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?