"She was probably male"

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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:

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54 Comments »

  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    I am reminded of Israeli contestant Dana International who participated twice in Eurovision.

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 9:21 am

    Another good SF example is Samuel R Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, in which on some worlds, gender is defined by desire: the default grammatical gender is female ("she" / "her" applies to all characters) but male pronouns denote sexual interest in the subject by the speaker.

  3. Felicity said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 9:31 am

    I'm not sure you can say that 'chromosomal sex' is, or has ever been a traditional method of determining pronouns. Most obviously, the vast majority of people have absolutely no idea what chromosomes they or anyone else possess. So how could it possibly be a significant factor in pronoun choice?

    In the west at least, the most common system for pronoun choice is based on sex assigned at birth, which is usually (although not always) done based on the child's genitals. For interactions with strangers, we provide gender clues such as name and gender presentation – clothing, hair style, and so on – that in many cases enable other people to choose the correct pronoun.

    Chromosomal sex, which is itself a dubious concept, has very little to do with it.

  4. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    @Felicity
    But for interactions with strangers you don't show your birth certificate. Facial features and voice are "provided" involuntarily, and these clues are largely determined by chromosomal sex. (But, yes, there is no one clue that is determinative. It's the whole picture, and when there is perceived incongruence, confusion ensues.)

  5. Felicity said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    Stephan: yes, I don't mean you'd actually look at someone's birth certificate to determine their pronoun, rather that AAB sex informs other things like gender presentation and role (e.g. social mannerisms) that contribute to someone's assumed gender.

    Of course there are physical characteristics that affect that perception as well, and for most people those match what we might expect based on their karyotype, but that's not always the case — two obvious exceptions are intersex people and transgender people. The reason 'chromosomal sex' (or 'biological sex') tends to fall down in reality is there's no clear set of criteria for 'biological male' or 'biological female' that works in every case.

    Just as you don't usually look at someone's birth certificate to determine their pronoun, you wouldn't look at their karyotype either; the assumption that we use 'chromosomal sex' to determine pronoun is rooted in the idea that visible (physical or sociological) sex/gender indicators must match the assumed karyotype.

  6. Vicki said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    As Felicity says, it isn't traditionally chromosomal sex–for most of history, literally nobody knew there was such a thing as a chromosome, let alone that specific chromosomes strongly influence physiological sex.

    What's determining is a collection of primary and secondary sex characteristics: but someone who appears female is unlikely to request, or get without requesting, male pronouns if a doctor determines that she has XY chromosomes and androgen insensitivity. That's before you get into questions of clothing and hair styling; I used to have a jacket that significantly increased my chances of being called "sir" (or, once, "señor") by strangers, and if I cared more about perceived gender I would put more energy into removing facial hair. The cliche'd complaint about long-haired men back in the Sixties and Seventies was an angry "I can't tell if they're boys or girls": getting a hair cut, or putting on a skirt instead of jeans, won't make a person's chromosomes visible.

  7. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    @Felicity

    I agree, but if karyotype (or whichever the correct biological analogue of "chromosomal sex" is – and note that even if "chromosomal sex" isn't binary due to various exceptions, it's still a feature you can describe and categorize) normally determines "gender assigned at birth" and both karyotype and "gender assigned at birth" determine (physical and other) gender presentation and perception, it's not clear whether it's more correct to say that "chromosomal sex determines pronouns" or "gender assigned at birth determines pronouns".

    That said, you are right that – due to social pressure – "gender assigned at birth" matters more (in cases where it's different from "chromosomal sex" / karyotype). Which is not surprising because "gender assigned at birth" ultimately determines the social expectations which are applied by convention. If as a solution we question the notion of "gender assigned at birth" and also social expectations about gender, we are in the end left with two things, though: chromosomal sex (or "karyotype", if that's more accurate terminologically) and personal desire/choice.

  8. Ted McClure said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

    I'm reminded of the Saturday Night Live "Pat" sketch. Gender is just so incredibly salient to almost all adult humans. One of the difficulties I had in suspending disbelief while reading Ancillary Justice was "Radchaai don’t care much about gender…". I decided to accept that the author was presenting post-humans in whom this hard-wired salience was less pronounced. Alternatively, we overcome many of our arguably inherent responses (e.g., to strangers or apparent hostility) through cultural conditioning or even individual will. However, in this world gender ambiguity seems to affect humans at a level that ambiguities in other human differences do not. Our grammars reflect this. In English, the only other distinction that rises to pronoun level (as mentioned above) is animacy/inanimacy. German seems to distinguish the genders of those with recognizable genders from immature animate objects and inanimate objects. It seems to me that as our various languages have evolved, the distinction between human genders has been too salient to disappear. Are there languages where this is not so?

