Monday, September 25, 2006

Shock:, gender, and "What was sie thinking?"

I am currently reading Shock: social science fiction, by Joshua Newman. I quote the book:

Shock: uses genderless personal pronouns when the gender of a person - a character or a player - is unknown or irrelevant. In these cases, Shock: doesn't use "he", "his", "him", "himself", "she", "her", "herself" or "hers", using the pronouns favored by many contemporary gender theorists: "sie" "hir" "hirself", and "hirs". If this makes you uncomfortable, that's what a Shock is. If they don't, you'll feel right at home playing.
It doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it does make for uncomfortable reading. Let's leave aside the question whether these gender neutral pronouns serve any worthy puprose, either in this game text or in general. What I want to say is something concerning this contemporary gender theorist: What on earth was sie thinking when sie decided that the German female pronoun "sie" was a spiffy choice for a gender-neutral English pronoun? How can anyone be supposed to read a text wherein this obviously non-English word appears and not have associations with the German word for "she"?

7 comments:

  1. I know where you're coming from. Sie is an odd word in German, though - as I remember, it can also mean "you" or "they" - and that fact that it's used for different meanings in different contexts means its use in this context bothers me less.

    I was generally surprised how little the use of "sie" in Shock annoyed me. Usually, it's exactly the sort of thing that would get in the way of me enjoying a book, but I found it was OK.

    Graham

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  2. They should have asked a native German speaker before, if they really wanted a neutral pronoun.

    The way it is used in English (I'm in no position to decide whether sie is English or not) makes my internal grammar take it for female.

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  3. The funniest thing about this is that while I was writing Shock:, Ben Lehman and I got in a bar fight, broken bottles and all, over this matter.

    I had three options that had any currency at all (and none of them are common):

    • sHe (unpronounceable)

    • zie (too kooky)

    • sie (chosen because it looks and sounds like a word)

    Here's the Wikipedia article on the subject. Note in particular the "Problems" section.

    It was important to me that I take advantage of the strange, semantic-bending nature of gender-neutral pronouns for the book as a running example. So I had to choose between forms that someone, somewhere used. I wanted it to be backed up by some sort of fringe culture so it would have some sort of credibility. I settled on "sie" for the reasons above: it looks like a word.

    Now: it sounds like a German word with a similar meaning?

    Are you kidding?

    The entire English language is like that.

    We eat Gherkins, which are distinct from German pickles (mostly by being inferior), and Frankfurters. We read "books" about "knights".

    (We also eat sausages and read volumes about cavaliers, but these words are all subtly different in meaning)

    It's just the way English is. It's a language with Germanic roots. You're about 550 years late to complain about that.

    The fact that this has been mentioned here (and a couple of other times — it's discussed on the glyphpress forum on the Forge, for instance) means that it does its job: it highlights social issues of gender and language.

    The practical problems with the form are real, but the cognitive dissonance is a desirable result for the purposes of the book.

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  4. You read books about knights, sure. But you don't read Bücher about Ritter, and you certainly wouldn't choose the word 'Buch' to be a neutral intermediate between 'book' and 'movie', would you? :)

    The problem is not that 'sie' is an English word that looks like a foreign word. I mean, "Coffee is good" looks a lot like "Kaffee ist gut" or "Koffie is goed", and this is not a problem at all.

    What is a problem is that if you create a new term as an intermediate between two previous terms, you should not use a word that in a closely related language translates to one of those two previous terms.

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  5. Right.

    I had a look at Wikipedia, too. What about "ey" or "thon"?

    Those are beautiful words.

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  6. Now: it sounds like a German word with a similar meaning?

    No, not "similar", but the exact meaning you wish to avoid. The problem isn't that it's a real word, but it's the word you didn't want to use in the first place.

    "Zie" is too kooky, but "hir" isn't?

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  7. "Ey" is maybe good; it's appropriate in length, pronounceable, and obviously a pronoun in context. "Thon" is totally kooky. It has a Greek root unlike the rest of our pronouns.

    Jasper, the concern that its foreign meaning is gendered is a valid concern.

    "Hir" doesn't have any accepted alternates, as I understand it.

    Victor, English uses foreign words to denote a different meaning from the literal translation all the time. We have "film noir" that means dark themes, but not literally black film, which I think would be interesting in only the most abstract, John Cage way. We live in "bungalows" which have little to do with actual Indian architecture. We write on "paper" that only very rarely is made of papyrus.

    That said, maybe I'll use "ey" for v. 1.1. It certainly avoids this particular problem and it's more easily pronounceable (unlike "hir" which no one's used since Chaucer's time when it meant "her").

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