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Where some ideas are stranger than others...


The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make the words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

Through the Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll

Hard as it may be to believe, this snippet from one of Lewis Carroll's famous Alice books neatly sums up one of the most potent and ongoing arguments in linguistic theory. Does language control the speaker, the speaker control language, or some combination of both? The first possibility corresponds to what professional linguists refer to as "strong linguistic determinism," the third to "weak linguistic determinism." Professional linguists disagree with some intensity about which of these potential answers relates to the real world in a debate that continues to the present. During the 1980s, in line with a widespread Feminist questioning of deterministic beliefs and models of human behaviour, some linguists began applying Feminist ideas to linguistic theory and hypotheses. Linguist and author Suzette Haden Elgin pursued a relatively unusual angle. While trying to understand why women writers of science fiction had apparently never imagined alternative societies predicated on women being "entirely different from men," Elgin postulated a linguistic explanation. If women are different from men, and weak linguistic determinism applies, perhaps the only language available to women prevents them from expressing their reality. In that case, an analogous fictional reality wouldn't be expressible either. To test this idea at least in the form of a thought experiment, Elgin created a language called Láadan designed to express women's reality easily and efficiently and featured it in a trilogy of science fiction novels.

As constructed languages (conlangs) are prone to doing, Láadan "escaped," leading Elgin to write a series of articles explaining its grammar and providing its basic vocabulary. The articles in their turn became A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan. Although Láadan had escaped, women responded to it neither by "welcoming and nurturing it" nor by "replacing it with a better woman's language of their own construction" as Elgin hypothesized they might do. Bear in mind, this is a reformulation of the hypothesis above, that perhaps the only language available to women prevents them from expressing their reality. Now, you'd think this result, even if not officially "scientific," would be quite encouraging. Yet Elgin sounds a bit disappointed in her follow up writings on the subject. The 1980s were a golden age for conlang take up: The Klingon Dictionary was published in 1985, more of Tolkien's writings on his conlangs were being published by popular demand, and Esperanto was going strong. To understand what factors could have blunted women's interest in Láadan, it is necessary to know a bit more about it.

Any language is capable of expressing what women want to express, including female-specific experiences. However, there is no guarantee that such expression will be easy. Elgin explains that, "This phenomenon — when you can perfectly well describe something but have no convenient word or brief phrase for it in your language — is called a lexical gap." So Láadan is an example of a language constructed by a linguist to allow women to deal with difficult to bridge linguistic gaps. She developed a basic vocabulary, plus words or phrases to fill lexical gaps for women's experience she was already aware of. Finally, Elgin encouraged women to contribute new items to the vocabulary. The language has a laudable basis, but what worked against it first of all was timing.

Láadan made its debut just as mainstream Feminism entered a volatile period in North America. It had matured enough that it was no longer possible to ignore the fact that it had been systematically stripped of much of the radical material in its analysis until it focussed almost exclusively on privileged white women wanting their own piece of "the American dream." The early stages of challenging this exclusivity were difficult, and some projects and writings that might have gained significant interest before then stalled or moved only very slowly. Láadan was among those affected projects. So in a manner of speaking, Láadan was too late. With the relevance and effectiveness of mainstream Feminism dependent on looking beyond privileged white women and dealing with issues like poverty, racism, and lesbophobia (facing up to transphobia still wasn't on the horizon yet), a conlang must have seemed unimportant. And yet, Láadan was also too early.

Elgin's conception of Láadan included participation in using and building it by anyone who cared to, academic or not. Unfortunately, this was before the internet became widely accessible, and it was no easy thing to pick up the basic materials on the language. For example, the Native Tongue Trilogy that showcased Láadan has not been consistently in print, and even when it is must be special ordered. As of right now (early 2012), the only way I could access a copy of A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan was by interlibrary loan. The copy I used had to be brought from a university in Missouri, and I had to pay a fee of ten dollars. The First Dictionary and Grammar turned out to be a slender, cerlox-bound book, a format which would work against its longevity. It appears that it was primarily available by mail order, although it may also have been available at science fiction/fantasy conferences. In those days, such conferences weren't necessarily very large or affordable to get to, let alone attend.

