Monday, February 25, 2013

Ursula LeGuin's novel pronouns

It's interesting, in re-reading Ursula LeGuin last year, how my understanding of the relationship between language and thought has changed since I read these books as an adolescent. LeGuin is a notably language-obsessed author. And I'm sure the first time around, I interpreted the quirks of language in her novels through some kind of simplistic Sapir-Whorf frame, whereby the language people use determines how they think about things. But re-reading them, the novels themselves easily allow another more plausible relationship, whereby people reflect in their language use their meta-linguistic values and understandings. Here's from The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores the world of a species of androgynous near-humans:
When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as "it." They are not neuters. They are potentials, or integrals. Lacking the Karhidish "human pronoun" used for persons in somer, I must say "he," for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman. (65-66)
Not only do their pronouns reflect their gender and sex, but also other elements of basic vocabulary.
"Some are blacker," I said; "we come in all colors," and I opened the case (politely examined by the guards of the Palace at four stages of my approach to the Red Hall) that held my ansible and some pictures. The pictures—films, photos, paintings, actives, and some cubes—were a little gallery of Man: people of Hain, Chiffewar, and the Cetians, of S and Terra and Alterra, of the Uttermosts, Kapteyn, Ollul, Four-Taurus, Rokanan, Ensbo, Cime, Gde and Sheashel Haven... The king glanced at a couple without interest.
"What's this?"
"A person from Cime, a female." I had to use the word that Gethenians would apply only to a person in the culminant phase of kemmer, the alternative being their word for a female animal.
..."So all of them, out on these other planets, are in permanent kemmer? A society of perverts? So Lord Tibe put it; I thought he was joking. Well, it may be the fact, but it's a disgusting idea, Mr. Ai, and I don't see why human beings here on earth should want or tolerate dealings with creatures so monstrously different." (25)
In the ambiguous utopia on Anarres, on the other hand, as depicted in The Dispossessed, the Odonians speak Pravic. According to their ideology, personal possession is forbidden or avoided; this is reflected in their language, most obviously in their avoidance of personal pronouns:
The singular forms of the possessive pronoun in Pravic were used mostly for emphasis; idiom avoided them. Little children might say "my mother," but very soon they learned to say "the mother." Instead of "my hand hurts," it was "the hand hurts me," and so on; to say "this one is mine and that's yours" in Pravic, one said, "I use this one and you use that." Mitis's statement "You will be his man," had a strange sound to it. Shevek looked at her blankly. (58)
As when a person chooses to use singular "they" as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, which reflects and not determines their ideas about gender equity and non-sexist usage, these children learn a way of linguistic behavior that is reflective of their broader social values of nonpropertarianism. Their extralinguistic norms and values are reflected in their norms of language use, rather than their received language determining their patterns of thought, and it's those social norms that the children are learning as they gather up language.

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