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Q&A

What pronoun should a hermaphrodite species use?

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In my fantasy novel, I have a species that is fully hermaphroditic: all individuals have both male and female reproductive organs. Like garden snails. Consequently, they have only one gender.

They explicitly state that they don't mind when confused humans refer to them as he/she/it/they. Humans consider "it" to be impolite, but that's a human thing. However, what pronoun should members of this species use when talking about each other (to a human)?

  1. "He was my mate"
  2. "She was my mate"
  3. "It was my mate"
  4. "They were my mate"

All four don't sound quite right, do they? I should perhaps add that I don't want this species to sound awkward. They're supposed to be, in some ways, higher being than humans.

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You have a number of options:

  • If the narrator of the book is a human, it would be entirely acceptable to use "he" or "she" (no point in switching between them) throughout the book as standard, with an explanation for this usage by the narrator. Ursula Le Guin's "The Left Hand Of Darkness" used "he" throughout the book, and referred to her androgynous species as pretty much always male. I think the key point is to mention that you're writing for a human audience, so it needs to be understood easily by them first.
  • You could attempt to use "they" as a singular, this was used by Shakespeare, amongst others, when referring to indeterminate gender.
  • Since it's a fantasy novel, there's nothing to stop you from creating terms that they as a species would use as replacements for him and her, and using those instead. Some examples could be pronouns related to social standing, age etc.
  • Related to this, even though they're hermaphrodites, it's plausible that many may naturally adopt a particular outlook that we'd consider to be male or female, and then they can be addressed as he or she accordingly (or, as I say, perhaps they have their own terminology for this). And, for those that routinely change this outlook, that could have a specific term as well.
  • You could take some tips from the transgender community in real life, and look at gender-neutral terms that they use.

For a good discussion on this topic, I recommend having a look at this article entitled Pronouning Your Hermaphrodite that I came across. The article and subsequent discussion covers a few of the points I've made above, as well as gives some excellent references to other books that have tackled this issue.

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Despite the rest of the answers giving very valid points, I'd like to add that you can always invent your own expression that doesn't necessarily have to conform to any predefined standards.

The expression I/We/Gaia that Isaac Asimov uses in his Foundation saga comes to mind. In this case, Asimov refers with this (in my opinion) elegant solution to his collective of beings with a single consciousness. Your particular case could use a similar expression. Something like heshe, s'he, etc. or even an entirely new word.

There's an added, entirely optional, challenge of introducing the new word to the reader as if it is a well-established word, and giving subtle hints to its meaning until it becomes a well-known word throughout the novel. This adds to the depth of your work.

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As it's 2018, you can potentially let your reader choose how they prefer it, through some humble assistance from an online publishing partner. Anyone skilled in the computer science discipline of Natural Language Processing and only slightly open-headed may enable that. Since we no longer rely on pre-printed dead wood for distributing reading materials and even Coca Cola bottles came with person-specific personalization for a while. Things like hir and stuff are probably odd and annoying to most currently living people, and that kind of revolution may have to take place before a book uses them. That said, it could be cute using them, if a preface explained them to the user in a way compatible with the book's style :-)

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David Weber uses a consistent convention in his Honor Harrington books where the speaker uses their own gendered pronoun to refer to someone else when they don't know their gender. (Even if the reader does know that information.)

"The opposing Admiral really knows her stuff." said {female character}. "I agree he's got us on the ropes." responded {male character}.

This would obviously only help you assuming you are always writing from a human character's perspective. In speech a member of the alien species could always follow the previous speaker's convention.

As others have suggested you could also adopt a completely different set of pronouns. Wikipedia has some suggestions; Third Person Pronouns, I personally have always liked Xe, Xem and Xyr.

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Unlike the engineered hermaphroditic humans in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan universe, who might be speaking a future version of English, your hermaphrodites are an alien species and do not speak English among themselves. They will therefore have a pronoun in their language that has no correspondence in contemporary English.

