'They' would also be fine of course as it's a word we're all familiar with, and which the reader will not trip up on. My point is simply that good writing should probably be avoid 'neo-pronouns' like 'xe' unless you really want to make a political point yourself, as they don't scan well for the reader, and they trip up the flow of the prose. Do you want the work to be well-written and readable to the majority of readers, or do you want to aim the work at a minority who can live with the writing?
 

TheDustyZebra

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My advice as a reader and reviewer - definitely avoid made up pronouns. Use ‘it’ if it is not clearly male or female. ‘Xe’ and so on, look ridiculous to most readers and their use trips up the flow of the prose.

As opposed to those pronouns that were emblazoned on the fabric of the universe at the beginning of time?

I have faith that SF/F readers, malchick or devotchka, theydies or gentlethems, Klingon or Vogon or Quendi, will manage to grok a few unfamiliar terms without having their brains explode. I'm also certain that SF/F readers as a whole are familiar with both the concept and usage of neopronouns -- we make up whole languages, worlds, universes, timelines, aliens, cyborgs, robots, elves, orcs, vampires, werewolves, superheroes, superhumans, and the supernatural, so I find it a bit disingenuous to claim our readers can't make it past a handful of pronouns whose context explains them.

I doubt an alien species would be that concerned with our linguistic conventions to take offence by being incorrectly sexed.

I share Abernovo's disagreement with this. Much of science fiction delves into the nuances of language and behavior and how they cause misunderstandings from minor to catastrophic when dealing with extraterrestrial relations -- and that stems directly from relations right here on home soil throughout history. Words matter, and identity is the essence of being. It seems to me that the assumption that a people would be indifferent to their identity must be rooted in thinking of them as "it". If we think of them as we do bugs (and even with bugs, we often know male from female), then it's logical to assume they don't care what we call them -- but if we posit intelligence and self-awareness, we must assume that awareness includes ways of differentiating oneself from others, probably including something resembling what we call gender.
 

Bick

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As opposed to those pronouns that were emblazoned on the fabric of the universe at the beginning of time?

I have faith that SF/F readers, malchick or devotchka, theydies or gentlethems, Klingon or Vogon or Quendi, will manage to grok a few unfamiliar terms without having their brains explode. I'm also certain that SF/F readers as a whole are familiar with both the concept and usage of neopronouns -- we make up whole languages, worlds, universes, timelines, aliens, cyborgs, robots, elves, orcs, vampires, werewolves, superheroes, superhumans, and the supernatural, so I find it a bit disingenuous to claim our readers can't make it past a handful of pronouns whose context explains them.



I share Abernovo's disagreement with this. Much of science fiction delves into the nuances of language and behavior and how they cause misunderstandings from minor to catastrophic when dealing with extraterrestrial relations -- and that stems directly from relations right here on home soil throughout history. Words matter, and identity is the essence of being. It seems to me that the assumption that a people would be indifferent to their identity must be rooted in thinking of them as "it". If we think of them as we do bugs (and even with bugs, we often know male from female), then it's logical to assume they don't care what we call them -- but if we posit intelligence and self-awareness, we must assume that awareness includes ways of differentiating oneself from others, probably including something resembling what we call gender.
Really? Let’s just agree to disagree.
 
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Mon0Zer0

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I share Abernovo's disagreement with this. Much of science fiction delves into the nuances of language and behavior and how they cause misunderstandings from minor to catastrophic when dealing with extraterrestrial relations -- and that stems directly from relations right here on home soil throughout history. Words matter, and identity is the essence of being. It seems to me that the assumption that a people would be indifferent to their identity must be rooted in thinking of them as "it". If we think of them as we do bugs (and even with bugs, we often know male from female), then it's logical to assume they don't care what we call them -- but if we posit intelligence and self-awareness, we must assume that awareness includes ways of differentiating oneself from others, probably including something resembling what we call gender.

