“Such a relief, to have a language with the right words”: Native Tongue and Women’s Language

Unlike many (most? all?) of the authors discussed in this column so far, Suzette Haden Elgin was actually a linguist. She held a PhD in Linguistics from UC San Diego and was a professor of linguistics at San Diego State. Her academic career seems to have focused on literacy and language education, with a secondary focus in feminist linguistics and gender studies. She also wrote a series of books on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense and was influential in the conlang sphere.

In a keynote address at the Conference on Gender Research at Hollins College in 1995, Elgin describes the theory of metaphor insertion as a method to achieve gender equality.

She defines a metaphor in this sense as a concept that is shared by nearly everyone in a society, and the first existing metaphor she discusses is “women are objects.” She describes the actions women as a class would have to take to reduce violence (by no longer being seen as objects) and dismisses them as improbable—because you can’t unify all women into taking a Lysistrata-like action together. And we would have to stop buying fashion magazines and clothes, consuming violent movies and media, etc, which is also unlikely to happen. Elgin states, “[t]hese games cannot be played unless we participate, and they are, almost without exception, language games.” So, in her argument, the only option we have to make change is through the insertion of a new metaphor into the societal consciousness:

You don’t use guns, or laws, to insert new metaphors into a culture. The only tool available for metaphor-insertion is LANGUAGE. And we know very well how to go about it. Our nuclear studies programs, where students learn the totally sanitized and domesticized language of nuclearspeak that makes it acceptable to name a missile “The Peacemaker,” are a magnificent model. 

It is this belief that she elaborates on, extensively, in her 1984 novel Native Tongue.

Set in the late 22nd and early 23rd centuries, Native Tongue posits a misogynist dystopia, where women lose all rights in 1991 and become, legally speaking, children. US society (and the rest of the world, but the book focuses on the future US) has made contact with aliens as humans spread throughout the galaxy. For reasons that aren’t particularly well explained, there is a monopoly on translation services by Lines (families) of linguists, who have developed an Interface which allows infants and toddlers to natively acquire alien languages from the humanoid alien in residence (who is on the other side of the interface). It is impossible, according to the book, for humans to acquire languages from non-humanoid aliens, because “no human mind can view the universe as it is perceived by a non-humanoid extra-terrestrial and not self destruct” (66)…sigh (more on this below).

Society at large hates the “Lingoes” and thinks that they’re living high on the hog on their taxpayer money, when, in reality, the linguists have grueling language learning and translation schedules, because there are only so many people to learn so many languages. Another “delightful” feature of families of the Lines is that the girls have to get married at 16 and begin producing children basically every 2 years, so they can contribute 8 or 9 new linguists (and, thus, 16-18 alien languages natively spoken) to the family. When the women become too old to be bred anymore, they retire to the Barren House.

So: With this backdrop, we have a story that sort of follows the life of Nazareth Chornyak, who is the most brilliant wiz—er, linguist of her age, but which doesn’t really seem to be about her. Rather, it’s a story about two things: how horrible chauvinist men and the society they create are, and creating a language for women. The old women in the Barren House are publicly creating a language called Langlish, but this is a ruse to hide their real project, Láadan: a language which only women will speak, and they will have words to express things that women find important and that men find unimportant, and this new language will have the power to change reality. Women aren’t satisfied with the existing natural languages and their ability to express ideas. (Sigh. Again, we’ll dig into this in a moment.)

Before I get to the Whorfian issues, I want to point out the good things in the book. Elgin, as a linguist, had knowledge of language acquisition processes (as they had been theorized up to the early 1980s), and her explanations of acquiring a language natively square with the theories of the time, which aren’t too far off from present-day theories. Exposure to a language in infancy and toddlerhood from a native speaker will result in a native-speaking child, and this does not result in confusion or language delays for the child. There is a critical period from birth to about age 5 during which a child can acquire language(s) easily, and from age 5 to about puberty, it becomes more difficult to acquire a language. (This does not mean that learning a language is impossible; language learning and language acquisition are two separate phenomena.) One less realistic aspect is that the child acquires an understanding of culture while in the Interface, because that requires a different sort of exposure.

