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Creating a ‘Truer’ Language Within a Work of Fiction: The Example of Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue



Les projets de langues imaginaires et idéales, qui fleurissent en Europe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, témoignent généralement d’un désir d’ordonner et de simplifier la langue afin d’en réduire les ambiguïtés et ainsi d’assurer une meilleure communication et compréhension entre les peuples. Bien plus tard, dans Native Tongue (1984), premier tome d’une trilogie de science-fiction féministe, Suzette Haden Elgin se lance dans un projet quelque peu différent, qui consiste à vouloir doter les femmes d’une langue capable d’exprimer leur expérience spécifique de la vie et du monde. Cet article vise à analyser la manière dont Láadan, la langue imaginaire et idéale conçue par Elgin, se construit à la lisière entre réalité et fiction, entre vérité et mensonges.

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1In the context of a linguistic conference, a paper on a literary text may appear as something of an oddity. However, the text I wish to discuss here is closely linked to the issue of connections/rupture between form and meaning, and raises some vital questions about the way in which the two are interrelated, albeit in a rather unorthodox manner. Before presenting and analysing the work in question, Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue (1984), I wish first to say a few words about the long tradition which has seen literary works present imaginary languages that are claimed to be superior, ideal or perfect. I will then look at the ways in which Elgin’s novel addresses this question, the rather unique solutions it proposes, and the reasons for its predictable failure to accomplish the author’s clearly stated aims.

2Imaginary voyages and Utopias use a fiction – that the lands and peoples they describe actually exist somewhere – in order to encourage readers to explore reality, re-examine the here and now, acknowledge its failings and consider potential solutions. The otherness of the imaginary worlds is not an end in itself, but a means of gaining new perspectives on the familiar and the known. Behind the smokescreen of the fictional travel tale, many authors of imaginary voyages, particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries, explore in their works new philosophical and scientific ideas, which it would be risky to express in more direct modes. To succeed, this ploy relies upon the deceptive nature of language and writing, and on the readers’ ability to recognise and accept that deceptiveness, so that they will read between the lines and consider the sub-text beneath the imaginary travel tale.

3Even imaginary voyages and Utopias that appear to promote rational models of society are thus dependent upon the figurative nature of language in order to function. Traveller-narrators repeatedly insist upon the veracity of their personal account, alluding to travellers’ age-old reputation as inherently unreliable, citing renowned travel liars and claiming that their report is different from all the others because they, and they alone, are honest. Insofar as it reminds readers, at regular intervals throughout the text, of the untrustworthy nature of travel narratives, this technique is unlikely to reassure them as to the narrator’s truthfulness, rather inciting them to view him with mistrust and suspicion. Swift’s Gulliver, for instance, claims to be notorious for his veracity, but refers in his text to his “cousin Sympson” and his “cousin Dampier”, two notorious plagiarists and fabricators of travel accounts. Through this play on truth and lies, and this use of language to express the opposite of what is actually stated, readers can and must recognise that they are being encouraged to view the narrator and his words as intrinsically untrustworthy and therefore to seek out the underlying ideas beneath the travel tale.

4As imaginary voyages depend upon the deceptive, ambiguous nature of language in order to function, it should perhaps come as no surprise that when the authors of such texts attempt to create their own imaginary languages, and to present them as ideal, they are usually anything but successful. Francis Godwin, Thomas More, Denis Veiras and Simon Tyssot de Patot all invent more or less detailed imaginary languages but one of the best examples is to be found in La Terre Australe connue (1676), Gabriel de Foigny’s fictitious account of a journey to the still unknown Great Southern Land, a text which not only describes an apparently model, rational society, but also provides a detailed grammar of a supposedly ideal language. The Austral language is said to be perfect because there is total connection between form and meaning: “ils forment si parfaitement leurs noms qu’en les entendant, on conçoit aussitôt l’explication et la définition de ce qu’ils nomment.” (162) The narrator adds that to name something is to explain its nature: “on ne peut nommer aucune chose en ce pays, qu’on n’explique sa nature en même temps.” (163)

  • 1  U. Eco, Serendipities. Language and Lunacy, (1998), transl. William Weaver, London: Phoenix Press, (...)
  • 2  R. Menzies “L’échec des utopies linguistiques chez Foigny et Swift : écueil ou éloge de l’imperfec (...)

5However, as has been eloquently demonstrated by Umberto Eco,1 Foigny’s fictional language is in fact even less perfect than real ones, as the system of monosyllables upon which it is based contains letters endowed with both semantic and grammatical values (a fact which increases, rather than decreases, the possibility of confusion and misunderstanding). Furthermore, it relies entirely upon a series of paraphrases and metaphors to function, thus belying any claims to clarity or certainty. The presence of this attempted perfect grammar is also rather incongruous within a text that uses the travel conceit as a means of exploring primarily religious ideas that might otherwise have met with the censors’ disapproval. The disjunction between form and meaning that Foigny’s ideal language aims to eliminate is a vital aspect of the very text within which it is found. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere,2 imaginary grammars such as these, while seeming to promote the ideal of a perfect language, in fact highlight the drawbacks of such projects. The texts in which they are presented are vital spaces of liberty, both literary and intellectual, within which authors explore and present often daringly new and critical ideas - and it is precisely the ambiguous and polysemous nature of language that makes such ventures possible.

6Eco and various other critics have already analysed these attempts to create perfect languages, which were particularly numerous during the 17th and 18th centuries. The text I would like to consider here is one that has aroused little critical attention, but that nonetheless perpetuates themes and problems inherent in the presentation of ideal languages in fictional texts, while addressing issues very different to those that preoccupied earlier writers and proposing a new and even more improbable solution to the question of relations between form and meaning.

Suzette Haden Elgin: an exception?

7As Marina Yaguello has pointed out, early inventors of such imaginary languages have one thing in common:

Qui sont les inventeurs de langues, qu’elles soient philosophiques ou à finalité utilitaire ? Qui sont les auteurs de théories sur l’origine et le développement du langage ? Qui sont les auteurs de voyages imaginaires ou de science-fiction ?

Des hommes, toujours des hommes. (53)

8Yaguello emphasises that, with the possible exception of Hildegard de Bingen, women do not produce this type of project whereas, she maintains, glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and xenoglossy (speaking an existing language that one has never actually encountered) are generally ascribed to women rather than men. While there are undoubtedly practical historical reasons for this – after all, in statistical terms women traditionally produced comparatively few projects of any type – Yaguello suggests that it also reflects stereotypical gender roles: “Aux hommes les activités intellectuelles, les spéculations abstraites, les théories à composante philosophique, les créations conscientes et réfléchies; aux femmes les produits de l’émotivité, de l’imagination non révisée par l’intellect.” (54) Furthermore, she suggests that projects for improving language or creating an ideal language also reveal deep-seated distinctions between male and female relationships to language, since existing languages, our mother tongues, are typically described by male commentators as capricious, illogical, irregular, unreliable, ambiguous and therefore mendacious, changing and unstable, rebellious and in need of mastering. And these are exactly the shortcomings that classical imaginary languages attempt to remedy: “Il s’agissait, certes, de mettre fin à la confusion des langues, mais pendant qu’on y était, on a cherché la rationalité, la régularité et la logique avant tout.” (60)

9Given the paucity of such texts, Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue, published in 1984, is an interesting case. Elgin differs from most inventors of imaginary languages not only because she is a woman, but also because she actually is a linguist, with a PhD in linguistics and an academic career, possibilities that were obviously denied to women in earlier times. Prior to retirement in 1980, Elgin was Professor of Linguistics at San Diego State University.

10Set in the year 2205, Native Tongue is the first volume in a science-fiction trilogy, and describes a context in which women in the US have lost their rights as citizens following constitutional reform. Banned from voting, owning property and working outside the home without permission from a male relative, they are the property of their menfolk. In Elgin’s fictional future, interplanetary exchanges are a central part of business, and as a result linguists have a vital social function: in their role as interpreters (both linguistic and cultural) they alone can guarantee the successful outcome of commercial negotiations and transactions between humankind and extra-terrestrials. As alien languages are extremely complex and difficult, Linguist dynasties have evolved, each one training its children in one alien language and several human ones, as well as teaching them linguistic theory. A group of Linguist women, relegated to a Barren House where women are sent to live out their lives once they can no longer bear children, secretly develops a women’s language, in order to challenge patriarchal oppression. The result, Láadan, allows for the expression of women’s feelings, emotions and experiences; these, Elgin suggests, cannot be accounted for in English, which is an androcentric language, reflecting male conceptions and perceptions of the world and structuring that world accordingly.

Fiction and Reality in Native Tongue

11Elgin’s science-fiction text reflects and explores contemporary concerns and issues: the work was published one year before Margaret Atwood’s more famous The Handmaid’s Tale, which also depicts a world where women suffer from institutionalised oppression and domination.Elgin herself has clearly stated that science-fiction as a genre offers unique potential for examining new ideas and testing hypotheses: “SF, she has said, “ is the only genre of literature in which it’s possible for a writer to explore the question of what this world would be like if you could get rid of [X].”3 This speculative premise (that in order to improve the world one needs to eliminate that which is deemed negative) is the classic mode of creation used in Utopian literature. Rather than establishing definite, positive criteria for improvement, authors of such texts tend to take as their starting point the failings of the real, imperfect world, which they propose to eliminate. Standard targets include private property, money, political organisations, the education of children within their families or according to gender, social inequality, and corruption, but often no clear indication is given as to how these ills are actually to be eradicated. Elgin’s text functions in a slightly different way: it is simultaneously dystopian (in that it depicts a cataclysmically bleak scenario, one that certain readers had trouble taking seriously) and yet purports to be practical in scope, as it posits clear ways in which the author thinks women could and should take steps to modify their position and status within society.

12In fact, whereas traditionally imaginary voyages and Utopias maintain a certain distance from reality, offering an examination and exploration of the existing world without necessarily stating that any specific action should or must be taken to modify it, Elgin’s text is intended as a call to arms, encouraging women to take urgent steps in order to reassert their rights before reality comes to resemble the fictional world portrayed in the novel. Similarly, while earlier texts like the moon voyages of Francis Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac, for instance, present scientific experimentation and validation in a purely abstract, literary context and offer an obviously fictional illustration of theories such as the diurnal rotation of the Earth or the power of gravity, Native Tongue blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality in a slightly different way. Instead of using fiction as a smokescreen for exploring daring, potentially risky ideas put forth in speculative mode, Elgin presents a model which she very explicitly hopes to see implemented in reality. Moreover, while few earlier authors appear to think it likely their fictional work will have any major impact upon the world around them, Elgin explicitly tries to use literature as a means of testing certain hypotheses in reality. Native Tongue, she explains, is

a thought experiment with the express goal of testing four interrelated hypotheses:

 (1) that the weak form of the linguistic relativity hypothesis is true [that is, that human languages structure human perceptions in significant ways.];

 (2) that Goedel’s Theorem applies to language, so that there are changes you could not introduce into a language without destroying it and languages you could not introduce into a culture without destroying it;

 (3) that change in language brings about social change, rather than the contrary;

 (4) that if women were offered a women’s language one of two things would happen – they would welcome and nurture it, or it would at minimum motivate them to replace it with a better women’s language of their own construction.4

13I would like to focus first on the first hypothesis, also known as the linguistic relativity or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which “human languages structure human perceptions in significant ways.” Although this hypothesis has been much criticised, Native Tongue nonetheless sets out to verify it by suggesting that male perceptions dominate English and are encoded in the language to the extent that they influence our understanding of gender. Elgin’s allegation is that English does not allow women to express their feelings and experiences and that this failing is a key factor in sexual inequality. This hypothesis is illustrated in Native Tongue by the experiences of Nazareth Chornyak, a particularly brilliant Linguist woman. Forced into an arranged marriage with a brutal, ignorant man, she falls in love with Jordan Shannontry, a more sensitive character, who shows some concern for and interest in her as a thinking, feeling, individual and even gives her a rose, a gesture of exceptional kindness in Nazareth’s bleak life. She blurts out her love to Shannontry, who promptly informs her husband, and she is reprimanded and scolded. However, the humiliation she feels is above all due to the men’s refusal to acknowledge her feelings, and to her own inability to describe them in the words available to her: “If she had had the skill and leisure to write it all down, and to somehow bring it to pass that men would read it, it would only bore them. What a fuss a woman makes, they would say, and they would forget it at once. And there were no words, not in any language, that she could use to explain to them what it was that had been done to her, that would make them stop and say that it was an awful thing that had been done to her.” (201-2)

Literature as a call to linguistic action

14The reform endorsed by Elgin in her text is thus linguistic in nature. If we return to her definition of science-fiction as a genre addressing the question of “what this world would be like if you could get rid of [X]”, it is notable that she goes on to specify “where [X] is filled in with any of the multitude of real world facts that constrain and oppress women.”5 The [X] that Elgin recommends for elimination in Native Tongue is no less a target than the English language, and that is what her characters attempt to do – to replace English with a language, Láadan, that is capable of rendering their perceptions and experience. They secretly devote their time to encoding Láadan:

When we women say “Encoding”, with a capital “E”, […] we mean the making of a name for a chunk of the world that so far as we know has never been chosen for naming before in any human language, […] We mean naming a chunk that has been around a long time but has never before impressed anyone as sufficiently important to deserve its own name. […]

But there is no way at all to search systematically for capital-E Encodings. They come to you out of nowhere and you realize that you have always needed them […] (22)

15Whereas many previous imaginary languages strived in vain to improve communication by simplifying language, reducing it to monosyllables or categorising terms according to their composition, Láadan reflects a desire to expand existing language in order to accommodate women’s experiences and feelings. In Elgin’s account, the women Linguists do succeed in forging, or encoding, a new, more adequate language, and when they have done so and the language has begun to be used by the women and children in the Barren House, it effects perceptible change amongst them, thus, Elgin suggests, confirming the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis under test. However, it is notable that the change in women is described in the text primarily from the point of view not of those directly benefiting from the liberating effects of Láadan, but from the perspective of the male Linguists. Emotionally insensitive and dismissive of women’s concerns and abilities, the men are utterly unaware of the secret, subversive Encoding project. They only gradually become aware of the transformation that is taking place, without realising the causes: “Women, they tell me, do not nag any more. Do not whine. Do not complain. Do not demand things. Do not argue. Do not get sick – can you believe that …? No more headaches, no more monthlies, no more hysterics… or if there still are such things at least they are never mentioned.” “How long has it been,” they ask one another, “since you sat and listened to a woman nag? Or watched one sit and blather endlessly about something that no one in his right mind could possibly have any interest in? Or blubber for hours over nothing at all?”(275)

16Thus the women in Elgin’s imaginary world achieve their goal and in doing so they validate (entirely fictionally, of course) the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Their triumph is complete when the Linguist men concur that their women are no longer pleasant company, since their minds always seem to be elsewhere, and that they should therefore be given agreeable but separate accommodation. The women consequently find themselves liberated from a great deal of the material and psychological oppression they previously experienced. But, as Elgin puts it, they are above all freed

from the constant tension and frustration that comes of not having words for the things you want to say, and of not being listened to when you try to talk about those things anyway; they were spared the suffering that comes of deciding that talking about those things is utterly impossible and giving up trying. Think of foot-binding. It’s easy to list the restrictions foot-binding places on a woman and to understand what removing those restrictions would mean. An inadequate language (one of the hypotheses in Native Tongue) imposes less obvious but equally repressive constraints; it could be called tongue-binding.6

17Although Elgin’s underlying ideas and aims differ radically from those of creators of early imaginary voyages, it is striking that, like them, she strives to create a language that provides an exact means of expressing one’s experience and perceptions, thereby correcting the perceived deficiencies and ambiguities of existing languages. It is also notable, although unsurprising, that, as we shall see a little later, she fails as dismally as her predecessors.

Creating a better language

18Elgin has said that the women she consulted complained of two major problems with English and its close linguistic relatives:

 (1) Those languages lacked vocabulary for many things that are extremely important to women, making it cumbersome and inconvenient to talk about them. (2) They lacked ways to express emotional information conveniently, so that – especially in English – much of that information had to be carried by body language and was almost entirely missing from written language. This characteristic (which makes English so well suited for business) left women vulnerable to hostile language followed by the ancient "But all I said was...." excuse; and it restricted women to the largely useless "It wasn’t what you said, it was the way you said it!" defense against such hostility.7

19The lexicon at the back of the 2000 reprint of Native Tongue gives some indication of the kind of perceptions that Elgin apparently sees as being both specifically female and inexpressible in English, and for which she coined terms in Láadan. These include entries such as:

Lowitheláad:“to feel, as if directly, another’s pain/grief/surprise/joy/anger”

Radíidin: “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help”

rathoo: “non-guest, someone who comes to visit knowing perfectly well that they are intruding and causing difficulty”

wonewith: “to be socially dyslexic; uncomprehending of the social signals of others”

Doroledim: “This word has no English equivalent whatsoever. 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 good 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 “doroledim.” (And then she feels guilty, because there are women whose children are starving and who do not have even THAT option for self-indulgence... )”

20While not every term in the above list will resonate with every woman, and some women may feel that none of them is remotely useful, it would probably be reasonable to suggest that many of the entries in the lexicon do indeed describe situations or feelings recognisable to many female – and indeed male – readers of Native Tongue. The final example quoted illustrates how it would indeed be “cumbersome and inconvenient” to try and express the complex emotions and reactions at work in this situation, though one might well argue that coining an entirely new language to express such feelings is not indispensable and would not necessarily improve gender relations in society. Furthermore, the sheer number of terms in the lexicon to describe this type of very specific feeling and circumstance hints at a language that only a very few people might ever come to master.

21One of the conspicuous things about the terms featured in the lexicon is that many of them are negative terms, as indicated by the prefix “ra.” It is striking that while Utopian societies are often structured along negative lines, their perfection being defined by the absence of certain ills and deficiencies present in reality, Láadan seems to contain many words which are attempts to improve language by revealing what things are not, highlighting the extent to which the reality perceived by Elgin and the women whom she consulted does not conform to the meaning of the words generally used to convey it. “Holiday” thus means one thing in standard English and in the mouths of speakers but has quite the opposite sense in the experience of these women, and a similar problem is observed in the case of the word “guest”. Láadan can clearly be seen as an attempt to reduce the deceptive nature of language observed in English, and it functions in a rather paradoxical way by coining words to describe what things are not, to refer to all the things that are not what they are said to be, or that do not correspond to the definition of the term used to describe them.

Constructing Láadan

22In writing Native Tongue, Elgin extended her linguistic experiment beyond the bounds of fiction, in an attempt to validate the fourth hypothesis outlines above: “that if women were offered a women’s language one of two things would happen – they would welcome and nurture it, or it would at minimum motivate them to replace it with a better women’s language of their own construction.”8 Rather than merely providing a sketchy outline of her invented language, Elgin actually constructed Láadan, writing a full grammar for the language and providing a textbook for anyone interested, to be purchased from an address provided at the end of Native Tongue. Láadan has since acquired a small cult following, and there is a substantial website with lessons and discussion of the subtleties of the language, and the option for Láadan aficionados to add their own terms to the dictionary. For the purposes of this paper, I will present just a few of the specific characteristics of Láadan, before turning to an examination of the outcome of Elgin’s attempt to test her hypothesis.9

23In Láadan, the female form is considered the norm, so for certain professions, for instance, the basic word is feminine, and in order to specify that a man is fulfilling that particular role, a masculine suffix needs to be added, rather in the same way as English has “author” and “authoress”, “steward” and “stewardess”, etc. This is perhaps one of the simplest ways in which Elgin tries to alter what she perceives as the imperfect and oppressive nature of English, although what she does is merely to create not neutral but female universal forms, as if the only means of redressing the gender balance were to go to the opposite extreme. She also invents a range of words allowing nuances of expression that are unavailable in English, to describe specifically female experiences (menstruation, pregnancy, etc.). Láadan also comprises an astonishing number of words to describe varying forms of feelings such as love, as if Elgin thought that were the key domain in which women’s experiences and perceptions differed most radically from men’s and were least well-represented by English. “A” is the Láadan term for love, but it refers to inanimates only, while various other derived and more complex terms apply to the different feelings of love for individuals:

azh = love for one sexually desired now

áazh = love for one sexually desired at one time, but not now

ab = love for one liked but not respected

ad = love for one respected but not liked

am = love for one related by blood

ashon = love for one not related by blood, but heart-kin

aye = love which is an unwelcome burden

24Types of anger are also defined, in terms that refer to the relative futility of the varying forms of anger and are not, I would argue, either very clear or comprehensible:

bama = anger with reason, but with no one to blame, which is not futile 

bana = anger with reason, with no one to blame, which is futile

bara = anger with reason, with someone to blame, which is futile

25There are also various degrees of cleanliness:

éthe = clean, to be clean, to make clean

háawithéthe = child-clean, the level of cleanliness at which a child considers her room "clean" [háawith=child + éthe=clean]

huhéthe = boss-clean, probably the highest level of cleaning you would need [hu=boss + (h)éthe]

mudahéthe = pig-clean, the state of your teenager’s room, to be used when teenager says "it’s clean, mom!", and mom responds "well, yeah, pig-clean!" […] [muda=pig + (h)éthe=clean] 

* entry not by Elgin

onidahéthe = family-clean, the usual state of affairs [onida=family + (h)éthe=clean]

* entry not by Elgin

thóohéthe = guest-clean, the level of cleaning you need to do for guests [thóo=guest + (h)éthe=clean]).

26Láadan also reflects Elgin’s desire to eliminate discord and misunderstanding in human communication by introducing what she terms Speech Act words. These are obligatory and always occupy the first position in any Láadan sentence.

Bíi= I say to you as a statement

Báa" = I say to you as a question

Bíid = in anger, I say…

Bíida = in jest, I say…

Bíidi = in teaching, I say…

Bíidu = as a poem, I say…

Bilan = in celebration, I say…

Bíili = in love, I say...

Bíith = in pain, I say…

Bíiya = in fear, I say...

27The Speech Act words bear witness to Elgin’s attempt to make speech clearer and more explicit, by creating a language in which the speaker must not only state whether he/she is stating or asking, etc., but also define the type of statement according to the perceived context in which it is formulated and meant to be received. Meaning and form, it is suggested, are thus connected more tightly in Láadan than in English, reducing, one can only surmise, the potentially deceptive nature of the language. The extremely cumbersome nature of this particular linguistic device appears to have escaped its creator.

28One final detail also needs to be mentioned: Láadan possesses evidentials, to reveal why the speaker feels justified in claiming that the words spoken are true.

Wa = the reason I claim that what I’m saying is true is that I have perceived it myself

Wi = the reason I claim that what I’m saying is true is because it’s self-evident; everybody can perceive that it’s true, or everybody is in agreement that it’s true.

29Evidentials are placed at the end of sentences and, like Speech Act Words, are obligatory. How one is actually supposed to recall, in conversation, the source of one’s information, is not explained by the author.

The failure of the four hypotheses

30Elgin’s language goes far beyond any of the older attempts to create ideal languages, and she has said that she set herself a 10-year time limit (i.e. until 1994) within which she hoped to verify her fourth hypothesis. However, her test clearly failed, as women have neither adopted Láadan nor created an alternative ideal women’s language. Since this hypothesis has not been validated, the other three are, by Elgin’s admission, not successful either, “since they only begin to be tested if the fourth one succeeds.”10

31Elgin refuses to ascribe the failure of Láadan to the inaccurate nature of the basic hypotheses. Several theories have been put forward by the author and others to explain why women did not seize upon Láadan and use it, or create their own, ideal language. In an interview from 2009,11 Elgin does admit that she was “naïve” to think that Láadan might be used as a language. Based upon feedback she obtained from women, she has come to the conclusion that there are two main reasons why they did not adopt Láadan: women are too busy and they found that her language, with its speech act suffixes and evidence morphemes, would make them feel vulnerable and exposed. Elgin makes no comment in the interview upon the first explanation, other than agreeing that of course women are inevitably too busy to learn a new language (the implication being that this is men’s fault). She gives more credence to the second explanation, demonstrating surprise that women should feel thus, but accepting that perhaps women are not keen to justify their statements and state how they are expressing themselves. In fact, the suggestion is that the vague, ambiguous and potentially deceptive nature of English corresponds rather well to how women wish to express themselves, because they exploit the perceived imperfections of the language to their own ends.

32Elgin refers repeatedly, in her interview and elsewhere, to the attention given to the Klingon language from the Star Trek films, which she compares to the lack of interest aroused by Láadan, concluding that the male establishment and film industry are happy to back a male language, constructed to express the perceptions of warriors, but that “a language of harmony designed to express the perceptions of women, has been largely ignored. This, she says, “is a CLUE.”12 The suggestion appears to be that Láadan is yet another victim of male domination.

33There are, I would suggest, various other reasons why Láadan has failed. Firstly, while language clearly has a role to play in expressing and therefore also in redressing inequality between the sexes, eliminating English and replacing it with an invented tongue is perhaps not the most obvious choice of method for promoting sexual equality. Another plausible explanation is that an entirely artificial language has little or no chance of surviving in the real world. There would surely have to be an overwhelmingly persuasive reason why people should go to the effort of learning a constructed language, when they contrive to get by using existing modes of expression. Furthermore, even if one were to consider literature as a means of instigating women’s liberation, it does seem likely – although Elgin herself has expressed astonishment and some indignation at the idea – that a science-fiction novel is not the ideal vehicle for such a project, since the genre is not one generally favoured by a female readership. Moreover, the very aspects of Láadan that Elgin clearly intends as advantages compared with English and related languages, that is to say the high degree of semantic precision and the obligatory use of evidence morphemes and speech act words, make it a vastly complex language, which even the most determined of pupils would find daunting.

  • 13  The choice of themes and characters in the online lessons may, of course, not be Elgin’s own. Ther (...)

34Finally, I would venture to suggest that if one were to consult the lessons available on the Láadan website, hoping to find inspiring examples of ways in which it offers a more adequate medium for expressing women’s perceptions, one might well be disappointed.13Lesson One gives an overview of the main characteristics of Láadan, and Lesson Two provides the first examples and exercises for learners. The title of Lesson Two is rather puzzling: “Athid, Sha, Thad And The Dragon Are Going To The Con.” Not only does it seem improbable that many people will know what a con (conference) is, but it is surely equally unlikely that they will deduce the meaning from the contextual information, i.e. that a con is a location habitually frequented by dragons and individuals with peculiar first names. How many modern learners, one might wonder, be they male or female, would find such examples relevant, let alone consider that the language presented offers greater scope for expressing women’s experiences and perceptions? The exercises that follow, for the budding Láadan learner, consist in completing sentences to say that the dragon is going to the cave, to the forest, to the town and to the spaceship. They thus confirm this general impression, as do the subsequent lessons, where amongst the exotic Athid, Sha and Thad, the dragon remains omnipresent:

Is the dragon going to the con?

Does the dragon have a suitcase?

The dragon carried three suitcases.

The dragon is in the bar.

35This culminates in Lesson Ten, entitled The Dragon Has A Sales Table At The Con:

1. Bíi ril thi óowamid dalahebewaneth buzheha wa.

The dragon has a sales table at the con. 

2. Bíi aril eb óowamid áabeth menedebe wa.

The dragon will sell many books.

3. Bíi aril eb be dínídineth menedebe wa.

It will sell many toys.

4. Bíi id aril thi óowamid losheth menedebe wa!

And then the dragon will have a lot of money!

36While the recurrent references to the dragon are clearly intended to be light-hearted and humoristic, the overall impression created is a rather childish one, and these exercises, I would argue, underline another key reason why Elgin’s language failed. The constant presence of the dragon and its companions with their alien-sounding names creates an unfortunate effect, not unlike the recurrent allusions to the traveller-narrator’s veracity in imaginary voyages: it anchors Láadan firmly in a universe of imagination and science-fiction and thereby constantly reminds us that it has little or no practical potential in the real world.

37If, as Elgin does, we were to accept the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, then we might raise the question of how this presentation of the language will shape and influence the perceptions of the reader: insofar as the Láadan lessons establish a constant correlation between Láadan and an overtly fictional, unbelievable context, surely they affect the learner’s perceptions of the language, undermining its already very slender chances of ever being taken seriously? Despite the very detailed grammar, the attention paid to remedying the perceived failures of English to link form with meaning and Elgin’s stated desire to see her fictional language transcend the text in which it was first described, Láadan consequently appears just as abstract and ephemeral as the hastily sketched imaginary languages of preceding centuries, firmly and irrevocably rooted in the literary world within which it is presented to us.


38Even without consulting the website and encountering the bizarrely ubiquitous dragon, the reader of Elgin’s novel is nonetheless constantly aware that Láadan is introduced as just one element amongst the many that make up a complex fictional tale about clearly invented groups and people. The futuristic setting of the text, as well as its extreme presentation of future events, seem further to confirm its clear detachment from reality.Elgin’s comparison between Láadan and Klingon may perhaps come to seem more relevant when considered from this point of view: Star Trek fans who adopt Klingon do so not in an attempt to replace their native language, but as a means of joining a smaller, parallel linguistic community, one based upon the shared appreciation of the acknowledgedly fictional Star Trek series. Klingon clubs may well be a means of attempting to escape from reality, and there are undoubtedly a handful of aficionados who wish that their fiction could become fact. However, there is never any real suggestion that Klingon is in any way superior to existing languages or that it will supplant them. Elgin’s aims are far less realistic, being simultaneously more ambitious and yet more simplistic, but while the fictional tale narrated in Native Tongue, like the imaginary voyages of the 17th and 18th centuries, provides quite a powerful critique of one aspect of contemporary society, the ideal language it posits is clearly fated to remain as utterly fictional as its context.

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Eco, Umberto. Serendipities. Language and Lunacy, (1998), transl. William Weaver, London, Phoenix Press, 2002.

Elgin, Suzette Haden, Native Tongue, (1984), Victoria (Aus), Spinifex, 2000.

Foigny, Gabriel de, La Terre australe connue, (1676), ed. P. Ronzeaud, Paris, Société des Textes Français Modernes, 1990.

Menzies, Ruth, “L’échec des utopies linguistiques chez Foigny et Swift : écueil ou éloge de l’imperfection ?”, Uglossies (Françoise Sylvos dir.), Travaux et Documents, Université de la Réunion, no. 23, Janvier 2005, p.31-44.

Yaguello, Marina, Les Langues imaginaires, Mythes, Utopies, fantasmes, chimères et fictions linguistiques, Paris, Seuil, 2006.

Websites quoted (last consulted 16/01/2012)

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1  U. Eco, Serendipities. Language and Lunacy, (1998), transl. William Weaver, London: Phoenix Press, 2002

2  R. Menzies “L’échec des utopies linguistiques chez Foigny et Swift : écueil ou éloge de l’imperfection ?”, Uglossies (Françoise Sylvos dir.), Travaux et Documents, Université de la Réunion, no. 23, Janvier 2005, p.31-44.

3  S. Haden Elgin, interview with Kim Wells, 1999,






9  The examples of Láadan, as well as the lessons featured below in this paper, are taken from the website at




13  The choice of themes and characters in the online lessons may, of course, not be Elgin’s own. There are no indications on the website as to who composed them, and my repeated e-mails to Suzette Haden Elgin have remained unanswered.

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Ruth MENZIES, « Creating a ‘Truer’ Language Within a Work of Fiction: The Example of Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue »e-Rea [En ligne], 9.2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2012, consulté le 21 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Université d’Aix-Marseille, LERMA (EA 853)
Agrégée d’anglais et titulaire d’un doctorat de littérature comparée, Ruth Menzies est actuellement Maître de Conférences à Aix-Marseille Université, où elle enseigne principalement la littérature britannique et la traduction.
Ses recherches portent sur la littérature de voyages anglaise et française aux XVII et XVIII siècles, les utopies et la réécriture. Elle est l’auteur de plusieurs articles sur les réécritures de Gulliver’s Travels, les langues imaginaires et le voyage imaginaire français et anglais.

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