6

I'm currently half-way through Ann Leckie's novel Provenance, and am finding myself really confused by the pronouns and sexes. Can anyone explain what's going on? I'm getting the impression that maybe there are three sexes, a male, a female, and a neuter, which I guess would require some major biological changes in Homo sapiens...? It seems like a different setup than Ancillary Justice. Are there two different divisions of humanity, the Radchaai with one sex and the rest of humanity with three? It seems like there are distinctions that are important enough to be marked with the pronouns and other vocabulary, but I can't figure out what those distinctions would be. Are the pronouns like "e" and "eir" for a neuter gender? What is a "neman" or a "nuncle?" Do people choose their sexual identity when they become adults? If so, is this a physical (surgical?) choice, or just some kind of choice of what clothes to wear? Is the linguistic stuff just something about the culture of the protagonist, or is it language being used to describe some set of biological or social facts that are present in other cultures as well?

Related: Is everyone really female in Ancillary Justice or is the ancillary just unable to tell?

  • 3
    I haven't read Ancillary Justice, so it's possible that there's some genetic tinkering going on, but the existence of three different pronouns need not have much to do with physical sex (organs and chromosomes and whatnot), but rather psychological gender. Someone can be agender or genderfluid and have XX or XY chromosomes, for instance, and might prefer to go by a neuter pronoun. – Adamant Mar 2 at 3:02
  • 1
    Besides which, it would be easy enough to define sex in a way that would produce more than two sexes or a even a continuum without any actual changes. For instance, is XXX the same sex as XX? By convention it is, but that's mainly to match definitions created before DNA imaging. – Adamant Mar 2 at 3:06
  • 1
    @Adamant - for the Ancillary books, it's possible there's genetic tinkering (clones are present). The primary driver was the physical gender distinction was utterly irrelevant, at least as far as language went... and then it doubled down with the protagonist, who not only had no language reference but no personal reference to gender ('self' gets complicated with this character). – Radhil Mar 2 at 23:45
8

According to the author herself,

adamant pretty much has it right [that is, in saying that "the existence of three different pronouns need not have much to do with physical sex"]. Genitals don't define gender for Hwaeans. Also, this particular construction of gender is common/dominant in Hwae and a few other systems.

(source)

Nearly all of the questions given in the question overall are answered by this statement. My comments, not those of the author, in italics:

What's up with sex and pronouns in Ann Leckie's Provenance?

Nothing is up with sex and pronouns; but pronouns are added to describe a third gender.

I'm getting the impression that maybe there are three sexes...?

No, but there are three genders (sets of social roles).

Are the pronouns like "e" and "eir" for a neuter gender?

They are for a third gender, yes; but not precisely for a neuter gender (since the other genders, having nothing to do with sex per se, aren't precisely "masculine" or "feminine".

What is a "neman" or a "nuncle?"

Leckie doesn't directly answer this question in her comment. I'm trying to clarify with her.

Do people choose their sexual identity when they become adults?

Not their sexual identity. Leckie doesn't explain whether this is a choice, or when it's made, if it is a choice.

is this a physical (surgical?) choice, or just some kind of choice of what clothes to wear?

Since, as she says, this is nothing to do with genitals, it is certainly not a surgical choice.

Is the linguistic stuff just something about the culture of the protagonist, or is it language being used to describe some set of biological or social facts that are present in other cultures as well?

"Genitals don't define gender for Hwaeans.... this particular construction of gender is common/dominant in Hwae and a few other systems." That is, the linguistic constructs describe a system of cultural and social facts not specific to the protagonist or their culture.

  • Nice! Is there a link or image that one could cite? – Adamant Mar 2 at 23:48
  • Oops. Yes. Thanks. – Matt Gutting Mar 2 at 23:53
  • It's nice of you to ask Leckie and relay the response you got, but this would be more suitable as a comment. The quote isn't an answer to the question, which asks why there are three pronouns. It would also be helpful to have an answer that would be based on internal evidence in the text itself, rather than relying on communication with the author. I assume this is not a situation where it's completely impossible to figure out anything about the pronouns and sexes based on the text itself -- it it were, that would make this whole aspect of the book some kind of stunt or coy joke on the reader. – Ben Crowell Mar 3 at 1:10
  • 3
    @bencrowell the question title asks how sex and pronouns are related in the book, and the subsidiary questions in the body revolve generally around the same topic. Since the author must have dealt with these questions in writing, I relied on her to understand the questions as well as I or anyone else could, and to answer accordingly. I think her response answers the question appropriately. – Matt Gutting Mar 3 at 2:21
  • @BenCrowell - Perhaps you're thinking of the word worldbuilding. – Adamant Mar 3 at 4:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.