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> ve, vis, ver

ve, vis, ver

The word “ve” was coined (as far as I know) by Greg Egan. The following passage from Distress is a prime example of its use.

I turned. The speaker was a … twentyish? asex? Ve tipped vis head and smiled, teeth flashing white against deep black skin, eyes as dark as Gina's, high cheekbones which had to be a woman's—except, of course, they didn't. Ve was dressed in black jeans and a loose black T-shirt; points of light appeared on the fabric sparsely, at random, as if it was meant to be displaying some kind of image, but the data feed had been cut.

I don't know if this is the first use in the book, or even if this book is the first place he used it, but it is a good example. Here is my own little grammar table explaining it.


So, on the one hand we have this nice new word, which Egan uses to refer to entities that are known to be asexual—useful in the context of the book, but not so useful in the present day. On the other hand, we have a need in English for a way to refer to entities of unknown gender. (Do we really need such a word? The most compelling argument I've seen is Hofstadter's article A Person Paper on Purity in Language.) Putting the two together, I will make what seems to me to be an obvious leap and intentionally misuse Egan's word “ve” to fill this gap in modern English.

A more radical step would be to extend the use of “ve” to include the many cases where the gender is known but irrelevant. I don't plan to do this. Above, for example, would it be worthwhile to say “this book is the first place ve used it”, when we know the person referred to is Greg Egan, and can infer vis gender from vis name?

I once considered using the word “it” for the same purpose, but the result was unsatisfying. For one thing, the association with inanimateness was too strong; for another, the word “it” is very common, so that giving it another meaning produced too much ambiguity.

In all quotations on this site, the words “he” and “she” have been left alone. That is, the quotations have not been translated from standard English to the closely related language “extended English”. (For more ideas about translation, see Le Ton beau de Marot.)

* * *

Having discovered the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ, it is now abundantly clear to me that I didn't know the first thing about gender-neutral pronouns. Here's how the word “ve” appears.

(1970)—S:ve, O:vir, PA:vis, PP:vis, R:visself.
Bad: partial unbalanced declension (h[e], h[is]), pronunciation, forgettable.

I'd change the objective form (O) to “ver” and the reflexive (R) to “verself”, but the word is essentially the same. (In case you're wondering, the two possessive forms (PA, PP) are adjective and pronoun.)

I found the definition of unbalanced declension helpful,

Such as starting with a neutral base but following the male declension of h[e], h[is], h[im]. (Example: ne, nis, nim.)

but with the above changes, I'd say the declension is perfectly balanced. The form “ve” matches both “he” and “she”, and of the other two, “ver” follows the female declension, “vis” the male.

As for being forgettable, well, the only difficulty I've had is that I keep wanting to use “ver” as a possessive. But, as long as you remember that the declension is balanced, and that “vim”, which already has a meaning, is not one of the forms, you can reconstruct the rest.

* * *

Speaking of pronouns, as far as I am concerned, the second-person plural in English is “y'all”. I just thought I would mention that, since I don't get much chance to use it in writing.

* * *

Just to clarify, the word “ve” was not coined by Greg Egan. I'd figured that would be apparent from the fact that the FAQ entry was dated 1970, but the implication only works if you know that Egan didn't start writing until the early '90s.


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