  9. tsarchitect said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    The book sounds interesting.

    In some descriptions of genderless worlds I hear it described as if people were totally homogenous. I don't buy that we'd miss the secondary sexual characteristics, even if they didn't predict/prescribe behavior and presentation. Perhaps that's just bad creative writing by academics and teens.

    But, based on the passage, it sounds like secondary sexual characteristics were just not relevant or even interesting. To the point that they require conscious assessment to gender someone. That makes a lot of sense to me.

    I'm aware that a friend has Danish ancestry, and I've learned to figure out Danish names from her, but it's really not in the top of my mind, let alone the language.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    Ted McClure: Speaking of Samuel Delany, somewhere he describes a place he was living in NYC in maybe the '70s where so many people were bending gender in so many ways that he stopped caring what gender people were—and as I recall, he says the experience was wonderful.

  11. Levantine said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

    Ted McClure, many languages lack grammatical gender (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_neutrality_in_genderless_languages), but this doesn't mean that their speakers aren't still capable of thinking in highly gendered terms. Turkish, of which I am a heritage speaker, uses the same word for "he", "she", and "it", yet Turks are no less conscious than other cultures of traditionally defined gender roles and differences.

  12. tnv said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

    One of the difficulties I had in suspending disbelief while reading Ancillary Justice was "Radchaai don’t care much about gender…". I decided to accept that the author was presenting post-humans in whom this hard-wired salience was less pronounced.

    Moreover, the narrator is not only post-human but asexual. I got the impression when reading the novel that if she were a normal person, she would be able to tell males and females apart easily even as a member of the Radchai culture (someone says to her "No one misgenders as badly as you do", if I recall correctly) because the distinction between the gender she would sexually desire and the gender she would not would be salient.

    We may not much notice other stimuli that another person may have a fetish for, either.

    I wonder whether Ann Leckie has been able to sell the Turkish, or Chinese, rights to the novel, and what the translators would do with the genders in that case.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    I assume it's just a coincidence that "ancillary" in the book's title comes etymologically from Latin "ancilla" which is a pretty gender-specific term?

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

    Beyond sex/gender, there are languages where in order to use the right pronouns etc. you need to know the right social category for the addressee or referent, e.g. Khmer where (at least in the non-Khmer Rouge varieties of the language) there are separate lexical items to be used if you're speaking to or about royalty and another group to be used if you're speaking to or about Buddhist monks/clergy. I assume that this degree of complexity is/was workable in practice only because there are reasonably strong social conventions as to things like characteristic wardrobe that typically make it unambiguous which relevant category a particular individual falls into.

  15. Jonathan Badger said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

    @Levantine
    Exactly. Not having gendered pronouns in a language doesn't make speakers fail to understand gender as a concept any more than any other case of the "Language X doesn't have a word for Y" fallacy.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    Although I think there are some languages with T/V distinction in 2d person pronouns where initial conversational interactions can sometimes be highly awkward because it is not immediately obvious which pronoun choice will minimize the odds of giving offense. I don't know how frequently this is caused by the relevant conventions as to when to use which being in a state of flux/transition versus how frequently it is caused by the relevant conventions being reasonably clear and stable but requiring information about the other person (e.g. where they rank relative to you in a certain sort of social hierarchy) that may not always be completely obvious from context at the time of initial interaction. A similar example in English might be when one needs to choose whether to say to a female (unless you've misperceived things . . .) stranger "Excuse me, miss" or "excuse me, ma'am," where the distinction is age-based but the cut-off age for the switch is rather blurry (although maybe the speaker's own age can become relevant here in borderline cases?) and it is hard to know in advance whether a wrong guess (from imperfect visual cues) as to actual age will be taken as flattering or insulting.

  17. David Morris said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    An Australian person has just won the right to be specified as 'non-specified' as to gender. The newspaper articles avoided the pronoun problem by referring to the person by the person's single personal name each time, which is unwieldy (as is referring to 'the person' each time).

