The curious case of anti-human racism in the English language

So, I suppose I should explain the title, huh? I imagine most of you out there who’ve been victims of the public education system are aware just how ridiculous the English language is, but let me tell you, you’ve probably never imagined how much worse that gets for a fiction writer…and how much worse even than that it gets for a sci-fi writer.

To put it simply, there aren’t any rules for some of the things both sets of writers need to  do. For regular fiction writers it’s a little bit more standardized, there are quite a few unwritten but generally observed rules to cover the vast majority of oddities generated by writing general fiction. For sci-fi writers though…even ignoring technology that doesn’t exist yet, but is commonly imagined (is my future cellphone analogue going to be a commlink or a comm link?), there are still some irritating issues.

 

Which brings me back to my title, the curious case of anti-human racism in the English language. This particular issue is actually mostly a problem, not because there is no rule, but because the rule looks wrong. Distilled down as far as I can: “human” when used as a race is supposed to remain uncapitalized, but when you type out “vulcan,” “klingon” or other sci-fi race names…they look wrong without being capitalized, don’t they? Heck, my word processor actually underlined Vulcan and Klingon to inform me that they were are supposed to capitalized! So the aliens all get special treatment, but our own race not so much?

But wait! There’s more! When I first realized this issue I started hunting for answers…and oh good lord did I find them…sort of. What I actually found was a massive ongoing multi-genre argument. After all, fantasy races like elves, dwarves, dragons, centaurs, and merfolk aren’t capitalized any more than “human” is! One semi-sound argument pushed the idea that it was because planets are proper nouns, so things like “Vulcan” would be capitalized because they are from the planet “Vulcan,” which sadly breaks down with Klingons, who are from Qo’nos -_-. Another pattern, one that I personally thought made a sort of sense, was that “human” is not capitalized because it is our own race. That an alien actually would capitalize the word Human, as for them it would be the “proper noun” for the race. Which honestly begs the question to me why exactly it isn’t a proper noun in standard English, to be honest. After all, shouldn’t the definitive title of our collective race be a proper noun? I mean “Earth” is capitalized, as the proper name for our planet.

Those were hardly the only two arguments I found, nor could I find one argument that was accepted more than others. By the time I was finished visiting a dozen sites, had talked with my editor, and so on, I felt rather like a cartoon character with those little confused swirls in their eyes. Ultimately, after having a nice lie-down to reboot my brain, I threw my hands up and wrote my own rules. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much the normal response.

Effectively, like with the technology issue, it seems sci-fi writers generally are left no option but to pick their own rule. Sometimes this rule is simple, other times complex, and the primary challenge eventually becomes the need to write it in such a way that you can apply it with consistency…while still having it “look right” to a reader. In example, I myself chose to follow the idea that alien races would consider it a proper noun, and capitalize it in their own speech. Yet I also left it uncapitalized when the the speaker was human, as it “looks wrong” capitalized.

This is but one example of the rather unexpected problems a writer runs head-on into in sci-fi, and I rather expect other genres have similar issues all their own. It honestly makes me wonder what the prim-and-proper grammar-nazi University professors teach their creative writing students. Someday, I’ll have to find one, either the professor or student, and ask.

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