Her discussion of pidgins and creoles is a bit dated, here in 2020, but in line with the 1970s and ’80s. A pidgin develops in a contact scenario, and children develop grammar and expand the vocabulary, and when it has native speakers, it becomes a creole. Elgin implies that Láadan will need another generation after it becomes a creole “before it can be called a living language with the status of other living languages” (248), however, and this does not align with modern understandings.

Elgin also discusses the nuances of translation and understanding cultures through Nazareth’s work translating for a particular alien species. In her role as translator, she has to be able to recognize and understand cultural taboos and explain them to the human government, as in the negotiations with the Jeelods, who find the color blue taboo.

In the event that a native human speaker of an alien language cannot be found, there is a pidgin of sorts called PanSig, which may be a gesture-based language, but there may also be words. (This is not explained in much detail, just mentioned in asides.) It isn’t a language that can be used for negotiation, because the vocabulary is insufficient, but it can be used in a pinch.

Now, alas, we turn to the Whorfian aspects in this book… (Note: you can find a more detailed discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here, if you need a refresher.) The premise of the thought experiment is twofold: 1) women want a language of their own, which they can use to express women’s things and 2) when people use this language and children learn it natively, it can change reality (via metaphor insertion).

Premise 1 assumes that in order for people to discuss a concept, there must be a word for it, and if one does not exist, one must invent it. Granted, it’s easier and more convenient to discuss something when you have a single word or morpheme or a short phrase to represent a complex or abstract concept, but it’s not impossible. This is tangential to the concept of untranslatable words, which don’t exist. Five years ago, we didn’t have a single word for a warm coziness that could be expressed by German Gemütlichkeit, but in 2016, the Danish word hygge started popping up everywhere—including on lists of untranslatable words. While it’s true that some words are more difficult to translate than others, all translation requires a good bit of approximation because of cultural context and the connotations that brings along.

Another assumption of Premise 1 is that women want this, or need it, because there are concepts that men find unimportant which women want to describe. Because they’re women’s things. This isn’t necessarily a problem linguistically speaking, but it is definitely a very second-wave feminist idea, rooted in gender essentialism. Or gender separatism. Either way, I don’t like the implication that I, because I have a particular phenotype, would necessarily want to express “women’s things.” But Elgin was writing in the same era that Deborah Tannen and Robin Lakoff published their pioneering texts on the intersections of language, gender, and culture, and this whole concept was a matter of discussion in feminist circles.

The second premise is where it gets really Whorfian. Having this new language would change women’s worldviews and enable them to transform the reality they live in:

“Suppose we begin to use it, as you say we should do. And then, as more and more little girls acquire Láadan and begin to speak a language that expresses the perceptions of women rather than those of men, reality will begin to change. Isn’t that true?”

“As true as water,” Nazareth said. “As true as light.” (250)

This ends up being, to an extent, true within the text of the book, because, once Láadan begins to be used, the women seem more agreeable to the men, and the men don’t like it and have suspicions about it. And to solve the problem, they build a separate house for the women, who then get to live apart from the chauvinist pigs.

But do women really want our own language? In a 2007 interview on Absolute Write, Elgin said that her thought experiment was not successful and her hypothesis, that women would either embrace Láadan and start using it, or they would create a different language and use that one instead, was disproved, and “and the conclusion I draw from that is that in fact women (by which I mean women who are literate in English, French, German, and Spanish, the languages in which Native Tongue appeared) do not find human languages inadequate for communication.”

So, do you think that a women’s language is a useful goal? Have you tried learning Láadan? If so, what did you think? Regardless of the real-world results of Elgin’s linguistic experiment, Native Tongue remains a thought-provoking work in many ways, and I look forward to your impressions in the comments…

CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke.

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