  18. GeorgeW said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

    I remember reading a study some years ago in which the researcher was trying to determine if people intuitively code for race. Students, as I recall, went from house to house allegedly doing a survey of some kind. The surveyors were mixed sexes, various races and various ages. Then, sometime later the surveyed people were asked to describe the surveyors. They found that the subjects did not code for race, but they did code for age and sex. The assumption is that this related to our mating instinct. We instinctively classify people as candidates, or not, for reproduction (even if we have no real interest).

  19. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    @ Ted McClure
    I am not sure what you mean by this:

    German seems to distinguish the genders of those with recognizable genders from immature animate objects and inanimate objects.

    Could you clarify?

  20. William Steed said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

    David Morris, I agree – I clicked to the article wondering how they had captured their (i.e. Norrie's) genderlessness, and was somewhat disappointed. I was expecting 'they' to be the primary pronoun, rather than avoiding the topic altogether. That said, it might have been the preference of the person in question to do so.

    My interactions with folks outside the gender binary have primarily led to using pronouns appropriate to the gender that the person is presenting as at the time (including near-past reference – e.g. 'She was with her friends last night, but he's here now). If the person is presenting androgynously, 'they' tends to be the best pronoun set to use, but the 'presenting as gender' pronoun choice option certainly leads to some interesting sentences, like the above.

  21. is said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 10:51 pm

    @Vicki
    Speaking of hair, I once went to a barber who, apparently confused by my androgynous appearance, asked me after having cut my hair whether he should charge me for a women's haircut or a men's haircut. The style of the haircut he gave me was a fairly traditional men's cut, for the record. It seems the exact same haircut would cost $2 more for a woman than a man.

    There appears to be a lot of resistance to flat-out asking someone's gender – but at the same time, many people seem greatly bothered if they aren't sure what gender you are, and so attempt to figure it out in various indirect ways. I suppose it's perceived as a rude question to ask, but frankly I'd prefer people just ask me what gender I am rather than try to pry it out of me through subterfuge, as it were.

  22. Darkwhite said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 4:22 am

    is:
    I figure people would have preferred to just ask you, too, but there are also people who insist they -have- no gender, and that insisting on classifying people into the binary genders is nothing short of an insult. See for instance the Australian person referenced by David Morris.

  23. Graeme said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 4:40 am

    The Australian High Court (our SCOTUS) appeal mentioned here dealt with this issue in the subjective way. Norrie the plaintiff (but respondent on appeal) was born male, transitioned surgically to having female sex organs, but litigated successfully to have their birth records amended to 'non-specific' gender.

    "The question in this appeal is whether it was within the Registrar's power to record in the Register that the sex of … Norrie, was, as she said in her application, "non-specific". That question should be answered in the affirmative." The Court then explained in a footnote: "The respondent uses, and these reasons use, the personal pronouns "she" and "her" to refer to the respondent.

  24. Milan said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 5:11 am

    Stephan Stiller: I'm a native speaker of German, and I don't exactly know what Ted McClure means. Grammatical gender in German is a quality of a noun. With animate referents, it mostly accords with the social gender (in the case of humans) or biological sex (in the case of animals), though this is by no means universal. With inanimate referents the gender is completely arbitrary.
    There is however also a tendency for nouns to be neuter if they refer to animate but immature objects: "das Mädchen" (the girl), "das Kind" (the child), "das Kalb" (the calf) and "das Junge" (the hatchling) all are neuter. Today, social gender/biological sex typically determines grammatical gender, unless a noun has been used before to refer to the same object, in which case the pronoun shares its gender. Thus the neuter set of pronouns is only used for animate referents if a neuter noun has been used before, but there was a time when it was at least possible to refer to children using neuter pronouns even if that was not the case: This is prominently attested in some of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

  25. JQ said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 5:14 am

    @StephanStiller

    You still don't get it. Chromosomes do not determine someone's sex. If your Y chromosome is faulty, you could be female and you would be assumed to have XX chromosomes until a time comes when you are karyotyped.

  26. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 7:05 am

    @JQ

    I invite disagreement and correction, but your tone is off.

