January 20, 2019 11:11 AM   Subscribe

This Science Fiction Novelist Created a Feminist Language from Scratch - "Can a language be designed specifically to express the thoughts and feelings of women? In 1984, the linguist Suzette Haden Elgin wrote a science fiction novel to test this question. The result was Native Tongue, a dystopian tale of a future America that has been widely compared to The Handmaid's Tale. It was a pioneering feminist experiment, sold as a paperback original with a big green alien on the cover." (via; previously)
posted by kliuless (23 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
fascinating. sorry to say I have never heard of her or this book, but its definitely going on the 'todo' list.
posted by supermedusa at 11:22 AM on January 20, 2019

Reading this brought back strange memories - I can't remember if I've read Native Tongue, but I feel like I've studied Láadan, maybe in an old women's studies course? It's weird to have something so half-remembered brought back full-force, but seconding that this is certainly going on my to-read list.
posted by kalimac at 11:40 AM on January 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

I read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Native Tongue around the same time and they were revelatory! Their depictions of the inner lives of other women and the emotional labor they were doing saved me from getting tricked into the lifetime of self abnegation in service of men who didn't notice or care about me as an individual that I was heading towards.

Highly recommend Native Tongue. Reading the book, I didn't realise Láadan had been really developed as a language to use! I would love to learn, even if just some vocabulary to sprinkle about my English.

I only read Native Tongue, but I didn't finish the trilogy. Might be time to return!
posted by congen at 11:57 AM on January 20, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'm a fan, Native Tongue is one of those books that has stuck with me over the years. Her book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense is also quite good.
posted by theora55 at 12:40 PM on January 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

As I recall, the novel doesn't go into a lot of detail on Láadan. If you want more on the language itself, see this website.
posted by zompist at 12:48 PM on January 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

Something not nearly to this scale, but still tangential to it is The Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie.

No indicators of gender are given to any person within the empire, to do so is deemed barbaric, as gender so basic a concept that it is uncouth to mention. All persons are referred to as "she, her, daughter, etc".

On top of that, the central point of view (in the first book at least) is from the viewpoint of a spaceship that controls thousands of bodies. The pronouns and perspectives get crazy.
For example: "I stood watch by the door. Two of me watched out a window. Up the street, I spoke with a local about traditional times of closing factories."

Was a fun read, made me consider my use of pronouns.
posted by FleetMind at 1:18 PM on January 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

Interestingly this book has had 5 US printings according to Wikipedia, the last two by CUNY's Feminist Press. I had been prepared to think of this as a good book that never went anywhere but maybe it's not even that obscure to people studying feminist literature. We event seem to have a copy of the 2000 printing in my local library!
posted by GuyZero at 1:28 PM on January 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

I sure remember that cover, although I don't think I remember the novel nearly as well as her Ozark Trilogy. Which had some manipulation-through-language and a hell of a lot of using inequitable gender roles to patch other problems in society.
posted by clew at 1:51 PM on January 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Interesting. Is the underlying assumption here that English fundamentally can't appropriately convey feminine ideas?

Makes me wonder about other potential similar shortcomings, e.g. maybe English also can't really discuss things like atheism, scientific thinking, poor/working-class concerns, etc. Is that the point?
posted by anarch at 1:56 PM on January 20, 2019

I believe there are real cultures where women have a different language. One example.
posted by Segundus at 2:10 PM on January 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

Interesting! I haven't yet read Native Tongue (though it's on my TBR), but I came across a mention of Láadan in a book I read earlier this month, Jana Beňová's Seeing People Off (translated from Slovakian into English by Janet Livingstone). The reference was in the context of the women working in a frenetic (and upsetting, and amoral) workplace:
All the women at work called each other by the nickname “hon” and white poisonous spit collected in the corners of their mouths.

Red dots shown in the corner of every eye. Sometimes they switched languages. To a special women’s language, Láadan. After elasháana and husháana, osháana—a word for menstruation—and ásháana, meaning to menstruate joyfully, were the next words which were supposed to guarantee women in Slovakia equality of rights.
The novel dips in and out of surreality, but it explores city living, living with and around other people's bodies, and the expression into language a body and its realities, which is where I think this reference to Láadan fits.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 2:50 PM on January 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Interesting. Is the underlying assumption here that English fundamentally can't appropriately convey feminine ideas?

It's really important to take into account when this was written. We knew a lot less about the psychology of language then, and there were still many romantic ideas about how language could influence the way that you think or limit what you could communicate.

(There are also some pretty important questions to ask about what it means to reflect "the thoughts and feelings of women." Láadan makes some essentialist assumptions about that. I still love that Láadan was made and have a sad when people make it out to be a crappy constructed language. But it is in some ways very reflective of the time.)

Linguists these days will almost all tell you that any human language can all express all of the same concepts. We can run into difficulty when it comes to culture-specific concepts and associations; e.g. if an Albanian calls a young woman a "peach" (in Albanian), they're evoking a cultural stereotype specific to Albania, and it could take some time to explain to someone from an English-speaking background. But the problem isn't that Albanian is better-suited to stereotyping women, it's just that cultural differences are real.

People can obviously discuss atheism, scientific thinking, poor/working-class concerns in English. They do it all the time.

