Fri
Jul 15 2011 11:15am

Linguistics, Aliens, Dystopia: Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue

Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue (1984) is a dystopia in which women have lost all rights and are property of their husbands and fathers. It’s 2205 and lots and lots of aliens have been contacted, and a genetically related dynasty of Linguists exists to talk to the aliens, which they do by exposing small children to them so that they can learn the alien languages as native tongues. Linguists are very rich, and are hated and feared by the rest of the population, so they lead very frugal lives to try to reduce this envy, but everyone hates them anyway. Against this background the women linguists are making up their own language to express what cannot be said in male languages, and they believe that this language will change the world.

Elgin is a linguist herself, and the artificial women’s language mentioned apparently really exists at least as a conceptual project. But what makes this book compelling is the way it’s written — it’s a mosaic novel, giving points of view from all over, female Linguists, male Linguists, people who hate Linguists, each tile adding up to a broad picture of the world which feels absolutely solid. Lots of it is ridiculous if you examine it, but the book discourages such examination — such is the power of the images and the strength of the characters that when you are reading it you don’t want to stop to carp.

The simple way to read Native Tongue is as dystopian SF, but I think it’s better considered as fantasy in which the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not just true but a law of nature — language changes possibility, not only what you can think but the way the world is. This allows the nonsense of a baby turning literally inside out when exposed to a non-humanoid language, and of course the ending. The linguistics stuff is fascinating — there’s the idea of “encodings,” making up words to embody new or unexamined concepts, and the work of translating between aliens and humans, and the way the Linguists whole lives literally from birth are organised around learning languages.

I like mosaic books — I like Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang (post) and Dan Simmons Hyperion (post) and Samuel Delany’s Tales of Neveryon and Marguerite Yourcenar’s A Coin in Nine Hands. I think it is a form particularly suited for SF, where the world is often the central character and finding different angles on the world lets you see the different facets of what’s really interesting. You’re shown a petal at a time, and by the end you have a full sensory experience of a rose garden — an alien rose garden. It’s unusual then that Elgin chose this technique for a dystopia. The more we learn about the world the less we can like it. What creeps up us is a world where some people are certainly more privileged but nobody is happy.

We see Nazareth first from outside as a beaten down unloved older woman who will lose her breasts without hope of regeneration, and then we go back to see her as a shining fourteen year old making up new encodings. We learn about the Linguists and the aliens and the languages from all directions and over a large span of time. We spend time in the head of a serial killer who is a woman trying to find a way to strike back and misidentifying the problem. We’re shown women living as slaves and working for a dream of freedom through language, and men who genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing for the right reasons when what they’re doing is appalling. And they all feel like real and complex people in their real and complex world, agonizing over their problems and delighting in their accomplishments.

Native Tongue is not a comfortable book. It can be considered with works like Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women as a set of books examining the power dymanic between men and women. Elgin, like Atwood, has women living in a state of oppression with their rights taken away. Tepper and Sargent have women living in cities and men living outside. But they’re all taking the position that women and men are like cats and dogs who live together uneasily. These are all eighties books, and I think they were all written in reaction to and in dialogue with not just second wave feminism in general but Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (post) in specific, and I think there’s a way in which they’re all picking at the wrong end of The Female Man. The Female Man and The Left Hand of Darkness (post) both ask what worlds would be like if everyone was human and there was only one gender. Because Russ did that by killing off all the men, these eighties books write about men and women as different species, as natural enemies.

I find the gender dimorphism disturbing in books like this. I tend to look up from them and see Emmet and think “They don’t mean you!” And as I certainly notice and point it out when I read books written before women were invented, or when they were only love interests, and the time when Niven wrote two alien species with non-sentient females, I think this is worth noting here. Native Tongue is about female oppression as much as it is about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it may be easier to read if you naturally identify with the nice oppressed women rather than the horrible rough oppressors. But it’s certainly worth reading.

There are sequels which have all the same problems without the joy of discovering the world through the mosaic. Native Tongue is complete in itself.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

5 comments
brightening glance
1. brightglance
There was certainly a rash of "things get worse for no apparent reason and women get less legal rights than they had even hundreds of years ago" books for a while (IIRC the backstory to The Shore of Women has something like this happening before the women's cities). Also Flynn Connolly's The Rising of the Moon, as well as the repulsive IRA cheerleading, has an Ireland which very implausibly has stripped away women's legal rights (implausible both generally and by the shortness of timeframe).
dancing crow
2. dancing crow
I think Philip Wylie also was addressing some of these issues with The Disappearance where the world of men and women split apart completely, and he follows events in each. Considering some of his appalling views on women two decades earlier, he seemed to have been schooled in women's issues and almost apologizing for ealier dismissals of women's rights and views. I haven't reread it for 20-odd years, but it seems to fit into this genre.
Michael Grosberg
3. Michael_GR
I don't know what it says on me - maybe that I'm a guy - but I opened the book and got as far as the second line on the time table at the start, where women's rights are taken away from them for no apparent reason in the nineties, about ten years after the date the book was published. It was so presposterous a suggestuion that I just couldn't continue.
Ursula L
4. Ursula
One thing that I found disappointing about this series is that, while it identifies some interesting gaps in English vocabulary (such as the lack of words for what women do during heterosexual intercourse) it doesn't really introduce words for those concepts.
dancing crow
6. infrontofthescreen
I don't really get why anyone would use the words ridiculous and nonsense to describe what happens in a science fiction novel. How is a baby turning inside out more or less metaphorical/referencing its own internal logic than any fictional world that creates its own rules? Or are you saying that all SF extrapolates from a 'true' reality and any leaps taken have to map to the real world? Because that's ridiculous nonsense, not Elgin's book.

Separatist feminism and the fiction that got written at its height (including the dystopian ones) is basically lesbian utopianism at a time when normative gender roles were a lot more rigidly prescribed than they are now. Evaluating them without noting that context is like reviewing John Wyndham's Chocky or The Day of the Triffids without allowing that his dolly bird/obsessed with children and housework female characters were created in the post-WW2 1950s when women were being forcibly shoved back out of the workforce and into the kitchen.

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