The role of economics should not be underestimated here. Women are disproportionately poor, and in a capitalistic economy that tends to mean that the number of "products" directed specifically at "woman-dollars" are few. Of those few, anything that is intellectually provoking or otherwise a challenge to the status quo will face many barriers to distribution whenever that distribution depends on a typical business. Ultimately Tolkien's conlangs have benefited by being attached to texts of popular interest to men, not least because the very last thing they do is challenge the status quo. The internet and email alone have already significantly lowered these types of barriers.

These then are some of the difficulties Láadan faced in terms of gathering general interest. But what about Feminists? Logically, we would expect Feminists to be eager learners and users of Láadan if anybody is.

In fact, Feminists were and are interested in Láadan. It is featured in the dictionary Amazons, Bluestockings, and Crones, and has been discussed in the context of Feminist approaches to linguistics, especially in Feminism and Linguistic Theory by Deborah Cameron. At the beginning of this essay, I stated that Elgin assumed that a weak form of linguistic determinism applied in the course of developing Láadan. I base this characterization on the fact that in the Native Tongue universe, women began lacking a language to conveniently and accurately express their unique experiences, but were able to conceive of and create a language that did. That ability is what flips the version of linguistic determinism from strong to weak. If somehow linguistic determinism only applied to women, and they were completely helpless and passive in the face of it, then we would be dealing with the strong version. However, in Cameron's view Elgin, and other writers she identifies as "radical feminists" assume that strong linguistic determinism applies, but this assumption is untenable since if it were true women would be hopelessly trapped in a hostile linguistic environment forever. While I don't agree that this critique fully applies to Elgin or the Láadan project, I do sympathize with it because the first information I encountered about Láadan presented it in just this way. That first information came from writers other than Elgin, reiterating the importance of going to the source before deciding whether an idea is valuable or not. In any case, it seems to me that the gains Feminist women have already achieved give the lie to any theory or narrative assuming inherent helplessness in women, and the association of Láadan with such a theory or narrative discouraged me from finding out more about it.

Practically speaking, there is another important challenge to take up of Láadan: it deals with an issue that particularly afflicts dialects of English. While it is true that "proper" or "standard" English has been stripped of almost any and all terminology for woman-specific or female-specific experience that does not inherently pathologize it, these two types of experience are not equivalent. Since what it means to be a woman is socially constructed, it may vary significantly even when all of the people concerned have female biology. "Female-specific experience" may be better described as "female-biology-specific experience" here. An example of the first type of experience is remaining single as opposed to getting married, of the second that of menstruation. The failures of of "proper" or "standard" English may not apply at all to other dialects of the language, and they certainly cannot be assumed to apply to other languages. A person could reasonably suggest that perhaps there are hundreds if not thousands of languages already in existence that women could learn and use to deal with their linguistic difficulties — a construction that brings out the two biggest issues working against women's interest in Láadan.

First is the implication that women have a "linguistic issue" that is in fact theirs alone. In effect, the conceptualization of Láadan reinscribes social barriers as individual ones that happen to afflict a restricted set of people. Those social barriers include the common devaluation of the body in patriarchal societies and the equation of "female" with the body. Indeed, a significant portion of the Láadan vocabulary deals with the bodily effects of having female biology. Furthermore, the lack of convenient, accurate, and respectful ways of speaking about woman-specific and female-specific experience in "standard" or "proper" English has certainly troubled men as well as women. Yet we actually already know that even "standard English" has the resources to lexicalize the effects of female biology using convenient words and phrases. A good example is the novel Patience and Sarah, where the title couple uses just such words and phrases. Even if the language of the novel is not widely used, the key point is that the author was able to develop those words and phrases by applying the power of metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson's famous book Metaphors We Live By is all about how humans speak in metaphors, using them to bridge linguistic gaps as they arise.

The second issue may be the most serious. How much sense does it really make, to suggest that women learn a whole other language to speak about their experience where it doesn't match that of an assumed generic male? The vast majority of people any woman will deal with from day to day won't be Láadan speakers, so it is hard to see how it could be particularly helpful. In The Language Imperative Elgin provided an indirect counterargument to this challenge: Láadan could be useful as a tool to help identify and bridge lexical gaps. This may not be a strong counterargument — and please bear in mind Elgin did not make it explicitly and may heartily disagree with me suggesting she did so even indirectly — although it is definitely an intriguing one. In fact, it may be Láadan's capacity to provoke thought and challenge assumptions about women and language that are its greatest success, even if it never seems to be as popular with women as Klingon seems to be among Star Trek fans.

