THE GENDER OF pronouns
What a very dry, dull matter, of no conceivable importance to anyone but grammarians and pedants! How I wish it were so! But The Left Hand of Darkness is haunted and bedeviled by the gender of its pronouns, a wild, fierce, and intractable tribe.
Having invented a race of people who are essentially sexless except for a few days a month, when they become very highly sexed either as male or female, and for the duration of pregnancy and lactation, when of course they remain female having discovered the Gethenians, what was I to call them? In 1967, when I wrote the book, I called them all "he." I believed then that the masculine pronoun in English was genuinely generic, including both male and female referents. This is a pleasant and convenient belief. Unfortunately, the more you look at it, the less credible it becomes. Even more unfortunately, it has been adopted as one of the Thirty Nine Articles of Antifeminism. Some years after the book was published, I lapsed from the faith, and have remained unregenerate ever since. "He" means what it says, no more, no less alas!
What might I have used instead? Obviously the Gethenians' own languages would have nouns and pronouns appropriate to som.er, their ungendered "normal" state, and gendered nouns and pronouns appropriate to kemmer, their sexual period. Many Terran languages have neuter or bisexual pronouns, somer pronouns; many have gendered pronouns whose gender may or may not be the same as the sex of their referent, if their referent has a sex. The Romance languages are all of this kind.
Unromantic English pronouns must correspond to the actual gender or genderlessness of their referent (with a few extensions of the female gender to ships, machinery, and disasters). A sexless or genderless referent has a neuter pronoun, "it." This neuter may be used for an animal but cannot be used for a human being (except occasionally for a baby, by people who do not like babies). English has a truly ungendered pronoun only in the plural. He, she, and it are gendered, they is not. (I like talking about grammar; you can say things like "they is not" and nobody will correct you.)
Historically, and colloquially, they has been regularly used as an ungendered or bisexual singular. "If any student has a problem with this, I want to talk to them after class," we may say, or, "Somebody left, but I didn't see who they were." But somewhere along in the seventeenth century the grammarians got to worrying about agreement of number, probably because they wanted English to be more like Latin, because Latin was supposed to be nobler and more virile than the vulgar tongue; and they decreed that they as a singular pronoun was "incorrect," as it would be in Latin. This has not stopped any of us from using it, ever since, when we speak, but it has stopped most of us from using it when we write.
"Correctness" in writing is a legitimate interest in the cause of clarity; one cannot write well or even understandably in defiance of the meanings of words and the forms of usage and syntax. But "correctness" is also a shibboleth (in the real sense of the word) used by logobullies to reinforce a social hierarchy of knowledge and power. Logobullies write columns in the newspapers scolding shrilly about "misuses" and "vulgarisms" and "corruptions," by which they usually mean the speech of the common people as it inevitably alters and renews the inherently conservative, codified written language. Conservatism is a fine and necessary thing, but reactionary whining is tiresome, and all too often hypocritical.
To say, for instance, that the title Ms. is a political invention, as the logobullies did for years, was perfectly fair so long as they admitted, which they did not, that Miss and Mrs. are equally political in their implication. It is socially and politically significant to identify a woman solely by her marital relation to a man, by her being unmarried or married, as if she had no being otherwise. This independent being is what the word Ms. (not a thinair invention, but a new spelling of the old, honorable Southern usage Miz) recognizes. The need for such a feminine equivalent to Mr. has been confirmed by the ready and almost total acceptance of it. There are not many left still decrying it as evidence of the dread Feminist Agenda, a nuke in the arsenal of the monstrous regiment of women.
Some of us in the monstrous regiment have decided to use they as a genderless singular in writing whenever we can get away with it; which is oftener than you might think. The only pain it seems to cause is to copyeditors, who have to be coaxed and fed carrots till they let you stet it. Nobody else even notices. But they provided no solution to my pronoun problem in this book. I simply could not refer to Estraven right through as they, like a swarm or a beehive or a committee. Nor could I use any of the laborious little monstrosities employed by the conscientious: he or she, she or he, he/ she, s/he . . . . These locutions aren't genderless. They imply a referent who is either male or female who is in kemmer, in Gethenian terms. Even s/he, the best of the lot, is bisexual rather than genderless. And I have no idea how to pronounce it; suh HEE? I am an aural writer, unwilling to use any word in my fiction that can't easily be heard by the ear or the inner ear especially a word that will occur thousands of times in the text. This is the main problem, as I see it, with the invented words which have been urged upon me as a solution to the Great Gethenian Pronoun Problem. A number of them have been tried out in feminist and experimental works the last couple of decades, and I have to say that none of them has "convinced" me the way Ms. immediately convinced me sounding easy, sounding right. Per is a favorite. I have tried it and it sounds heavy, obtrusive to me. I just don't like it. When I decided I wanted to cast parts of Left Hand into a genderless mode, I tried per and several other invented pronouns, and ended up inventing my own.
