Q&A

What Words Should I Use for My Non-Human Species?

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My main issue lies in alternate terms for “humanity” and “mankind” when humans don’t exist.

[…] my world is an Earth replacement in an alternate universe. I’ve taken time meticulously worldbuilding, even outside what I’d ever need for my story, just for my own enjoyment. However, there is one specific detail I can’t seem to think of a solution for.

In my world, humans don’t exist, and are instead replaced by a very similar bipedal race of a different name. […] But because humans don’t exist, I’ve found a roadblock in what to call the general person.

An easy solution is to replace “mankind” and “humanity” with a word that is similar, playing off of the species’ name. However, there are more than one dominant human-esque species on my world. There are three.

With three equal species, I have no idea what to refer to the general person as. “Man” and “women” are both terms which derive from “human,” but this issue I can get past by using the terms female and male in certain instances, but it sounds odd in others. In general, I don’t know how to refer to the planet’s dominant residents.

Each species have their own races, own separated cultures. They may be similar, but the three cannot be considered one singular species. How can I refer to the general person, what word can I use to describe ‘humanity’ and ‘mankind’?

– Jane

Hi Jane,

Sounds like a cool world, reminds me of the world of The Dark Crystal, which I’m particularly fond of.

This certainly can get a little tricky sometimes. Even in worlds with humans, you often don’t want to exclude other intelligent life. For “human” or “humankind” the best substitution I’ve found is versions of the word “sapient.” So instead of “humanity” you would use “sapience” and instead of “humankind” (or “mankind”) you would use “sapientkind.” It’s worth noting here that people often use “sentient” when they mean “sapient.” The difference is that “sentient” means self-awareness, which most animals have. “Sapient” means that a being has higher reasoning like humans.

I would stick with “man” and “woman” as long as your species has gender roles that resemble those ones. While those words are derived from “human,” if you try to avoid every word that’s derived from something that doesn’t exist in your world, you’ll probably have to forgo half the English language, and people who read in English are going to need those words to understand the story and world. I don’t think readers will bat an eye at it.

I can understand the appeal of “female” and “male” if you’re try to keep things neutral and scientific sounding, but the issue with those words is that they’re ambiguous about whether they refer to biology or gender roles. If you use them for gender, it could feel like trans-erasure to readers. So I would avoid them in this case.

Last, keep in mind you can always use “people” or “folk” or anything like that for individuals of any species. As long as it’s not specifically “human” or “homo sapien,” it should be fair game.

But of course, feel free to make up new words for each species or individuals of that species specifically.

Have fun worldbuilding!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    Ask yourself how they identify themselves.
    If you have; the T’kah, the Breel and the alpha-primates.
    I’m sure people will believe your words when you call them a T’kahlings or Breelkind or “the total collective grouping of alpha-primatrcies”.
    Ask what they call each other. What they call themselves and what they call each other when they’re being unpleasant to each other. I can see beta-primate becomming quite the insult.

    Ask yourself what they call their females. T’kahrey could easily be the word the T’kah call their sisters. Perhaps the Breel reproduce by sexual reproduction but have no word for the male or female form and you can simply add the expression if you want; “Breel lass and Breel lad” as you need.

    You might even need to ask what they call themselves collectively.
    “We are The Governed.” “We are The Unified.” “We are, the Followers of the Accord of Economic Intrests.”

  2. Dave L

    If you have a name for your world you could use an adjective off of that:
    Earthling, Earther, Earthan, Earthian

  3. GeniusLemur

    Would “person” work?

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Now they asked specifically for words to replace “humankind” and similar, but I think “person” works fine for individuals. People sometimes use “person” as if it’s a synonym to “human”, but that depends on context, right? I don’t think anyone would be confused if someone said, for instance, “a person like Worf” in a Star Trek TNG context. It would seem really weird to object “he’s not a person, he’s a klingon!”

      • Chris Winkle

        Yes, exactly.

      • Michael Campbell

        Wasn’t there a court-martial episode in TNG that debated Data’s person-hood?

        • Dvärghundspossen

          Yes, but that wasn’t about Data being non-human; it was about him being a machine rather than an organic humanoid, and whether a machine can truly be a person.
          It was some time since I saw it, maybe they talked about whether he was human, but in that case, it was sloppy talk – you can’t replace Data with a klingon or vulcan in that episode.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, that wasn’t about Data not being from Earth (and thus a human from a ‘species’ point of view), it was about the question whether an android could really be a person – essentially the question of ‘what makes a sentient/sapient being?’

            If you’d put a Vulcan or Klingon or other species used in Star Trek in that situation, it wouldn’t work, because all these are considered sentient/sapient species.

          • Michael Campbell

            Perhaps you should compare and contrast with the inalienable human rights discussion of Star Trek VI.

