Human vocabulary and when to avoid it

We live in a human world. Obviously, right? Humans are the only sentient beings with a broadly established culture — that we know of, anyway. Homo sapiens has grown up on Earth completely alone with ourselves.

I think this isolation has made humans …arrogant? Complacent? Not used to addressing other sentients in a respectful way, at any rate. We’ve declared ourselves the pinnacle of all Earth life, and because no other race is here to say, “That’s not true”, clearly it is true. Anything other than a human must be an “animal” or a “monster” or an “alien” — all terms that double as insults.

Personhood can be a fragile distinction in our minds.

Because we’ve gotten used to thinking of a human as a “person”. A thinking, feeling “person” is therefore assumed to be a human. This prejudice is encoded in our language — because who’s going to complain about it? Orcs? Mermaids? Vulcans? Here in 2012 Earth? It’s not like non-human sentients are real, we tell ourselves. But in speculative fiction, who you call a “person” and who you call a “monster” might just be a big deal. Remove a few basic assumptions of our language and suddenly, it can feel like a very different world.

I’ve thought carefully about my word choice in the Aligare world. “People” is indeed used to reference all sentient beings. In our world, “people” came from the Latin root persona, referring to an actor’s role in a play. Once a term for Roman gods and mythical folk, now taken full circle into my fantasy series! Since the three Aligare peoplekinds play important roles in each other’s lives, I felt that “people” worked. And actually, they’re just as likely to use terms like “fellows” or “kin” or “neighbours”, instead of anything so sterile as “people”.

It got trickier when I wanted to bring up the idea of “humane” treatment, or the imperfection we describe as “only human”. That human-specific root word was something I needed to, erm. Root out. Aligare folk just ended up speaking more clearly about their values and weaknesses, instead of assuming that their species name says it all. They talk about morals, and treating each other well.

Tillian held tight to the electricity inside her, and straightened to match Peregrine.
“We have to help them,” she said. “It’s only right.”
“No one with a mind or a heart refuses to help when the demon [illness] shows up.You saw the Reyardine stop thinking of his own pouch contents for a moment, and I doubt he does that often. When something like this occurs, it’s only a matter of what there is to give.”

–Tillian and Peregrine, Chapter 7 of Remedy

After all this thought, I’m sure you can imagine how annoyed I get when my characters are called “animals” or anything similar! I really think this is something worth spending time on, thinking about how to be respectful to people who don’t exist. Because then we’ll remember to be respectful to people who do exist. And if fae or aliens do show up on our doorstep, then we’ll have a better idea of what to say.

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