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Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

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Set in the twenty-second century after the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment, the novel reveals a world where women are once again property, denied civil rights, and banned from public life. In this world, Earth’s wealth relies on interplanetary commerce, for which the population depends on linguists, a small, clannish group of families whose women breed and become perfect translators of all the galaxies’ languages. The linguists wield power, but live in isolated compounds, hated by the population, and in fear of class warfare. But a group of women is destined to challenge the power of men and linguists.

Nazareth, the most talented linguist of her family, is exhausted by her constant work translating for the government, supervising the children’s language education in the Alien-in-Residence interface chambers, running the compound, and caring for the elderly men. She longs to retire to the Barren House, where women past childbearing age knit, chat, and wait to die. What Nazareth does not yet know is that a clandestine revolution is going on in the Barren Houses: there, word by word, women are creating a language of their own to free them of men’s domination. Their secret must, above all, be kept until the language is ready for use. The women’s language, Láadan, is only one of the brilliant creations found in this stunningly original novel, which combines a page-turning plot with challenging meditations on the tensions between freedom and control, individuals and communities, thought and action. A complete work in itself, it is also the first volume in Elgin’s acclaimed Native Tongue trilogy.
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Suzette Haden Elgin died last week, and that tragic occurence motivated me to read her most famous novel, that had been otherwise sitting neglected on my TBR. Native Tongue is a very feminist, very 1980s novel that, like Babel-18 and other works, deals with linguistics; Elgin’s marriage of linguistics to feminism, though, is a fascinating one.

There are two themes to the book, which are of course inextricably entwined; language as a way to encode the world, inextricably tied to our physical senses and perception of the world (hence similarities of abstracts across different language groups), and language as means of control and identity. Native Tongue combines these two themes in its use of Láadan , a conlang being developed by the women of the families of Linguists who are the only people trained to speak alien languages. It is, of course, a lot more complicated than that; Elgin doesn’t let the Linguists relax in their monopoly on extraterrestrial translations and negotiations, with the government trying to undercut them and attempting to break the seemingly-insurmountable barrier of non-humanoid communication. That latter, combined with the way the women are constructing Láadan, are how Elgin developes her ideas on the theme of language as determined by physicality; the barrier to communication with a nonhumanoid species is that the perceptual worlds are so different from each other that it is impossible to communicate across them.

The second approach to linguistics is Elgin’s Láadan; Native Tongue refers both to the Linguists’ approach to teaching their children alien languages, and to the construction of a new language for the women by the women, using original concepts not expressed in any other languages. It’s a fascinating idea, of women’s liberation from patriarchy – and in this case, a form of patriarchy far more severe than that of the present day – through first linguistic (hence cultural and psychological, per the linguistic ideas Elgin pursues), and then total, separation from the men; Elgin’s support for female separatism is not uncommon in women’s science fiction of the 1980s, but her willingness to also engage with how that might come about is rarer. It’s a rather fascinating idea, and Elgin treats it seriously and with the intellectual rigour her subject demands; although she also brings about the physical separation of genders by a rather unexpected means in Native Tongue, one that had this reader laughing in surprise when it happened because of the extent to which it is unexpected in feminist SF.

As usual, the plot and characters are worth discussing. The plot is essentially discussed above; this isn’t a fast-paced action-spectacle of a novel, but rather a cerebral novel about concepts and relationships between characters, and all the more interesting for that. Of course, it requires interesting characters for that to work, and these Elgin provides; although the men of Native Tongue share certain characteristics, including a cultural blindness to the capabilities and intelligence of women, they remain interesting and unique characters with different responses to how to deal with those supposed inferiorities. Meanwhile, the women are even more varied, especially as we see Michaela, a non-Linguist with the fear and hatred of Linguists that has been popularised by the government, contrast with the Linguists themselves; Elgin won’t make women into either a monolith or a superior group who immediately get along and see through male lies. Rather, Native Tongue sees something like the development of a feminist consciousness among the women of the novel; it’s an interesting process to watch through Elgin’s narrative, and a well-written one at that, that balances the different kinds of kyriarchal oppression that exist among different people, and deals neatly with subversions of the kyriarchy too (Linguists use some tactics rather similar to those used by mediaeval European Jews, for instance).

Native Tongue is one of those books that makes you think, and make you want to know more; in this case, it sent me delving into nonfiction work on linguistics, especially around language development and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Elgin has written a brilliant and fascinating novel, and I look forward to reading the rest of her trilogy.


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