Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin is Classic Feminist Sci-fi You Need to Read
We have all heard of The Handmaid’s Tale, but have you read the sci-fi feminist classic Native Tongue yet? It’s an important book for our times…
In 2017, dozens of women protested the US president and Republican party by silently standing outside Congress dressed in costumes from the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
It’s not surprising that The Handmaid’s Tale has had this kind of cultural reverberation. Men using the language of religious morality to justify oppression of women is too familiar, both in the United States and globally. Dramatic shows like The Handmaid’s Tale can be a balm to those burnt out from protesting and phoning their congressional reps, hoping that it’s enough to keep the latest absurd and cruel bill from becoming law.
But The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t the dystopian feminist novel I’m writing about today.
I want to talk about Native Tongue, the first novel in a trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin.
A New Old Feminist Sci-Fi Dystopia
In Native Tongue, Elgin imagines a future defined by two events.
The first event is the repeal of 19th amendment in 1991.
During the early 80s, when Elgin was drafting Native Tongue, the gains of the second-wave feminist move seemed precarious, and the loss of women’s rights all too possible. Elgin frames the repeal of the 19th amendment in her novel as the conclusion of the real-world failure by US states in 1982 to fail to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed change to the Constitution that would have essentially ended legal differentiation between men and women.
In the real world, the ERA was simply abandoned. In Native Tongue, Elgin imagines a future in which the defeat of the ERA began a downward cycle of legal oppression, ultimately resulting in men having full legal control over women, their work, and their bodies.
The second major event in the world of Native Tongue is the establishment of contact with interplanetary civilizations in the early years of the 21st century.
In Native Tongue, first contact has led to a rapid increase in available technologies through interplanetary trade. As an unexpected side effect, linguists have become disproportionately powerful, since global governments and corporations are dependent on the linguists to provide the translation and interpretation necessary for trade. Linguists have formed themselves into guild-like families, training their children to be polyglots from birth.
Linguists maintain that anyone is capable of learning alien languages, but the truth is that only the linguist families have the resources and environment necessary for raising children fluent in alien languages.
There was Elvish. Then Klingon. Then there is Láadan, a new language created by and for women
Nazareth Chornyak, the protagonist of Native Tongue, is a woman born into one such linguist family. Her aptitude for languages, and the overwhelming demand for linguists, affords her a wider range of opportunities than most women. While multiple viewpoint characters are introduced throughout the novel, it is Nazareth whose innovations spurs on the Chornyak women’s secret project which lies at the heart of Native Tongue. This secret project is the creation of a new language – Láadan – for the creation of a new world.
The Chornyak women hope that the creation and dissemination of Láadan will free the minds of women, enabling them to then enact a material revolution. They also believe that a society of native speakers of Láadan would inherently be more just and equitable, since Láadan’s grammar forces users to explicitly express concepts that are often only implicit in English – such as whether a sentence is a question, command, request, promise, warning, or statement, or whether someone performed an action benefitting someone else voluntarily, against their will, out of obligation, or accidentally.
Elgin’s deep academic background (she earned her PhD in linguistics from University of California in San Diego in the 60s, becoming the first student at the school to ever write two dissertations) shines through in all her writing, but especially so in Native Tongue. Elgin not only conceptualized Láadan, but actually constructed a complete grammar and generative vocabulary for the language.
In creating Láadan, Elgin was, on a smaller scale, recreating the experiment conducted by the characters in her novel. Yet while the Chornyak women are ultimately successful – though not in ways they had predicted – Elgin saw her hypothesis disproved. The women reading Native Tongue did not find Láadan to be so useful that it was worth the difficulty of learning a new language. Perhaps the English language was after all, though imperfect, still fully sufficient. A better language than English would, perhaps, have been well-received – but Láadan was not, overall, a better language.
As the rest of the novel shows, Elgin was writing from within the cultural milieu of white academia, white feminism, and white nerd culture. These self-imposed limitations may have deprived Elgin of the insight and input necessary for building a really revolutionary language.
Despite the lack of initial enthusiasm for Láadan, dedicated readers have collaborated to put together a significant handful of resources online at sites such as Láadan Language and Láadan Reddit. Láadan will almost certainly never achieve the kind of recognition given to, say, Tolkien’s Elvish or Klingon. Nevertheless, people are still translating their favourite poems and songs into Láadan, and building new words so that they can talk about the things that matter most to them.
The Native Tongue and Handmaid’s Tale – two feminist sci-fi classics. One forgotten, one lauded.
This brings me back to The Handmaid’s Tale. Probably the most significant difference between these two novels is that Atwood’s novel has achieved so much commercial success, while Elgin’s work is largely unknown. I believe this may be, in part, due to the hard science-fiction elements of the Native Tongue trilogy, since SF writers are often marketed towards niche groups.
I think it is also fair to say that Elgin’s prose is sturdy and functional, meant for telling a story, whereas the writing of Atwood – a poet as well as a storyteller – is more subtle and shaped. Yet, of the two fictions, Elgin’s is also arguably more unsettling and more radical.
The Handmaid’s Tale concludes with ambiguity. Only the metafictional epilogue assures us that women eventually received legal rights again, though how this was achieved is unclear. Native Tongue ends with Nazareth and her compatriots making tea and sitting down to discuss her multi-generational plan to begin spreading Láadan; the following two novels focus on how this is done, and the effects it has.
Elgin rarely shows violence in her novels, but frequently shows her characters doing the emotional labour and interpersonal communication necessary to ensure that their group of freedom fighters will not be overcome by the forces of oppression around them.
This kind of story – where the strength to resist those who deny the truth of your speech comes from knowing how to speak truthfully with those you love – may be needed more now than ever.