  4. Jim from BC

    If it’s an alternate earth and the species are still humanlike you could use ‘hominids’. Strictly speaking you could also do what Yuval Noah Harari did and refer to the entire genus ‘homo’ as humans and specify modern humans as ‘sapiens’. I think it would depend what level of technology you’re going with and how these species are distributed. If they’re particular to different biomes and you’re at a pre-modern tech level it could make sense to have them be ‘mountain people, desert people etc.’ and refer to people as a whole as simply ‘people’ or the species plural as ‘peoples’

  5. The Imperial

    You could try Sophont, I’ve found it has a nice ring to it. And you can play around with it, sophonts, soph, sophs sophoncy, sophontkind, ladies and gentlesophs, etc

  6. Juliette

    I ran into this a while ago when in my story I had humans and another sapient species. I decided to use “person” and “people” for any sapient life, and it’s worked out well. The only time I ran into problems was when I tried to use words like “humane” and “humanizing” and realized they wouldn’t work in the context of referencing a different species. I usually worked around this and rephrased it to not use the words, and overall I think “person” does the best, as it can work for any sapient species and is gender neutral.

    • SunlessNick

      People also has a quasi-singular usage, so it also lets you refer to the collective population of all three species as “The Peoples.”

      • Blackhoof

        Exactly, like the ‘Free Peoples of Middle Earth’ in LOTR

  7. Tifa

    I ran into the same problem with my invented world, as there’s no humans there, and decided to use ‘being/beings’ as a work-around, as well as ‘bipedal’ when referring to a character who has a humanoid form.

  8. Cay Reet

    One way might be to have them give themselves a name. We humans named ourselves humans, too. So give your non-human, sapient species a name and refer to them by it. After a couple of times where the use was obvious, people will know. Or give it a little paragraph at the beginning where you point out that the beings the reader is going to meet call themselves X.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      That’s true enough, but I thought Jane wanted a word that could apply to three species at once, because they’re all somewhat human-like. Although I guess you could make something up for that too… Like each species have given themselves a name, and they’ve also agreed on a collective name for all three species.

      • Cay Reet

        Each species has their own name and at some time, they came together and made up a name for all of them. That could work, yes.

  9. Alice

    Reading this, I realise I have a similar problem. Refering to all races together as ‘sapience’ is a great idea that I’m going to steal, but I’m confused as to what members of a non-human race might call each other.

    For example, my world has dragons capable of speech. It feels off for them to consider each other ‘men’ and ‘women’ because they’re not humanoid. Animal terms like ‘bull’ and ‘cow’ aren’t working out either since ‘cow’ sounds like an insult and, due to their matriarchal culture, ‘dragon / drake’ and ‘dragoness’ aren’t believable terms.

    So, in circumstances like this, do you think inventing a word is the best solution?

    • Cay Reet

      Since we don’t know what the dragons would call each other, inventing a word for it might be the best way.

    • Leon

      I think, if there is no distinction between males and females other than the prerequisites for making babies, male and female makes the most sense.

      I could imagine them mostly using gender neutral pronouns (unless they were talking about courtship or breeding).
      But this depends on what you mean by matriarchal culture; are both sexes equal and a female is the current alpha or are females physically superior?
      For superior females i think you could model them on hyenas; give them a bigger stronger predator to bother them (something that can kill an individual but can be overwhelmed with numbers or out brained*) and young rearing conditions (immobile eggs) that make it crucial to be absolutely fierce.

      *maybe an ocean predator that steals their pray?

      • Cay Reet

        I like the idea about basing them on hyenas. In addition, with dragons probably being egg-laying, it might make sense for the female to be a little bigger, since she’s producing the eggs. She could also have a hotter fire, because she needs it to keep the eggs warm (dragon eggs might need high temperatures).

        I remember there was some ‘mockumentary’ (but clearly a fake one) years ago, which I had on DVD. I think it was called “Dragon World” (I think) and had part of the dinosaurs turn into dragons over time. They claimed the female dragons were more aggressive, because they had to protect their eggs and their territory, while males were wandering and just looking for more females to impregnate. There’s a lot to work with.

    • Jedi10549

      These aren’t real, but maybe have male be drakon, and female be drakal.

  10. Greg S

    I like “Folk”

  11. Jedi10549

    Of course, you could also take the land name, such as Libranthos.
    Human = Libranthan
    Mankind = Brankind
    Humankind = Libranthankind
    Humanity = Libranthanity
    Man = Bran
    Woman = Shelbran

  12. Keiran

    Fun etymology fact: Human comes from the latin word humanus, while the english word man has germanic origins. Which means man isn’t derived from human and there’s no reason you shouldn’t use it. That’s why the plural forms are humans and men, not humen or mans.

  13. Sam Victors

    You’re fond of The Dark Crystal?

    Cool, I’m a huge fan of Labyrinth

    We’re friendly fandoms

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