Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue is a work of feminist science fiction. Set for the most part in a 2205 dystopia long after the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women’s suffrage, Elgin’s novel is as much a linguistics thesis and social commentary as it is a work of science fiction.
In Native Tongue, Earth’s economy is intertwined with that of far-flung planets, and democracy has been replaced with a technocracy of sorts dominated by a quasi-dynastic clique of linguists. Their management of inter-planetary relations from trade agreements to peace treaties has afforded Earth’s linguists a degree of power unimaginable today – human prosperity is determined almost entirely by their successes and failures.
Yet through extensive reported speech, Native Tongue’s narrator exposes the reader to the fragility of their status. Simultaneously revered and despised by the populace for their influence and wealth, the linguists go to great lengths to placate the public, embracing a sort of asceticism to prevent challenge to the social order.
Their dilemma is most evident when a panel of linguists votes upon medical treatment for Nazareth, the novel’s principal protagonist, who since a young age has been an integral part of their operation. While she is certainly not viewed as equal to male linguists, there is evident affection for her, much like that one would have for a pet. Although saving her breasts would make but a tiny dent in their substantial funds, the panel ultimately votes against the operation, as spending their money on cosmetic procedures would trigger considerable backlash from the public.
Meanwhile the female linguists of Barren House, an ostensive retirement home for women past their child-bearing years, are at work creating a language to subvert the patriarchal order – a movement that Nazareth becomes increasingly involved in throughout her life.
Notwithstanding the socio-political backdrop, and the varied, often humorous descriptions of alien species, it is Elgin’s exploration of linguistic themes throughout the novel that is most intriguing. Drawing from her Ph.D. knowledge, Elgin intersperses her novel with academic concepts and terminology, adding realism to a rather fantastical setting.
The second chapter, for example, begins with an excerpt from a fictional feminist linguistics manual:
‘The linguistic term lexical encoding refers to the way human beings choose a particular chunk of their world, external or internal, and assign that chunk a surface shape that will be its name; it refers to the process of word-making.’
Elgin takes this idea, firmly established and accepted by her contemporaries, and develops it further. She coins the term “Encoding,” which she uses to refer to the creation of words for those ‘chunks’ of the world which have been deemed undeserving of their own name. In Native Tongue, these are almost exclusively aspects of the female experience, overlooked in a profoundly sexist society.
Similarly, the government’s justification of the breeding and often brutal training of children to be linguists (although it must be mentioned that children not ‘of the Lines’ are often subject to far worse fates) invokes the very-real critical period hypothesis. The critical period hypothesis maintains that language acquisition is biologically linked with age, and that infants are inherently more able to learn a language than adults. Although this theory is not unchallenged among modern linguists, it is another example of Elgin drawing upon her extensive education in order to present her dystopia as a plausible future.
Yet the linguistic concept which perhaps influenced Elgin’s novel the most is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the idea that one’s language shapes one’s perception and worldview. This is the basis for Laadan, the constructed language used by female linguists to communicate amongst one another without male oversight.
The concept is so incendiary that Nazareth refuses to accept it at first, knowing what it could potentially mean. She asks whether Laadan has ‘one hundred separate vowels,’ making clear how ridiculous she finds the whole notion. While she has been aware of “Encodings” since her childhood, the progression of Langlish, a mere pet-project of the women of Barren House, to a pidgin and eventually a creole in the form of Laadan, is as preposterous as it is enticing.
Despite this, the use of secret languages by oppressed groups and minorities is not unprecedented. When homosexuality was still criminalised in the UK, Polari was used, predominantly by gay men, to evade arrest and violence. Subtly inserting Polari words into conversation could alert others to the speaker’s sexual orientation in a safe way. Moreover, it allowed gay men to communicate in public spaces without being assaulted by either law enforcement or the general public.
Laadan goes further in that it is not only a language designed for secret communication, but also one which incorporates the aforementioned “Encodings” to designate ideas and objects significant to women, but not to men, as important. It is this aspect of Laadan which makes it dangerous – it broadens the thinking of its speakers. While Native Tongue itself does not delve into great detail regarding the vocabulary and grammar of Laadan, Elgin separately published a dictionary and grammar reference of the language which complements the novel, and asserts Elgin’s belief that a language created by and for women is a necessity. For its part, Native Tongue gives life and colour to this conlang, much as The Lord of the Rings did for Tolkien’s.
The novel does have numerous flaws, however. Aspects of its fundamental premise seem far-fetched, and the degree of gender essentialism can make the characters one-dimensional at times. At one point, Elgin attempts to garner sympathy for a murderess by virtue of her sex, and while a handful of male characters are granted some complexity, most are defined only by their misogyny, or worse.
While the situation itself is more interesting than other contemporary works of feminist fiction, the sometimes-disjunct prose and incoherent structure prevent Native Tongue achieving the same cult following of The Handmaid’s Tale. Indeed, it is at times a challenging read, and a lack of direction can render entire chapters unenjoyable.
The conclusion is at best unfulfilling. While it does strengthen the case that language is a powerful tool, and therefore dangerous to those atop the social hierarchy, it is incredibly unsatisfying. Without giving away too much, it makes decades of progress entirely futile.
While the concept behind Native Tongue is inspired, and some of the world-building is both entertaining and thought-provoking, Elgin’s lack of experience as a fiction author is painfully apparent at times. Despite this, the linguistic themes are engaging, and the questions posed thought-provoking. Simply for this reason, it is worth a read.