If you want your narrator to convey this linguistic feature to your readers, you may invent (part of) that alien language and use that alien pronoun in your narration. This should not be a problem to your readers after some introductory explanation (in text or in a preface) and a few reminders every now and then during the narrative.


If you want to write in English without using words from another language, you could look at what translators do when they translate text into English from one of the existing genderless languages.

In my opinion, the best you can do, if you want to represent the absence of gender in a gendered language such as contemporary English, is:

  • use neuter pronouns (it/its/itself)
  • use one gendered pronoun (either he/his or she/her) consistently throughout the text, and explain your usage either in text (through the narrator) or in an author's note prefacing the text
  • singular they
  • use one
  • avoid pronouns

he or she

I have frequently seen the second option employed in published fiction, often with female pronouns, often by feminist authors, and mostly for human or humanoid species. Sometimes this was done without the explanation, as a conscious play on gender expectations in the reader.

A recent close example is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, in which English "she" is used for both genders in a culture that "doesn't much care about gender" and does not have gendered pronouns in its language:

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn't entirely certain. It wouldn't have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don't care much about gender, and the language they speak – my own first language [represented by English, in the book] – doesn't mark gender in any way.

it

The first option (using "it") would emphasize the fact that your beings aren't human, which might or might not be something you want. A clear advantage is that your readers wouldn't have to constantly remind themselves that "she" doesn't mean "female".

they

Singular they isn't commonly accepted as correct, so I don't see it as an option for most writers. As the English language changes, singular they may eventually become Standard English or even replace gendered pronouns, but today too many readers see it as grammatically incorrect or "policing speech". I wouldn't use singular they in my writing before it has been accepted by the majority of my target audience. Other writers may want to take a stand for gender neutral language and use singular they in their writing as a political act.

one

This is the option I prefer. It is free of prejudice, clearly singular, and its slight suggestion of Broken English fits the fact that it is spoken by aliens perfectly.

(no pronoun)

Certain languages have no third person pronouns and their speakers use nouns (such as boku "servant" in Japanese) to refer to other persons. Small children use their names to refer to themselves. Something akin to this will give a decidedly alien touch to your aliens' speech.

This is my second favourite option. It's not the first, because it will take quite an effort to worldbuild the aliens' culture to find a term that works well.

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In colloquial American English, it’s become common to use they for an individual of unknown gender, so this probably would not sound strange to a Millennial or younger. I think, if hermaphrodites appeared on Earth today and didn’t say what to call them, they is probably what most people would go with.

There are, however, other literary precedents. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness called hermaphrodites he, although the author herself was ambivalent about that. The mythological Hermaphroditus was also called he. It has also been common from the early days of the English language to call a small child with no visible indication of sex it (as the Germanic word kind was grammatically neuter.) The Spivak pronouns, or other invented pronouns, will probably be familiar to many readers of a SF story about hermaphrodites and are not hard to pick up from context if they aren’t. If they look female with their clothes on, most people today would probably call them she.

If the characters themselves would have a preference, in-universe, you should go with that.

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I don't have this problem in my writing, but this would be my suggestion: If they are not distinguished by gender, then you need a general term any random person. I would latch onto something they do have in common: They are all persons, citizens, or subjects. Or at least when their language formed, they referred to their group of people as something; fellows, members, soldiers, partners. In the USA we now refer to soldiers of either gender as Troops; a squad of twenty troops may be all female, all male, or any mixture. It isn't a stretch to think the plural Troops becomes the singular pronoun Troop. Much like Cop stands for a police officer of either gender. Or Kid or Child is genderless.

So here are suggestions: It may be common in their language to use Child as the pronoun for everyone, everyone is a child of somebody, after all.

Another choice is to take a generalization they all share and explain that in their language the pronoun is a single syllable that means Subject of a Ruler, so in English they say Sub.

Or Citizen becomes Cit. Or, if the earliest history of the species was particularly militant (which is not inconsistent with their current elevated condition), perhaps in their language every adult is a Soldier and every child is Child.

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