I agree that language and behaviour are fertile ground for stories around the disastrous effects of cultural misunderstandings, but the kinds of faux-pas that escalate tend to be around the political - hostile intent, military strategy, ethnic or historic territory or definitions, access to resources, social organisation etc not the interpersonal. In reality, people tend to give much more leeway in cross cultural communication for things that would be considered social faux-pas in the home culture because they appreciate another person isn't familiar with their social etiquette.

Amongst themselves they might consider the other rude or ill mannered or morally bankrupt but they are likely to let it slide in everyday interactions.

The nuance of "it" within English to something which is "othered" might be lost on a culture in which there is effectively no gender (as all sexes / socially constructed modes of being are indistinguishable, so the concept of gender would never have occurred to them). Rather than being offended by "it", they might warm to it and find the human way of distinguishing ourselves strange and incomprehensible.

It seems to me that the importance of gender as a mode of self definition can only arise in a society that creates a codified distinction between genders in the first place.
 

AllanR

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In English, for humans, they/them have been used for two hundred years. Not common, though not unheard of. They has been used when the gender is, undetermined, hidden, or irrelevant.

For aliens, maybe make up some term, really depends on how important gender is for your story. I remember in Harry Harrisons West of Eden, he didn't reveal the lizards gender for some time, he used this for good effect. (though I don't remember his pronoun use, don't have the book handy).

While some languages genderfy everything, other languages only one word for single person pronouns. In Hungarian its Ő. That is one word for he or she or it.
Some Hungarians, when speaking English, use he and she randomly, often both for the same person, in the same sentence!. Your alien could have a weird quirk like mixing up genders when speaking.
 

LeonStevens

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I thought that this topic might generate a few opinions...
... good writing should probably be avoid 'neo-pronouns' like 'xe' unless you really want to make a political point yourself, as they don't scan well for the reader, and they trip up the flow of the prose. Do you want the work to be well-written and readable to the majority of readers, or do you want to aim the work at a minority who can live with the writing?
There is a case here, that writing standards are standards for a reason, but languages are constantly changing.

In English, for humans, they/them have been used for two hundred years. Not common, though not unheard of. They has been used when the gender is, undetermined, hidden, or irrelevant.

On hearing the word "they" we more than likely think plural. We use it as a singular more often than we realize, but it still seems awkward.

I appreciate all the feedback!
 

Juliana

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In Charlie Jane Anders' book Victories Greater Than Death, she has a ship full of different aliens among which are a number of humans — the MC was brought up on Earth. They way the author gets around this exact issue is by having a sort of universal translator everyone uses which translates concepts as well as words into those of human usage. That includes pronouns (every character is introduced with their pronouns), which are translated into the nearest English equivalent, making clear that this is simply the closest the translation can get to that particular alien's culture and biology. So he/him, she/her, they/them, ze/zir etc. Might be worth having a look, especially as it's a recent release (this year) and might help with your original question.
 

LeonStevens

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In Charlie Jane Anders' book Victories Greater Than Death, she has a ship full of different aliens among which are a number of humans — the MC was brought up on Earth. They way the author gets around this exact issue is by having a sort of universal translator everyone uses which translates concepts as well as words into those of human usage. That includes pronouns (every character is introduced with their pronouns), which are translated into the nearest English equivalent, making clear that this is simply the closest the translation can get to that particular alien's culture and biology. So he/him, she/her, they/them, ze/zir etc. Might be worth having a look, especially as it's a recent release (this year) and might help with your original question.

So, I'm not the only one...(y)
 

MyheroMint

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Hey there. I'm trans and I think all pronouns should be abolished.

But to answer your original question, I would recommend the politically correct phrases "the person of extraterrestrial origin" and "that one/that one's/that oneself" instead of "the being" and "it/its/itself". It may be clunky, but it gets the job done.

Or you can take gender neutral singular pronouns from other languages like Hungarian Ő. Coin a loanword like ő/ő's/őself. Or just write the whole thing in Hungarian.
 

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