Epiphany uses a different pronoun system for one very basic reason: In most languages in The Seven Papers, third person does not vary based on an individual’s gender identity. Instead, languages vary by number, formality, and/or how central a person is to what is being described in the narrative.
This isn’t a weird linguistic feature. In fact, many of Earth’s languages do not distinguish between men and women in pronouns. Algonquian languages often distinguish people by centrality to a conversation (e.g., the person you are talking about versus the peripheral people who interacted with that person). Polynesian languages have inclusive and exclusive we, and they distinguish between singular, two people, and three or more people. Many Indo-European languages have formality markers in second person (e.g., thou/you, tu/vous).
Pronouns are really just a shorthand tool for referring to an antecedent. Languages have them because they’re really, really useful. How pronouns evolve depends on the specific history and context of a language or language family.
I also write constructed languages and majored in English. This means I love grammar and understand that the romanticized idea of an unchangeable mother tongue does not hold water. There’s rampant misunderstanding that being a language or grammar geek means being a reactionary grammarian — but the more one knows about language, the more obvious it is that languages are more like rivers than like statues — they trace out different pathways over time.
In Epiphany, I decided to use gender-neutral pronouns to reflect the cultural realities of the three ethnic groups in Tveshė: The Hicịptụ, the Ịgzarhjenya, and the Sabaji. (Also the Ịgzarhjenya-Sabaji creole culture, the Iturji.) The reference language is Tveshi for almost all of The Seven Papers.
Changing the pronoun system in English allows me to do narrative things that I couldn’t do with “natural” gendered pronouns. (Note: Yes, those are paggro quotes.) Pronouns are tools, and they need to be workhorses for a host of antecedents.
I decided against flattening number in third person to they. First, I wanted to preserve numerical inflection in third person. Third person bears some of the heaviest weight in fiction. I also decided against they and th’all because English isn’t there yet — although it may be soon.
The pronoun system for The Seven Papers is le, lim, ler, lers, limself. In sentences, this works out as follows:
- Le went to the store.
- Have you given lim the book?
- Have you seen ler sweater?
- That is actually lers.
- Le needs to take better care of limself.
The pronoun le derives from a pronoun proposed by Edgar Alfred Stevens, who wrote about it in The Current back in 1884. I modified it so the non-subject forms looked less he-derived. His original suggestion was le, lim, lis, and limself. It’s derived from the French le. English does love deriving words from French!
Beyond that, here’s a handy table:
|Third object singular||it||its||its||itself|
|(I also use former, latter, that one, and this one quite often to distinguish between 3PS speakers.)|
Why not [insert a GNP]?
I did not use epicene singular third person they for many reasons. The origin story of my search for an unabashedly singular pronoun is our second-person pronoun you. I was sitting in a meeting, and the meeting leader used y’all. One of the members mockingly ridiculed lim. The entire room fell silent. Over the years, I’ve seen people mock non-Standard American English dialects again and again. That time, it sank in, and I thought about what happened in that meeting for hours afterward.
English lost thou (second person informal) to liturgy a while ago. We now have a privilege situation between people who adhere to the you/you grammar in second person and people who try to fix this situation by saying you/y’all. The reason y’all and other attempts at re-inserting number into second person have happened is this: Languages like differentiating between one person and many people. They will (often) do this by whatever means necessary. English dialects that use y’all or something else are real innovators trying to fix a pronoun number problem.
I want an unabashedly singular epicene pronoun in English third person now because I’m impatient and don’t want the passive-aggressive shaming that will come along with the eventual th’all. Because I want usage to be standardized now and not in the future, I tend to use neopronouns over singular they. The only times I don’t are in documents at work (because we have to follow the English style conventions) or when someone designates they as their pronoun.
The story of singular they is more linguistically complicated than the centuries of cited incidents, though. A recent paper in the open access journal Glossa did a preliminary analysis of what the pronoun is actually doing when it’s used singularly and why people screw it up so much when they’re using it for named individuals. I know it’s harder to advocate for completely new pronouns than for singular they, but I think that the dividends of ze or le are enormous if we succeed because it preemptively fixes numerical inflection.
The feminist community got behind Ms, and Swedish now has a GNP3PS hen. Our problem in English is that social change has progressed faster than language change. Reactionary grammarians are just making the situation worse when we actually need all hands on deck to transition English into a language that works for people of all genders. A singular pronoun that can be used for all humans (and pets) is a win for everyone. Right now, we’re in a proliferation of standards situation, and we definitely need something in all of the usage stylebooks. The only way to do that is through coalition-building and campaigns.
For my own writing, I mulled over a few other things. Linguistically, I’m conscious of how difficult some sounds are for non-native English speakers, in regional English dialects, and in orthography:
- w > v in we (which disallows ve)
- ð > z for the (which disallows ze)
- x is an orthographic dump letter that often stands for /sh/ or the IPA /x/ or /ks/, or /z/, so xe is confusing
- e is the same as he in h-dropping English dialects
I went with le because it is a good compromise. Someone coming from a language with no l/r distinction can still say le without it being confused for a different pronoun.