    As I've implied I don't know about which biological terminology is best to use (I wrote "chromosomal sex (or 'karyotype', if that's more accurate terminologically)"), but under the condition given in your third sentence (a nonstandard Y chromosome, if things work the way you describe), it is correct to say that "chromosomes determine sex", if by "sex" you mean the outward biological expression. And it's not correct if by "sex" you mean what is determined by sex chromosome typing (ie XX vs XY).

  27. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    @JQ
    And, since chromosomal sex typing is "a property of the chromosomes", one can say that "chromosomes determine sex" is correct even in the latter case. So for the expression "chromosomes" – like for "sex" – it depends on whether you mean the entirety of chromosomes or just chromosomal sex typing.

  28. Bob Lieblich said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness." Maybe it's so obvious it requires no mention. But just in case … It's about a world whose inhabitants are literally androgynous, but they accomphish this by switching between genders. I don't remember the pronoun scheme, but I do recall being undisturbed by it, whatever it was.

  29. JJM said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    From a language perspective, once again we're just confusing biological sex with grammatical gender.

  30. Brett said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 10:58 am

    @Bob Lieblich: In think all (or almost all) the aliens in The Left Hand of Darkness were "he." There certainly was a king. There might have been exceptions to the rule of all-male references, but I don't recall any.

  31. is said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    @Darkwhite

    I imagine many such people would also prefer to be asked about their gender (or, maybe more appropriately, what pronouns they prefer to be referred to by) rather than for people just to wrongly guess that they are male or that they are female.

    But I always thought the worry was less "what if this person doesn't have a gender and I have to deal with that"(?) and more "this person will probably be offended if I imply it's not obvious what gender they are." But as far as I'm concerned, I'm used to people being confused and I can generally already tell when people aren't sure what gender I am, so I'd rather they just ask outright. Privately asking someone what pronouns they prefer if you're not sure is probably the best move, in my opinion.

  32. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    @is
    What is your opinion on simply telling someone whom* you sense is confused? I mean, you can't fault them for being confused, given that many situations in society force us to make assumptions.

    [* It just came out that way naturally.]

  33. Ray Girvan said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

    Another example that just crossed my mind of grammatical gender not matching biological gender (rather akin to the Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand one) was Polari – that used "she" universally, but "it" for someone of short-term sexual interest. See Polari – The Lost Language of Gay Men, page 50.

  34. Ellen K. said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    One problem with asking someone what pronoun they prefer is that some people don't like the idea of other people talking about them. And asking what pronoun they prefer is pretty much saying "I think I'm going to talk about you to others".

    Interesting linguistic sidenote. I originally wrote "One problem with asking a person what pronoun", but then ran into pronoun trouble for the next word. Traditional singular they for some reason didn't work for me there, "they" sounded wrong, so I reworded in a way that made "they" work.

  35. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    Some people with hard-to-spell names, either given or sur- (and they could be hard to spell because they are rare, because the particular person uses a minority variant of a non-rare name with a well-known majority variant-spelling, because the spelling does not relate to the pronunciation in an intuitive way, or some other reason) will in some contexts preemptively spell their name for a stranger in the context of an initial interaction w/o waiting to be asked, to reduce the possibility of error and possibly overcome any counterproductive-in-context shyness about asking.

    When it is socially productive in a given discourse context to make sure everyone has the information they need in order to make proper lexical choices (and minimize the odds of confusion or offense going forward), it would probably be optimal for there to be default conventions about who the onus is on to make that happen, so you don't in each instance have to wonder if A ought to volunteer or B ought to ask, but that may be difficult to achieve when the subject matter is emotionally loaded and not everyone's emotions about it are, as it were, loaded the same way or to the same extent.

  36. Milan said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

    Ellen K: Partly because of the phenomenon you describe, and partly because it can just become annoying and tiresome to ask and answer such questions to often, some conference of the relevant scenes and communities have introduced "hello stickers" with information about the pronoun preference: http://www.storenvy.com/products/4622860-hello-pronouns-sticker-set-of-5

  37. Felix J said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

    I have to say, I've asked about and been asked about pronouns on more than one occasion, and I don't think there was ever any assumption that there would be gossip later.

    "They" is a lifesaver. I'm still learning to use it in addition to longer workarounds when pronouns are unclear.

  38. David Morris said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

    @William Steed: I have never knowingly interacted with anyone 'outside the gender binary'. I have seen people who externally might be indeterminate, but who internally might be perfectly about their gender. I rarely talk or ask about identity/gender/sexuality with people I know, let alone people I've just met.

