How Feminist Is Your Syntax?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what we say matters.
By Fiona Zublin
It’s the 22nd century, and women are property, unable to vote or engage in public life. Male linguists rule the planet, translating business deals into every language of the galaxy. The oppressed females, meanwhile, create a language, just for themselves, filled with nuanced concepts that English can’t begin to describe. Its sounds maximize clarity with distinctly female forms of expression.
If that seems like the plot of a fantasy novel, that’s because it is. Suzette Haden Elgin’s 1984 Native Tongue predates Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale by a year and tells a comparable story of futuristic female oppression but with a twist: a whole new language, created by Elgin, a linguist. Great fantasy epics with invented languages, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, tend to feel more authentic. And while Láadan, Elgin’s invented tongue, hasn’t proved as popular as Tolkien’s Quenya — and there’s no Oscar-winning movie adaptation of the Native Tongue trilogy — it’s still been a boon to linguists.
The idea is to turn that interaction around so the gap in communication is not women’s fault — for being too sensitive or taking it the wrong way — but the man’s, for not making his intention clear with his words.
So how is Láadan a women’s language? For one, the lexicon includes single words encompassing varied female experiences, such as pregnancy and menses, that aren’t represented in English. The structure also encourages an essential clarity by eliminating ambiguity traps — e.g., “I said this, but meant that” — as well as microaggressions like “I was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?”
“The idea is to turn that interaction around so the gap in communication is not women’s fault — for being too sensitive or taking it the wrong way — but the man’s, for not making his intention clear with his words,” says linguist Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages. Elgin’s linguistic revolution was simple: Construct language around the way women tend to think, and put the burden for working around that on men.
While the very notion that all women, or all men, talk a specific way is bound to raise hackles today, ideas about how men and women talk were different in the 1980s. In a 1999 interview, Elgin explained that her ideas about male and female speech are observations of tendencies and trends, not blanket statements about gender. Still, Láadan suffered a backlash from some women who felt the proposed language set strict parameters around their speech, and others for its exclusion of words and phrases related to lesbian culture. While Elgin was a prominent feminist sci-fi writer, the sci-fi/fantasy world isn’t always welcoming to female fans or female authors, something Elgin theorized may have been another obstacle to Láadan’s success.
When Native Tongue was published, Elgin decided to give Láadan 10 years — until 1994 — to take hold, either by way of women’s communities embracing the language like Star Trek and Tolkien devotees adopted Klingon and Quenya, or by women taking the language as a challenge and creating their own female-specific languages. Neither happened, which Elgin, who died in 2015, also found interesting. “Native Tongue was a scientific experiment as well as a novel,” she explained.
What did that experiment prove? For Elgin, Láadan proved itself a failure. There’s no dedicated community of Làadan speakers like there is for Klingon, which could be seen as its polar opposite: a hyper-macho, aggressive language where the closest analogue to “hello” translates as “What do you want?” “There may be another and better such language … that express[es] women’s perceptions,” Elgin said in 1999. “If [such languages] exist, and I don’t know anything about them, nor do you, that is also a clue.”
But Láadan’s influence has been felt, beyond the tiny Internet presence it enjoys, via a whole other language: Lojban. Engineered to be logical and unambiguous, Lojban’s formulation began in 1987. One of its creators discovered Láadan through its sci-fi connections and adapted some of its quirks into a new linguistic experiment. Láadan’s evidential markers — each sentence ending with a syllable indicating the basis of the statement to inform the listener “I know because I saw it,” or “I know because he told me,” or even “I know because it came to me in a dream” — were absorbed into Lojban.
“[Láadan was] one of the first thought-experiment languages, created explicitly to test the idea of whether speaking a different language might change the way you think,” says Okrent. Lojban is another, and it’s through that — and through Native Tongue — that Elgin’s work continues to speak volumes.