At the beginning of this essay I gave Elgin's two key assumptions in her conceptualization of Láadan: weak linguistic determinism, and that women are "entirely different from men." The first has already been discussed, so now let's take up the second. You'll have already noticed an additional presupposition packed into it, that there are only two types of people. For the moment, let's just accept that, and try to understand what the difference between these two types is supposed to be.

It's not a species difference. Despite ongoing efforts to find some, there is not a mental difference. Which leaves hormonal and reproductive organ differences. The vagaries of averages and the anecdotal quality of much the evidence renders arguments based on strength differences or height unconvincing. Elgin doesn't seem to mean this sort of thing, however. Instead, she is at least flirting with essentialism.

Essentialism is a powerful concept, and it is deeply embedded in mainstream thought. Today it is not accepted without question, as a recent critique by Richard Dawkins makes clear (see The Greatest Show On Earth), but serious critiques of it are still rare. Essentialism has become tied up with moral judgements and beliefs about what is a desirable reality, making it a hidden reef that anyone can founder on, whatever their intentions or politics. Okay, I will stop inveighing against it for a moment, and provide a definition.

Essentialism is the belief that there is an intrinsic nature or indispensable quality to a category of clearly differentiated things or people. Without that nature or quality, the thing or person either doesn't exist, or must be something or someone else. For example, you can't have a square circle or a round square. Given a simple, abstracted example like this, essentialism sounds spectacularly harmless. How risky can it be to believe that you can absolutely categorize simple things like circles and squares? However, it is almost impossible to underestimate how pernicious essentialism is as soon as we move away from simple, abstract objects and into the messy real world.

Essentialist beliefs underlie anti-miscegenation laws, genital surgery imposed at birth, and even the definition of a "natural environment." Consider just these examples. At times, couples have been prevented from marrying and even punished by imprisonment because they are from different "races" (this has been more common) or religions. Children born with ambiguous genitalia can be subjected to painful and irreversible surgery for a non-life threatening situation that they should be allowed to decide about for themselves when they are older. The definition of a "natural environment" as a place that includes no people has been used to drive Indigenous peoples from their homes all over the world. So essentialism as a belief packs a wallop, though that doesn't make it the truth.

With all that said, the belief that there are only two types of people, women and men, distinguished by indispensable qualities is an essentialist one. It is also the primary fuel for sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. We are all familiar with its expression in the form of "acceptable gender expression" determined by what happens to be between a person's legs. Since the "indispensable qualities" have proved impossible to see or hear consistently or otherwise keep changing, and a person's outer appearance can be ambiguous, people have resorted to extensive rules about clothes and body language: gender. People don't need to define gender in this way, or in so restrictive a fashion. It could be redefined into a spectrum model analogous to the one now widely used for describing sexual preference. Or, there could be five sexes, as Anne Fausto-Sterling discusses in her paper The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough (as Fausto-Sterling has pointed out in her follow up works, but why categorize in this manner and imply essentialism anyway?). Instead, right now in North America we have a social milieu where there is incredible pressure for people who are intersexed, homosexual, or trans-sexed to force themselves into one of these categories, whatever it takes. "Whatever it takes" may mean a wide range of "treatments" that those people may never have chosen given an opportunity to choose in a free and informed fashion. I can vouch for this from personal experience. Not a few people in my circle of family friends when I first came out suggested I should consider gender reassignment via hormones and surgery. At first I was baffled how they heard "I'm a trans-sexed person" for "I'm a lesbian" until I realized there is yet another presupposition packed into the "women and men only" idea: those women and men must be heterosexual. None of this information is especially new, in fact the beginnings of its challenge to mainstream North American Feminism was beginning in the 1980s.

By now, you know exactly where I'm going with this. Look at how much text I had to devote to describing all these things. I had to provide definitions and explanations that Elgin (or anyone) could describe as "going on and on..." for aspects of my experience, and at least my understanding of some of what others who don't fit the "men and women only" model with its entailments experience. A surefire signal of a posse of lexical gaps. Plus, since Láadan is presented as a potential means of overcoming linguistic oppression by means of silencing, the essentialist assumption is a critical fault in its very basis. It wouldn't be a critical fault for an ordinary language, since it is in active use and people are metaphorizing in it all they like, they own it, and they don't have strong ideas about what it should do necessarily. Ordinary languages are contributed to and reshaped by all their speakers. Even with a broad invitation out to the world ahead of them, it isn't so easy to feel as free to improvise in a conlang, because it was created by an individual. This pushes a sense that there are "rules" to the forefront. In this copyright and "intellectual property" obsessed environment, we've all been trained to defer to "rules" when they are attached to an attributed creative work. Base assumptions are often treated like rules.

