A Woman-Made Language: Suzette Haden Elgin's Laadan and the Native Tongue Trilogy as Thought Experiment in Feminist Linguistics

Article excerpt

"I am a foreigner to myself in my own language and I translate myself by quoting all the others."

--Gagnon 180

"We have to invent a woman's word. But not 'of' woman, 'about' woman, in the way that man's language speaks 'of' woman. Any woman who wants to use a language that is specifically her own, cannot avoid this extraordinary, urgent task: we must invent woman."

--Lee1ere 74

The Thought Experiment of Native Tongue

* During the 1970s, feminist linguists and scholars began to critique the part that the English language played in constructing and upholding patriarchy. Following the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, which I shall discuss in more detail later, these individuals claimed that language does not merely describe reality, but also structures how it is perceived. More specifically, they argued that an androcentric language that excludes and marginalizes women translates into patriarchal societies that do the same. Consequently, feminist linguists argued the need either to transform the English language so that it was no longer androcentric, or to invent new languages that would allow women to be free and equal.

Suzette Haden Elgin--a professional linguist who holds a doctorate in the subject, and who also writes science fiction and poetry--adopted the latter strategy. She created a synthetic language, Laadan, that attempted to express female perceptions in a way that existing languages failed to do. (1) She considered the invention of this language as part of a much larger thought experiment designed to test the following four hypotheses:

1) that the weak form ofthe linguistic relativity hypothesis is true ...; 2) that Godel's Theorem applies to language so that there are changes you could not introduce into a language without destroying it and languages you could not introduce into a culture without destroying it; 3) that change in language brings about social change, rather than the contrary; and 4) that if women were offered a women's language one of two things would happen--they would welcome and nurture it, or it would at minimum motivate them to replace it with a better women's language of their own construction. ("Laadan," paragraph 3)

As a central part of this project, Elgin wrote the Native Tongue trilogy in which she presents a fictional history for Laadan and imagines what its effects on society might be. These novels were primarily intended to popularise Laadan among the general public, and to test the impact a women's language would have on the real world ("Earthsong FAQ," paragraphs 4-5).

Set three centuries in the future, the Native Tongue trilogy tells of a North America where the Nineteenth Amendment has been repealed and where women have lost their citizen rights as a result. They are no longer able to vote, hold property in their own right, or work outside the home without the permission of a male relative. Earth in general is dependent upon interplanetary commerce for its wealth. Consequently, linguists have become of central importance to the societies in which they live and work. They are responsible for ensuring successful negotiations between humans and extraterrestrials, acting as both interpreters and cultural advisors. Because of the importance of the task and the extreme difficulty of most alien languages, linguist dynasties have developed that train their children in a single alien language, multiple human languages, and linguistic theory. In this society, a group of linguist women sets out to challenge patriarchal power by using the only weapon they have available to them--language. Among themselves, they develop a women's language, Laadan, in an attempt to change the androcentric character of society and liberate women from patriarchal control.

In what follows, I provide a case study of Laadan as the most well-known, modern synthetic language constructed to express women's perceptions. My discussion focuses primarily on the Native Tongue trilogy, since the novels should read as the thought laboratory which Elgin not only uses to set her experiment in motion but also to explore possible outcomes of it. …