I use a for a genderless equivalent of he or she; en for her or him; es for her, his, hers; and enself for herself, himself. The pronoun a will probably look to many readers as if it should be pronounced like the letter, rhyming with "see." I pronounce it with the short a sound as in "yet" or "them." Maybe I should have spelt it eh. But a story that kept going eh, eh looked as if it were continually clearing its throat. I started spelling es as ez, but the z's stuck out and made the text look foreign, and what I was striving for was something that didn't look weird, didn't look foreign, looked like and sounded like plain English. Plain Gethenian English.
You can see how you like it in the first version of the first chapter of Left Hand following this Afterword. In accordance with the genderless pronouns, I sought genderless equivalents to personal nouns sovereign for king, peer for lord, and so on.
It has often been suggested to me that the way to avoid the false generic "he" is to use "she," at least part of the time. Dr. Spock calls his Generic Baby he in one chapter and she in the next; this is a nice solution to his problem, but it won't do for my Gethenians. It would merely seem as if they were always alternating male and female kemmer, and never were in sourer.
In the reprinting (and all subsequent reprintings) of the Gethenian based story "Winter's King," I kept malegendered nouns such as king, lord, but changed all the pronouns for Gethenians in sourer to the feminine. The effect is very interesting, and was effective, I think, at short story length.
In the second of the following texts, I have done the same thing to the first chapter of Left Hand, changing all pronouns for Gethenians in sourer to the feminine. But this time I also feminized the personal nouns king becomes queen, lord becomes lady.
This latter change has a very powerful and I think revealing effect: It shows that the feminine noun is as domineering as the masculine pronoun. "Lady Estraven" isn't a Gethenian noble, she's someone who's going to bounce into bed with the gamekeeper. Masculine nouns such as king and lord used with feminine pronouns at least remind the reader occasionally of the gender tension, the contradiction. When all is made feminine, it is as untrue to Gethenian reality as when all is made masculine. In both cases, it's too easy. "The queen was pregnant" is not an interesting statement; whereas the sentence "The king was pregnant" has made it into Bartlett's. Space Aliens Invade Familiar Quotations!
Pursuing these experiments, I have repronoun'd a couple of passages where people in sourer go into kemmer and come out again. In the tale "Estraven the Traitor," I use my invented sourer pronouns, switching to English gendered pronouns at the appropriate moment. I rather like the shock effect. In a passage from chapter 18, I keep to the usage of the original text, calling Estraven he, until "he" goes into kemmer and becomes definitively, in anybody's language, she. This necessitated some rewriting of the paragraph where Genly (poor Genlyl) finally realizes, accepts, admits, gets it. The emotional slant changed subtly, and the language had to change to follow it. I was fascinated to realize how in the original the intense sexuality of the whole scene is kept hidden by sublimating it into mindspeech a bodiless intimacy, a different intercourse. I've never seen so clearly how I was controlled, when I wrote the book, by the hidden force, the real dominance, of that false generic "he." If I had called Estraven "she" in kemmer, and so been forced to deal directly with the fierce sexuality of kemmer, that scene might have had a more immediate, less reticent power. But who knows?
There are moments when I would love to rewrite the book. Not in a big way. I don't like any invented pronouns in the long run, and nothing else works at all, so I would stick to the masculine pronoun for people in sourer. But I could take out dozens of utterly unnecessary masculinizations, such as the word "man" when I meant "person" or "people" as I automatically have done in all my writing for years now. And I could use accurate words such as sib, wombchild, rather than the masculinized brother, son.
The strangest twist on this is my use of the phrase "parent in the flesh" instead of mother. I was trying to avoid our strictly feminine reading of the word mother. But the biological fact, on Terra or on Gethen, is that a person who conceives and bears a child is the child's mother. It is a gendered relationship among us; among them it is not. But it is the same relationship. My misplaced scrupulousness simply increased the weight of pseudomaleness on the text, instead of helping ungender it.
This is the kind of thing I sometimes itch to do, or undo. I have scratched that itch a bit in playing with the texts that follow, which I offer as experiments to anyone interested in gender construction and the limits of language. In writing the screenplay of Left Hand, I got right out of the pronoun bind and also was able to expiate or obviate many of the book's sins of omission and commission. But as for changing the actual text of a book written twenty five years ago, rewriting it with hindsight no. That would be cheating. The book stands. I stand with it, and with its many, many readers, who have not allowed the obstinacy of pronouns to keep them from a vision of genderless justice or the dream of two as one, . . . life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1994