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.
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. Flattening number in third person to they would make things too ambiguous and clunky, and elegance in third person is extremely important because third-person pronouns need to bear some of the heaviest weight in fiction.
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.
Why not [insert a GNP]?
I did not use epicene singular third person they. If English were a constructed language, I would have deleted they from singular third person and selected something new that is unabashedly singular.
I am an English major who unintentionally specialized in pre-1850s literature when I was an undergrad. English lost thou (second person informal) to liturgy a while ago. I hate what that did to second person because 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. As an academic, I have seen people shamed in public by y’all. Not only is shaming someone for saying y’all a fast way for me to label someone an asshole, but it makes me very protective of third person singular/plural distinction because I want to ensure that third person pronouns don’t create class/education privilege situations in future centuries. 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.
This is obviously a longitudinal anxiety. I understand and accept that they has been used as an epicene pronoun. I’m just hoping that we can preemptively skip over the dialect privilege caused by th’all by doing a singular GNP before we have descendants worrying about anything like the second-person situation I outlined above.
Linguistically, I’m conscious of how difficult some sounds are for non-English speakers, in regional 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.
I actually do want a constructed 3rd person singular pronoun to enter the English language. 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. Singular they is easiest to implement because, when one is playing respectability politics via citations to the English prose canon, le finds it there. It has cited uses and was suppressed by grammarians. This is a rhetorical appeal to traditionalism. In conservative and intergenerational environments, I often use singular they instead of le when I don’t know someone’s gender because I can get away with it without alienating others. I use le in more liberal environments where I don’t expect resistance to GNP, and I use le for everyone who does not use he or she — unless someone is really attached to something else. To me, grammar is word math. The way gender is used in language in overt and subtle ways is really exciting and interesting like you wouldn’t believe. But when it appears in grammar, ze, le, and xe are all functionally equivalent signifiers for the same thing.
Ultimately, I am an English major conlanger. I give zero fucks about precedent and think we should just make one new non-they pronoun and standardize the shit out of it. Get it in textbooks! (Even in Texas!) Journalism manuals! The Chicago stylebook! Canonizing a 100% singular GNP is a hard road. It is not impossible. Language is ever-shifting. 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 need a standardization coalition. I prefer le, although ze honestly stands the best chance despite the caveat I mentioned about pronunciation because it has had more publicity. Pronouns are grammatical functions. We need to fix English so it’s easy again.