Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

NativeTongueElginNative Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Review by M Fenn

Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue, the first book in this eponymous trilogy, in 1984. I was 22 in 1984.

I remember Reagan’s election and how many of us on the left (I was already quite at home way over on the left wing) were frightened by the possibilities, many of which have come to pass. I also remember the beginnings of the backlash on feminism, a backlash that just keeps growing 30 years later. So, I get where Elgin’s coming from with her story of a dystopian future USA where women have lost all their rights and are now the property of men in worse ways then they were before the second wave of feminism. My 22 year-old self would have eaten this book up and looked for more.

I’m sad to report, however, that the book didn’t really do much for my 51 year-old self. The story immediately irked me with the premise that the constitutional amendments revoking the 19th amendment and turning women into minors under the law would have happened by 1991. I mean, okay, Reagan and his ilk scared me, too, but 1991? That seems awfully premature.

That’s always a risk writers take, putting events in the super-near future. I’m still miffed that 2001 came and it was nothing like the movie. There was a 33-year gap there. To predict something this cataclysmic happening less than 10 years from when you’re publishing? Might have wanted to think that through a little more.

So, I had to try to push that aside as I read further. Fortunately the rest of the book takes place centuries in the future, the 22nd to be exact. There we discover that not only do women still not have any rights, but society has been divided up into two antagonistic groups: the Linguists and everyone else. The Linguists are the only people capable of communicating with all the alien societies humans have met, so they’re necessary as translators to make all the treaties and do all the negotiating. Regular people hate them, so the Linguist families (the Lines) live in large communal houses buried in the earth away from prying eyes and violent reaction.

One of the reasons that regular folk hate the Linguists is that Linguist women are allowed to work outside the home as translators because, apparently, there’s so much translating that needs to be done, they have to. Then we have all the stuff happening with babies blowing up because they can’t fathom non-humanoid alien languages (no, really). I haven’t even gotten to the Linguist women’s work on creating a language that allows women to express their thoughts better than standard English, French, German, whatever. This, one might argue, is really the point of the book, but it gets lost, to me, amidst all the other stuff.

Oh, and there’s a serial killer. (Who’s actually my favorite part of the novel; her first murder? That chapter would make a great Tales from the Crypt of something.)

I hate to say this, because Elgin’s short story ‘Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me’ remains one of my favorite short stories (Top 10, no question. It’s awesome. And hard to find. I have it in Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1983 edition).), but I found Native Tongue to be too bloated and ponderous, too preachy and heavy-handed. While not all the women are saints, by any means (see: serial killer), most of them are and there isn’t one kind man in the whole thing. They’re all stupid, misogynistic assholes, every one of them, which is just bullshit. Even in 1984, I had allies. Still do.

None of the characters are really developed at all; they’re all just game pieces for Elgin’s philosophical/linguistic chess board. And there are so many plot holes. What do the aliens in the Interface do all day when they’re not communicating with (and occasionally destroying) the babies? And what happened to all the kids who’d been fed hallucinogens in an attempt to keep them from blowing up after they were taken to the orphanage? The list goes on.

Things I liked? The serial killer character, as I said. She’s really the only person whose character evolved (however slightly) over the course of the novel. I also enjoyed Elgin’s discussions of language and the linguistic “tricks” that one male linguist in particular would use to win arguments. Those were interesting. And I liked the notion that an academic field such as linguistics would become so powerful. But the negative outweighs the positive for me.

Biggest disappointment? The cover of the edition I read. Nothing like that image happens in the book. I wanted my motherly alien!

This review originally appeared on Skinnier Than It Is Wide.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin

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.