Kaion's Reviews > Native Tongue

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin
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's review
Jul 19, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: sf, feminism, series, reviewed
Recommended to Kaion by: (Feminist Reader's Network Aug '11 Group Read)
Recommended for: people who read language blogs, the multi-lingual, feminists
Read in August, 2011

Noting the passing last week of Suzette Haden Elgin: linguist, verbal self-defense teacher, feminist genre writer, & founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I read Native Tongue in my first push of reading harder sci-fi a few years ago, and found her approach to the genre really eye-opening. Though perhaps her hopes for the embrace of a universal, revolutionary women's language were disappointed, her writing was proof enough of how writing can change perception.

R.I.P. Suzette Haden Elgin: Author, Poet, Verbal Self-Defense Coach [io9]

To make something “appear" is called magic, is it not? [...] There is a continuous surface of the body, a space that begins with the inside flesh of the fingers and continues over the palm of the hand and up the inner side of the arm to the bend of the elbow.

I will name the “athad” of the person. Imagine the athad, please. See it clearly in your mind— perceive, here are my own two athads, the left one and the right one. And there are both of your athads, very nice ones.

Where there was no athad before, there will always be one now, because you perceive the athad of every that person you look at, as you perceive their nose and their hair [...] I have made the athad appear... now it exists.

Native Tongue is a spectacular example of ‘idea’ science-fiction. Its ideas are about feminism and aliens and human expansion, but the most important ones are on the power of language.

In Suzette Haden Elgin’s dystopia, women’s rights regressed in the later 20th century in a bout of religious fervor and neo-conservatism. Two centuries into the future, women are legally “minors”: maintained under the guardanship of male relatives at all times and lacking basic rights. Seen as lesser beings, they are valued only for their labor and reproductive abilities. Meanwhile, humans have expanded through the galaxy, through colonization and trade with Alien worlds. This contact is largely facilitated through the work of “Lingoes”, fifteen Earth-bound linguist families (“Lines”) who have specialized and monopolized the business of Ali-Human translation and diplomacy.

Despite their education, the women in the Lines are as oppressed as those outside, perhaps even more so under the strict patriarchal order of the Lines. In addition to the the usual indignities (labor exploitation, denial of liberty, etc), they also lack reproductive liberty: forced to bear as many children as possible in order to meet the unsatiable demand for imperialistic expansion. But the women of the Lines are working on a secret project that may change all that— Láadan, a new "female" language that they hope will one day unite all the women of the galaxy.

Why? Elgin holds a Ph.D in linguistics, and Native Tongue plays on the idea that human languages themselves, used for countless years in a patriarchal context, are indeed major tools of female repression. On the same note, language can be the tool of female empowerment, and importance of creating words for the expression of female PoV, for concepts previously inexpressible, such as:
raimmelh: to refrain from asking, with evil intentions; especially when it’s clear that someone badly wants to ask—for example, when someone wants to be asked about their state of mind or health and clearly wants to talk about it.
is tantamount. It is the “magic” that is creation of the world anew, and this insurgent potential of language that holds together Native Tongue’s disparate themes around the journeys of Nazareth Chornyak, a young woman of the Lines who's been spotted the have great potential, and Michaela Landry, a nurse whose trained demeanor masks her mission of revenge against those who killed her young son.

Elgin's dystopia addresses other themes such as human expansion driven by resource scarcity and the limits of human perception and language acquisition. But it is the parts of Native Tongue that are most concerned with the creation of Láadan that are its most transcendent and riveting. Elgin is on shakier ground explaining how this dystopia came about. It’s more than a little hard to swallow women losing all powers of majority by the end of the 20th century!— though these fears offer a historic value from the height of the Reagan era.

Another potential drawback is while Native Tongue's narrative threads end more or less satisfactorily, Elgin leaves the implications of “what next” in the overthrow of the old world order open. The way the novel ends leaves me to presume that this is covered in the two sequels, though judging by the reviews, not in a way that is satisfying to all.

As it is, however, Native Tongue is a powerful and radical message of female empowerment, delivered not only in the intelligent 'science' of linguistics but also compelling 'fiction' that documents the concerns of feminism in the era it was written. Rating: 4.5

Also I learned a ton about linguistics and Láadan is just frequently damn cool:
doroledum: Say you have an average woman. She has no control over her life. She has little or nothing in the way of a resource for being food to herself, even when it is necessary. She has family and animals and friends and associates that depend on her for sustenance of all kinds. She rarely has adequate sleep or rest; she has no time for herself, no space of her own, little or no money to buy things for herself, no opportunity to consider her own emotional needs. She is at the beck and call of others, because she has these responsibilities and obligations and does not choose to (or cannot) abandon them. For such a woman, the one and only thing she is likely to have a little control over for indulging her own self is FOOD. When such a woman overeats, the verb for that is “doreledim”. (And then she feels guilty, because there are women whose children are starving and who do not have even THAT option for self-indulgence.)
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Warwick (new) - added it

Warwick This sounds amazing, and this review – especially that first quotation! – got me more excited about reading this than I have been about a novel in ages. Perhaps you saw that Elgin died yesterday. Now I'm furious I'd never heard of her while she was still alive.

message 2: by Kaion (last edited Feb 06, 2015 12:25PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kaion I didn't see that Elgin died last week! Thanks for the news; Elgin was a really interesting sci-fi writer.

I got my hands on the third book Earthsong a couple of months ago, it'll be cool if sad to see this series to the end.

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