Once embedded in the Native Tongue novels, Láadan kept its basic structure, and of course the story was the thing. In the novels the women have far more immediate concerns on their hands it seems, than trying to rejig Láadan. Conceived and treated as an experiment, following scientific method Elgin could not have started messing around with Láadan in the middle of its run. Yet I can't help but wonder, would the experiment have turned out a bit differently, with different, non-essentialist assumptions about what it means to be a woman?

  1. Pages 49-51 in "The Language Imperative: How Learning Languages Can Enrich Your Life And Expand Your Mind" by Suzette Haden Elgin; Perseus Books, Massachussetts, 2000.
  2. "Apparently" is an important qualifier here. There is a substantial body of women's writing (not necessarily in english), explicitly Feminist or not that does not fall within the traditional definition of science fiction as opposed to the more generic category of "speculative fiction." On the other hand, "science fiction" as a label is controversial when applied to "serious" writing in mainstream criticism, because of classist stereotypes of science fiction as inevitably tawdry and cheap.
  3. Page 5 in "A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan" by Suzette Haden Elgin; Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Madison, 1988. It is also possible to see a great deal more on the language at the Láadan Language site, reconstituted after an apparent Drupal failure.
  4. The Native Tongue Trilogy, comprising Native Tongue, Judas Rose, and Earthsong. Their most recent editions were produced by Feminist Press in 2000, 2002, and 2002 respectively. For further information, see Elgin's page on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) website.
  5. "A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan" by Suzette Haden Elgin; Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Madison, 1988.
  6. Page 2 of "Láadan the Constructed Language in Native Tongue" by Suzette Haden Elgin; 22 page PDF document dated 1999, downloaded from Elgin's SFWA page.
  7. Wikipedia: The Klingon Dictionary, accessed 22 January 2012.
  8. Unlike the other two examples, Esperanto was developed not for use in novels or television programs, but to serve as a language that could serve effectively as a universal lingua franca. However, in its structure and vocabulary it is in fact deeply problematic due to embedded sexism among other issues.
  9. What I mean by "female-specific" as opposed to "woman-specific" will be clarified below.
  10. Page 43 in Elgin 2000.
  11. Page 5 in Elgin 1999.
  12. It doesn't matter whether Tolkien intended to challenge the status quo or not.
  13. Edited by Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler; Pandora Press, London, 1992.
  14. MacMillan Press Ltd., London, 1985.
  15. If men were also affected by strong linguistic determinism, then somehow it would have to be inherently patriarchal, including a whole suite of culture-specific expressions of it. Obnoxious as patriarchy is, its expression is not uniform across cultures except in those features that define it in the most bare bones fashion.
  16. Pages 129-131 in "Feminism and Linguistic Theory."
  17. There are women who do not have the biological features that we associate with femaleness, for example ovaries and a uterus. For example, trans-sexed women, or otherwise male individuals defined as socially female. I realize that referring to being "male-bodied" or "female-bodied" is more common parlance. However, for the purposes of this essay that terminology is not specific enough and may inappropriately elide the experiences of trans-sexual people. An essay that lays out the Radical Feminist critique of gender and of the use of the prefix "cis" while respectfully disagreeing with the views of trans-activists who have been advocating the "cis" prefix is A Feminist Critique of "cisgender" at Revolutionary Combustion. One of the reference links in it is broken, number x, and it is an awesome read that you can get at On "Die Cis Scum" on the Internet Archive. Another excellent article on the subject is 'You Are Killing Me': On Hate Speech and Feminist Silencing, and there is a small site, Questioning Gender, with additional articles archived at the Wayback Machine.
  18. "Patience and Sarah" by Isabel Miller; Ballantine Books, New York 1971.
  19. Pages 49-51 in Elgin 2000.
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Last Modified: Friday, October 30, 2015 19:21:46