In "The future of singular they" (3/8/2013), I noted that some people assign the traditional English pronouns he, she, they (and it?) in non-traditional ways, depending on the preferences of the person referred to rather than on the traditional criteria of number, animacy, and primary sexual organs. And the number of conceptual categories involved is potentially much larger than four, as discussed in "58 Facebook genders" (2/18/2014).
Ann Leckie's 2013 novel Ancillary Justice depicts a situation in which the traditional relationships of language and gender are modified in an interestingly different way.
Here's a representative passage:
Behind me one of the patrons chuckled and said, voice mocking, “Aren’t you a tough little girl.”
I turned to look at her, to study her face. She was taller than most Nilters, but fat and pale as any of them. She out-bulked me, but I was taller, and I was also considerably stronger than I looked. She didn’t realize what she was playing with. 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— doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.
This novel's take on sex and gender is mostly traditional. There's the familiar sexual near-binarity (fmeale XX versus male XY), and the well-attested distinction between languages with various degrees of morpho-syntactic gender marking versus languages that don't mark gender at all. And there's the familiar biological and cultural variation in the nature and extent of gender signaling in appearance and behavior, amplified by the assumption of thousands of years of history on multiple distant planets.
What's different — and confusing at first — is that the unmarked gender in the narrator's native language is translated into English with she/her/hers, yielding phrases like "She was probably male".
This comes up over and over again in the course of the book. A later passage:
“I came here to buy something,” I said, determined to keep from staring at the gun she held. “He’s incidental.” Since we weren’t speaking Radchaai I had to take gender into account— Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant. Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong. I hadn’t learned the trick of it. I’d been in Strigan’s own apartment, seen her belongings, and still wasn’t sure what forms to use with her now.
“Incidental?” asked Strigan, disbelieving. I couldn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, except I knew it to be true. Strigan said nothing else, likely realizing that to say much more would be extremely foolish, if I was what she feared I was.
“Coincidence,” I said. Glad on at least one count that we weren’t speaking Radchaai, where the word implied significance. “I found him unconscious. If I’d left him where he was he’d have died.” Strigan didn’t believe that either, from the look she gave me. “Why are you here?”
She laughed, short and bitter— whether because I’d chosen the wrong gender for the pronoun, or something else, I wasn’t certain. “I think that’s my question to ask.” She hadn’t corrected my grammar, at least.
In Strigan's fictional society, "Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably". But that's not the only situation in which the choice of morphosyntactic gender might be unclear to observers with inadequate cultural experience — here's Austria's entry in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest: