Saturday, June 03, 2006

Native Tongue

I was rearranging some of my bookshelves in a desperate attempt to control the books which are threatening to take over the house and I came across my small collection of feminist science fiction. Did you know that science fiction is sometimes regarded as having started with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?

Suzette Haden Elgin wrote a feminist dystopia around the same time as Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale. Elgin's most famous book in her trilogy is Native Tongue, and I leafed through it while taking a break from my book arranging chore. Elgin writes about a near-future time in the United States, a time in which women are firmly back under male control. Her interests are linguistic ones and she uses them in the book by making the events happen among families who work as linguists who translate humanoid languages spoken on other planets during an era of global trade reaching into the universe. These families are powerful because language is powerful, but their women, though working as linguists, are as oppressed as all the other women in this dystopia.

Until the creation of a women's language. This language, Láadan, hatched in secrecy, is the way the women fight against their oppression. Elgin suggests that a different language, one which has terms for women's specific experiences and feelings, may change the reality. Whether it does or not is something you can find out by reading the book and the other two books in the trilogy.

I found the short dictionary of the women's language at the back of the book fascinating. Consider these words and their definitions:

radíin: 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

rashida: non-game, a cruel "playing" that is a game only for the dominant "players" with the power to force others to participate

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

All these gave my a tiny "ping", a feeling that terms like these should really exist. Why don't they?

More generally, I have noticed that the need for terms which currently don't exist often leaves me feeling odd in conversations or after having read something. It's a little as if a fly was walking up the back of my imagination or as if I had forgotten something that I should have remembered or perhaps not. When someone comes up with the correct term it's a light bulb experience.

Think of the term "domestic violence". How did we talk about domestic violence before this term was introduced? And did the absence of a concise name for the experience affect what we said? I think it did, and I also think that there are similar experiences today, experiences that we don't really notice because they are nameless. Or named wrong, left incomplete.

Native Tongue may not be great literature and a few of its feminist assumptions strike me as naive but it poses very interesting questions. If you think that the idea of a language for women is preposterous in itself, you might be interested to learn that the ancient Sumerians had such a language and that there are still some speakers of a women's language in China.