It's very true that language can reflect the cultural context that it exists in. It's more common for masculine forms to be the default than for feminine forms to be, for example - even in languages that don't have masculine and feminine genders (e.g. "man" and the default word for "person" being the same word). Words have histories, too, and that can be a sexist or racist history. But you can still talk about those issues in any language.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:00 PM on January 20, 2019 [11 favorites]

Linguists these days...

It's worth pointing out that some linguists do (or did) hold to Whorfian relativity— the idea that our language (helps) mold our thinking— and that one of them was Suzette Haden Elgin. I have one of her books, The Language Imperative, that's the best statement of the Whorfian position I know of.

(But the real playground for Whorfian ideas was mid-20th century science fiction. Though it's not great linguistics, it's almost irresistible as world-building.)
posted by zompist at 3:43 PM on January 20, 2019 [8 favorites]

the idea that our language (helps) mold our thinking— and that one of them was Suzette Haden Elgin.

Funny that you should mention Whorf, I had to read this book for an anthropology course, and that was gist of the discussion around it (and feminism in a general sense as well). I liked the book at the time and I've always been surprised that it isn't better known.
posted by Ashwagandha at 4:19 PM on January 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting this! I'd thought about it but got distracted.

I loved Native Tongue, though the sequels haven't stick with me as well. Fascinatingly different feminist dystopia, plus a likely candidate for the best-thought-out alien language acquisition process in science fiction. And both of those leave out the conlang part. This book had a lot going on.

Interesting to compare with the movie Arrival, which looked really cool but was a lot less believable that way. (Haven't read the Ted Chiang story yet, and also I know that was less the point of the story anyway.)
posted by asperity at 6:25 PM on January 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Whorf would be a lot more credible if it wasn't for the pesky inconvenient fact that hoo-mans make up words. And grammar. And slang. All. The. Time. If they haven't got a word to fit the thought, they invent one.
posted by tspae at 7:26 PM on January 20, 2019

If they haven't got a word to fit the thought, they invent one.

And not just Suzette Haden Elgin. There is a whole subculture of people who construct languages.

You may have two reactions to this:
“Cool! I want to do that!”
“What a geek you must be. Get a life!”

If you are in the first camp, Mefi's own Zompist has a suite of pages for you.
posted by otherchaz at 8:07 PM on January 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

Funny that you should mention Whorf, I had to read this book for an anthropology course, and that was gist of the discussion around it (and feminism in a general sense as well).

Huh, maybe that's why it's so familiar -- I was an anthro student when everyone was very post-modern and also very pro-Whorf-Sapir*. I took a lot of crossover Women's Studies/Anthro classes, and it wouldn't be unusual to have had this assigned. I feel like a lot of what I studied -- nearly 20 years ago now! -- hasn't aged well, and now I doubly want to re-read this, to see what it churns up in me.

*It was someone on Metafilter who actually clued me into the fact that this was not exactly a thing anymore. sorry person I have now forgotten who was very annoyed and very patient.
posted by kalimac at 11:16 PM on January 20, 2019

I read Native Tongue after being told by an amateur linguist that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was discredited. That may have colored my perceptions. It definitely made an impact regardless, but I think being a guy growing up in the US I could stand a reread now that I've heard of emotional labor and have a better appreciation for some basics of feminism.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:14 PM on January 21, 2019

My library had The Judas Rose (the second in the Native Tongue trilogy) and as a high schooler, I glommed on to that and the just-published The Handmaid's Tale and that was more than enough to begin constructing the scaffolding upon which my feminist understanding was built.

For a teenager who had been brought on individualist empowerment like "Sandra Day O'Connor and Sally Ride prove that women can overcome any obstacles!" ... to see and understand that nope, feminism wasn't an individualist ethos, it was about understanding how and why it benefitted social institutions to establish and perpetuate gender roles for everyone? Mind. Blown.

I have long thought Suzette Haden Elgin deserved to be more widely known.
posted by sobell at 9:30 PM on January 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I liked Native Tongue and read A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan. I found The Judas Rose kinda incoherent and never tried the third.

As to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis having been discredited, well, neither Sapir nor Whorf ever defined a discrete hypothesis; it was named after the fact to describe principles they wrote about. Its loudest detractors insist that the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis means linguistic determinism, that language places hard controls and limits on what you can think. That doesn't resemble anything Sapir or Whorf actually said, but somehow that straw horse is still getting beaten after all these years.

There's evidence for linguistic relativity having at least some effect in at least some contexts.

(Native Tongue, of course, is a work of speculative fiction and gleefully leaves even the dectractors' version in the dust as Haden Elgin takes an extremer than extreme version of Sapir-Whorf and runs with it.)
posted by Zed at 9:25 PM on January 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I know a tiny bit more now than the nothing I knew about linguistics back then, but thanks for the link on linguistic relativity.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:17 AM on January 23, 2019

Just popping into this thread to say that thanks to this post, I picked up Native Tongue and started reading it a few days ago. I am really loving it so far, and I can't believe I haven't come across it before. The intersection of linguistics and SF is a huge interest of mine. So, thanks kliuless and everyone who contributed to this discussion.
posted by Gordafarin at 2:04 AM on February 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

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