  39. Ken Brown said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    @JW Brewer – we obviously inhabit very different varieties of English as far as formal politeness goes. For me addressing anyone as bare "Miss" would sound rude. ("Miss Surname" merely old-fashioned).

    The exception is children under the age of about 14 talking to women teachers – where even married teachers can be "Miss" (and occasionally – I've heard it with my own ears and even been addressed this way myself – children under the age of about 6 can call male teachers or other apparent authority figures "Miss". Children learn the word first as a term of respect for female teachers and only much later associate it with age or marital status)

    As for "Ma'am" I doubt if I've ever used the word. Unless maybe I meet the Queen, I probably never will. Its used as the equivalent of male "sir" in the military and the police and so on, but as I'm nearer 60 than 50 I'm now unlikely ever to join up.

  40. Levantine said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

    Ken Brown, "ma'am" is the American counterpart to our "madam" (I'm guessing you're a fellow Brit), and used in the same contexts.

  41. Brett said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 10:16 pm

    @Levantine: I don't know if Ken Brown is British or American (or Australian or…). However, it is quite possible in America, especially in some regions, to never use "ma'am" or "madam." (Miss Manners—an American columnist—says the two can be used interchangeably.) They sound quite formal to me, much more so than "sir." As a kid, I know I used "sir" with unfamiliar adult men pretty consistently, but I used "ma'am" a lot less, if at all.

  42. Levantine said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 10:57 pm

    Brett, thank you for the clarification. My understanding of American "ma'am" (i.e., as the counterpart to "sir" and the equivalent of British "madam") is based largely on what I've heard on the East Coast, where I've been living for a number of years. My Michigander boyfriend also uses the word in this way. In the UK, "ma'am" is seldom heard except in the contexts mentioned by Ken Brown. When addressing the Queen, you're supposed to say "Your Majesty" the first time before switching to "ma'am", pronounced to rhyme with "ham" rather than "psalm" (the latter being more usual and intuitive for speakers from Southern England).

  43. Martha said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

    There was this girl I went to elementary school who had a short haircut. She, as far as I know, was making no effort to present as anything other than a female; she was just a girl with a pixie haircut (and gender-neutral clothes). I remember a guest speaker mistaking her for a boy and her saying, "Actually, I'm a girl." I will never as long as I live forget the embarrassed feeling I felt in the pit of my stomach on her behalf when I saw the look on her face and the tone in her voice.

    As a result (and also as a result of how irritated some people get when you can't tell if their baby is a boy or a girl) I could never, ever bring myself to ask someone their gender/what pronoun they prefer, unless I was absolutely, 100% sure that they are intentionally not performing the gender they were assigned at birth.

    Although it's been my experience that I've never even wondered about the pronoun that people prefer until I am talking about them to someone else (for some reason or another not related to their gender at all), and I realize I don't know which one to use.

  44. V said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 2:14 am

    "Gender is just so incredibly salient to almost all adult humans. One of the difficulties I had in suspending disbelief while reading Ancillary Justice was "Radchaai don’t care much about gender…". I decided to accept that the author was presenting post-humans in whom this hard-wired salience was less pronounced."

    tnv replied: "Moreover, the narrator is not only post-human but asexual. I got the impression when reading the novel that if she were a normal person, she would be able to tell males and females apart easily even as a member of the Radchai culture (someone says to her "No one misgenders as badly as you do", if I recall correctly) because the distinction between the gender she would sexually desire and the gender she would not would be salient. "

    Moreover, she's an AI (who used to be incorporated in the form of a spaceship before that). It's not (only?) that she's asexual and comes from the Radchai culture — I assumed the primary reason she has such difficulties is that the Radchai would have found the idea of incorporating a gendering "circuit" in an AI ridiculously superfluous and a waste of resources.

  45. V said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 2:16 am

    Btw, I haven't noticed asexual people I know having more trouble gendering people. Come to think of it, maybe less,

  46. Milan said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 10:00 am

    V, from the post, it appears that in the fictional universe, sexuality is the only institution in which gender is in any way relevant — if you are not participating in it, it seems reasonable, that your not capable of immediately categorizing people according to it. Today, in contrast, virtually all aspects of interpersonal communication are permeated by gender. A cogent analogy might be the codes of organized crime: I don't actually know to what extent it is true, but judging form the media depictions, there is a complex code incorporating clothing, tattoos, language and behaviour to signal gang/racket membership. To those who participate in the relevant institutions, it is fairly obvious, but some will need conscious effort to categorize someone and some are completely oblivious to it.

