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. The language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms.
--Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
This past weekend, Ancillary Justice, by American author Ann Leckie, took home the prestigious Nebula Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel, beating out an impressive field that included previous winners Nicola Griffith and Neil Gaiman. One of the book’s most notable conceits, for a linguist anyway, is its approach to gender and pronouns. The story’s first-person narrator, Breq, speaks a language that doesn't make gender distinctions, and, consequently, refers to all characters by the same default pronoun, rendered she in English. The only exceptions are in dialogue, when Breq is communicating with a person whose language does make gender distinctions, in which case she awkwardly guesses at he or she. But is Breq's experience as an alien speaking a second language anything like the experience of actual human language learners?
The first effect of feminine-as-default in Ancillary Justice is that the gender of the male characters is paradoxically less important and more visible. All of the characters, for example, start out with feminine pronouns in Breq’s narration. Some are later revealed in the dialogue to be female, which seems perfectly natural. Some, on the other hand, are later revealed to be male, a jarring incongruity that forces the reader to confront gender. And since Breq continues referring to everyone as she in the narrative, and doesn't specify gender very often, the overall feel is of a universe populated by women.
We see a similar effect in our own more earthbound languages, especially those that make a gender distinction in the plural and in which masculine is the default, such as Spanish. Padres can mean either "fathers" or "parents," but madres can only mean "mothers." It's easy enough to say in Spanish that Maria has two mothers, for parents, say, that are lesbians. But it's difficult to say that Jorge has two fathers, because padres often gets interpreted as the mixed-gender or gender-nonspecific "parents."
The same goes for other plurals in Spanish. Niños is the plural of niño, or "boy," but is also used to mean "children," so if you want to unambiguously talk about only male children, you need to use the biological term varones, or "males." A few sets of Spanish words come in neuter-masculine-feminine triplets—such as gente/personas ("people"), hombres ("men"), and mujeres ("women")—in which case the masculine form is unambiguous.
Given our history in English of using masculine pronouns as the default, not to mention the political thorniness of questioning such usage, you can see how Leckie was making a point about culture and language. Here's Leckie in her own words in a blog post for Orbit Books:
The thing about defaults is, they’re automatic. Most of the time you don’t even think about them. They just seem quite obvious and natural. Using an unusual default, particularly one that’s close to but not exactly like the usual one, really highlights the fact that there’s a default there to begin with. And suddenly neither my solution nor my initial problem seemed simple at all.
Interestingly, if using the feminine as a default pronoun occasionally creates confusion for the reader, the complete lack of gender in Breq's native language creates even more confusion for her when she communicates in other languages. She even voices frustration over 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.
Among the 257 languages surveyed by the World Atlas of Language Structures, 145 (57 percent) don't have what we would call "grammatical gender"—simply put, different "classes" of nouns—and a quarter have distinctions like animate/inanimate instead of masculine/feminine. Only 33 percent have a sex-related gender system.
I'm not aware of any languages that are completely devoid of sex and gender, such as distinct words for "man" and "woman," but there are plenty—in fact, a majority—that don't mark this distinction on their pronouns, including Turkish, Swahili, and spoken Mandarin. So what happens when native speakers of languages like this learn a language like English, with he and she and her and him abound?
For one thing, they shouldn't have as much difficulty as Breq, beause Turkish, Swahili, and Mandarin, unlike Breq's native language, all have gendered nouns. The words for man and woman in these languages are adam/kadın, mwanamume/mwanamke and nanren/nüren, respectively, so speakers have at least some practice distinguishing linguistically between genders, more so than Breq anyway. And yet a cursory search of strategies for teaching gender pronouns in English as a second language yields comments like this from teachers:
In spoken Mandarin they do not have pronouns indicating the gender of the object or subject! Even an intermediate student can be heard saying, "I love my husband. She is so handsome."
Which makes sense, since Mandarin speakers are not accustomed to thinking about gender in the context of pronouns. In fact, English speakers can experience the same difficulties when learning a language such as Arabic, which distinguishes between masculine and feminine forms of "you."
Because Breq's native language doesn't refer to gender at all, speaking a foreign tongue requires her to pay attention to an entirely new conceptual category. Here too, we can draw cross-linguistic analogies. In this case, it's fairly similar to the plight of the native English speaker learning a language that assigns different degrees of formality to a stranger on the street, a casual social acquaintance, and a friendly coworker. A native English speaker will often have a hard time deciding which factors merit "formal" versus "informal" pronouns, especially since such factors vary from culture to culture. In France, for instance, one uses the formal vous with shopkeepers, but in Quebec it is far more common to use the informal tu.
To Breq, the same is true for gender: Since no one is carrying around a bioscanner, and the people in this world seem to object to being asked, she's forced to rely on confusing, culturally-specific secondary characteristics:
I saw them all, suddenly, for just a moment, through non-Radchaai eyes, an eddying crowd of unnervingly ambiguously gendered people. I saw all the features that would mark gender for non-Radchaai—never, to my annoyance and inconvenience, the same way in each place. Short hair or long, worn unbound (trailing down a back, or in a thick, curled nimbus) or bound (braided, pinned, tied). Thick-bodied or thin-, faces delicate-featured or coarse-, with cosmetics or none. A profusion of colors that would have been gender-marked in other places. All of this matched randomly with bodies curving at breast and hip or not, bodies that one moment moved in ways various non-Radchaai would call feminine, the next moment masculine. Twenty years of habit overtook me, and for an instant I despaired of choosing the right pronouns, the right terms of address. But I didn't need to do that here. I could drop that worry, a small but annoying weight I had carried all this time. I was home.
For an extraterrestrial intelligence, parsing which gender-related features are important in which society can be tricky, but Breq's overall sense of confusion is not unique. With more than 6,000 languages still spoken by us humans, we're all aliens right here on Earth.