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Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

March 13, 2012

Native, Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

“The natural limitations of women being a clear and present danger to the national welfare when not constrained by the careful and constant supervision of a responsible male citizen, all citizens of the United States of the female gender shall be deemed legally minors, regardless of their chronological age…” (p 7)

In the future of Native Tongue, a series of amendments to the US Constitution in 1991 have repealed all rights for women. By 2179, this situation appears to have become global, though no good explanation for such a practice being adopted by other nations is presented. Earth also has colonies on other worlds, and is in contact with an unspecified number of alien races. In order to communicate with these aliens, several groups of linguists have come into being. Known as the Lines, these are extended families in which every member is trained from birth to be fluent in at least one alien language and a handful of human languages, as well as have working knowledge in many more languages. Nazareth is perhaps the most gifted linguist in Chornyak House, a Line located in North America. At an early age, she displays a talent for “Encoding”, ie, identifying concepts which do not exist as single words in any earthly language. A few samples are given at the end of Native Tongue in an appendix – ralaheb: something utterly spiceless, ‘like warm spit’, repulsively bland and blah” or wonewith: to be socially dyslexic; uncomprehending of the social signals of others”. These Encodings are important because they are the building blocks of a secret language called Láadan the women of the Lines are creating. The men know nothing of Láadan: they think the language the women are working on is Langlish, but that’s a smokescreen. The development and introduction of Láadan is the end point of the narrative of Native Tongue.

Most of the novel is concerned with describing a world in which Láadan’s creation both occurs and betters things for its speakers. And since those speakers are women… It’s not enough that females are second-class citizens, Nazareth is also married to a man she despises. A monstrous secret government project to train a baby to speak a “non-humanoid” alien language – run entirely by men – repeatedly results in the horrible deaths of its subjects. Michaela Landry murders her obnoxious husband and, working as a nurse, becomes a serial killer of old men… but changes her ways on meeting the old women of Chornyak Barren House. A “barren house” is just as the name suggests, a retirement home for women who can no longer bear children. And Chornyak Barren House is also where most of the work on Láadan is being done.

“…never for an instant, lose track of the knowledge that when you interact with a woman you interact with an organism that is essentially just a rather sophisticated child suffering from delusions of grandeur” (p 110)

The true aliens in Native Tongue are the men. There is a disconnect between what we are told the male characters believe women to be – ie, sophisticated children – and how they actually interact with them. Though they denigrate Langlish, and protest at women’s inability to think, in many situations in the book their behaviour towards their wives is no different to how it is to each other. Yes, they are patronising, and arrogant, and in a number of scenes talk as though they had been lifted direct from a Robert Heinlein novel… And yet the paternalism suggested by the above quote never really manifests in their behaviour.

Which is, I suppose, part of the point of Native Tongue. Turning up the chauvinism to eleven, so to speak, renders the male characters less than human, which in turn highlights the plight of the female characters, and so demonstrates the importance of Láadan. In part, this might also explain the thinness of the background. The world of 2179 is assumed to be little different to that of North America, which itself seems mostly unchanged from the USA of 1984. Though colonies on other worlds are mentioned, no explanation for their existence, or indeed how they are reached, is given. Technology does not appear to be much advanced from the mid-1980s.

As Native Tongue builds towards its reveal of Láadan, it remains adamant that the language will improve the lives of women, but never quite says how it will do so. Certainly there is room for improvement – and not simply from a legal standpoint (something, of course, which Láadan cannot affect). Elgin paints a picture of a society in which the treatment of women is criminal, and hints at a solution without actually revealing it. But then Native Tongue is only the first book of a trilogy – it was followed in 1987 by The Judas Rose, and Earthsong in 1993.

There are many things to like Native Tongue. Michaela Landry is a very likable character, despite being a serial killer. The society of Chornyak Barren House is portrayed well (not all of its inhabitants are sympathetic or admirable). The linguistics around which the story is based provides a number of fascinating ideas. And yet… The story all feels a little one-sided, a little too much like an attack against an uncharacteristically token defence. It feels unbalanced thematically and in its world-building. Native Tongue is a book, I think, that needs rereading, and then its sequels need to be read.

Note: Elgin did actually create Láadan – see here.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2012 12:21 pm

    I was really blown away by Native Tongue and went out and bought the sequels, which I then thought much less of precisely because of their unbalance. I haven’t managed to re-read NT since reading the sequels; I would like to do so in order to identify whether the imbalance is there in NT just as strongly but hidden by the novum of the treatment of linguistics, or whether the sequels are actually worse as far as that is concerned. Certainly at this stage I don’t really fancy re-reading the two sequels, despite being someone who is quite interested in the odd bit of separatist feminist sf.

    • March 13, 2012 12:30 pm

      I wanted to like the book more than I did, and some bits of it I did like a lot. But the thinness of the background, and the way we’re repeatedly told what the men think though they don’t always act as though they do, spoiled it for me.

  2. March 13, 2012 12:41 pm

    I read Native Tongue back in the day and enjoyed it but I couldn’t work out how it would all come together in the end. I think the Chronicles of Kencyrath by PC Hodgell written around the same time, are much more interesting about the separate worlds of men and women and the limited role of women.

    It is interesting to read this review against the backdrop in the USA of nationwide attempts to limit women’s access to contraception as in (one example only!!) a bill currently being proposed (it has passed it’s first reading) in Arizona to allow your employer to fire you if you use contraception.

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