  47. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    @Ken Brown, fwiw, I think that in my variety of AmEng it would be a bit odd in most context (and hyperformal-feeling although there may be contexts in which that is appropriate)* to address as either bare "ma'am" or "miss" anyone whose name you actually knew. It's primarily if not solely for addressing female strangers in a politer register than seen in, e.g., "hey lady, what's your problem?" I brought it up only because of the parallel to the issue we started the thread with, i.e. the chicken-and-egg difficulty that in order to minimize the risk of giving offense you may need to know something not-entirely-obvious about an addressee about whom you know very little on account of never having dealt with her before.

    *I think I have seen criminal defendants in NYC trying to be on their best behavior addressing female judges as bare "ma'am," perhaps because of not having been as socialized as those of us who have been through law school into using vocative "Your Honor" without having to stop and think. In context it seems pretty obvious that they are consciously deploying the most formal/respectful mode of address available in their active lexicon and I assume the judges generally take it in that spirit — unlike the female U.S. Senator who got in the headlines a while back for supposedly getting into a snit because a witness at a hearing addressed her with vocative "ma'am" rather than vocative "Senator."

  48. Bloix said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

    "because a witness at a hearing addressed her with vocative "ma'am" rather than vocative "Senator.""

    The senator was Barbara Boxer and the witness was a brigadier general. What Sen. Boxer didn't seem to realize was that in the military "ma'am" is used to address a senior officer who is female.

    I felt at the time that Boxer was mistakenly taking offense because she misunderstood a convention that was second nature to the witness.

  49. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    I thought that perhaps it had been suboptimal for the general to fail to shift dialects to use the indigenes' own system of honorifics (and once you get to a certain rank in the military, having the social skills to get on well with bozo civilian politicians and their raging egos ought to be part of the job description), but that it was, at a minimum, ungracious for Boxer to fail to accept that the fellow was trying to be respectful/deferential according to the conventions of his own dialect and that his failure to code-switch could not be called attention to w/o appearing petty.

  50. David Morris said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    Around the time of the queen's last visit to Australia, a very nervous witness in a court case addressed the female judge as 'Your majesty'.

  51. pep said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

    Interesting post

    some northern italian languages (non pro drop languages -or "apparently" non pro – like Lombard or Emilian) have different ways to avoid gender specification with indefinite pronouns like someone or anyone. For instance, they use the expletive pronoun 'a' instead of the personal pronouns. This pronoun 'a' is also generally used as the expletive of impersonal sentences and as a 1st sing. and 1st/2nd plural personal pronoun

    see here, in case you´re interested:

    http://llengualigur.blogspot.com.es/2014/03/a.html

    3 remarks:

    -the article is written in Catalan

    -it´s my personal blog (therefore pardon the spam)

    -the actual goal of these linguistics tools is not as much avoiding sexism in the language as showing different degrees of definiteness.

  52. pep said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    Sexism in the Basque language:

    Basque has no grammatical gender, and yet some basque linguists are worried about some sexist tendencies. I´ll point out one of the most thought-provoking:

    in colloquial speech the sex of the person we are talking to must be indexed in the verbal form: joan da ('he/she has gone') but joan duk when talking to a male and joan dun when talking to a female.

    The important thing here is that when adressing an animal or a thing colloquial speech may be used, but only masculine forms are allowed. What´s more interesting: when a woman talks to herself she uses the masculine verbal formsl. It´amazing how this kind of inner speech has been transmited from generation to generation, and basque linguists don´t fully know how it works yet:

    http://31eskutik.com/2013/12/16/emakumeak-bere-buruari-nola/

    (emakumeak bere buruari nola? means 'how do women talk to themselves?')

  53. V said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    Milan: Oh, I was extrapolating from everything I've heard of the novel, including the background, as well as excerpts of it I've read in various places, not just from this particular passage.

  54. Anna Johnson said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

    My friend just posted this article on the subject of lack of perception of gender clues: "I didn't know I was a boy." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/21/growing-up-gendered-pronouns_n_5185945.html

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