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LÁADAN AND THE QUESTION OF LINGUISTIC DETERMINISM

"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." But please note, that neither of these hypotheses claims that words alone change the physical world as such. They are about speakers in their relationship to language. 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," at least in the context of the mainstream media. The mainstream media never has been a friend to or accurate reporter of ideas and debates that challenge the status quo. 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 internalized sexism in the form of hostility against lesbians or any woman perceived to be lesbian, 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 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. Though I should add, they were far more accessible and affordable then than they are now, as counter-intuitive as that may be in light of how they have been mainstreamed and corporatized. In 2021, the Native Tongue Trilogy is back in print courtesy of the feminist press at cuny (both hard cover and ebook versions), and my local independent bookstore has the first volume in stock and bring in copies of the others within 6 business days.

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, although whether that lowering will persist under the current conditions of heavy-duty corporate colonization is an open question.

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, nor do I agree with Cameron's characterization of Radical Feminists, 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 might 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. That is, Láadan jars us out of acting as if any form of linguistic determinism is operative in our world. Even if it never seems to be as popular with women as Klingon seems to be among Star Trek fans, and we should question how Láadan's popularity is being measured in any case, Láadan is in fact a powerful tool.

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 two types of people, women and men who are male and female, with different reproductive roles. Their reproductive roles do not dictate their behaviour, interests, or personalities. Originally I wrote that in referring to these two categories of people, Elgin was at least flirting with essentialism. Having learnt a great deal more about the term "essentialism," it's uses and abuses, and the imposition of sex role stereotypes, I was simply wrong about this, and I am annoyed to have misrepresented Elgin as doing so. Hence my owning up and revision of this essay to correct the issue.

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. That this essay needed a solid revision and I had to admit to misunderstanding and thereby misrepresenting Elgin's position is of course an individual-scale example.

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? It seems to work there. There is that damnable verb "seems" again, and that is a warning that something else is going on, and the catch is right at the start of the definition I have, that essentialism refers to "the belief that..." This is also where I unwittingly tripped myself up in the earlier version of this essay, for the same reason that the belief seems plausible. We don't believe that abstract geometric forms are what they are. We define them as what they are. Definitions don't tell us anything whatsoever about meaning or behaviour, they simply make the world comprehensible as opposed to a hopeless, bewildering mass of random sensations. But if we mix up defining with believing, 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, where the "essential quality" is used to rationalize every form of social and physical coercion.

Essentialist beliefs underlie anti-miscegenation laws, genital surgery for non-life threatening conditions 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 were from different "races" or religions. Children born with disorders of sexual development leading to 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. But because it is so useful for imposing what certain people want and perceive as simpler and "right," it becomes a justification for enforcing what certain authorities claim is the proper state of things. And rationalization is an absolutely necessary anaesthetic to numb the conscience and ability to sympathize with others.

Here we find ourselves back at what Radical Feminists in particular are striving to break down, and that is the essentialist belief that sex must determine the whole of a person's behaviour, personality, and abilities. This is the absurd belief underlying the sex-based stereotypes already mentioned above. Originally I referred to Anne Fausto-Sterling's paper The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough here. On further reflection, I realized that whatever Fausto-Sterling intended, I had not cross-checked what her applied definition of essentialism was. There aren't "five sexes," and what Fausto-Sterling and indeed many Feminists have referred to as "gender" should never be conflated, because that is itself an application of an essentialist belief. This is the message Radical Feminists keep repeating, but the wrongful or accidental conflation could be more easily avoided if we follow Sheila Jeffreys' advice to refer to sex role stereotypes. That is the advice I have been applying in the course of revising this essay. It is very rare that we can't accurately determine a person's sex, and the refusal to do so for everyone and sundry will not solve the problem of sexism let alone the other forms of invidious belief used to enforce and maintain the capitalist, sexist, racist patriarchies the majority of us live in. The social pressures that accompany these beliefs are far from trivial, so much so that people who are otherwise certain they are at least not sexist, are actively lobbying for what lesbians and gays know all too well are ever more intrusive forms of conversion therapy and eugenics.

The old pressure on anyone who is less than perfect at performing according to the sex-role stereotype imposed on them has never truly gone away. Whether a person is deemed to be deliberately refusing to comply or failing to despite trying hard, it doesn't matter. Today this pressure has entirely new impetus behind the insistence that all of us should force ourselves into the sex stereotyped behaviours defined as masculinity, or those defined as femininity, whatever it takes. "Whatever it takes" may mean a wide range of "treatments" that none of us might ever 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 what is now mis-called "gender reassignment" via hormones and surgery. At first I was baffled how they heard "I'm a trans-sexed person" – the term in use at the time – for "I'm a lesbian" until I realized there is yet another presupposition at work here. In those early days, I thought the presupposition was that there are only heterosexual men and women, and everyone wants desperately to be heterosexual. This is not wrong, but it is not specific enough. The presupposition is the very same thing that the nineteenth century sexologists claimed, that every "soul" is "sexed" and therefore can be popped into the wrong sexed body, hence failure to willingly or successfully embody sex stereotyped behaviour. The appeal of this nonsense to the sexologists was that it gave them authority, and implied that they could somehow "cure" the people they referred to as "sexual inverts." None of this information is especially new, in fact the beginnings of its challenge to mainstream North American Feminism was beginning in the 1980s, and Sheila Jeffreys' first book The Spinster and Her Enemies goes into the sexologists' war on Feminists in detail.

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 models dictated by sex role stereotypes with its entailments experience. This is 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, if essentialist assumptions were at its base, these would be critical faults. They wouldn't be critical faults 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. On top of that, misrepresentation and honest misunderstanding may gravely undermine recognition of Láadan's utility.

I am delighted to be able to close this essay with some evidence that despite a rough start and what could be seen as some quite calculated hostility from the usual sexist sources, Láadan is a more than ongoing concern. The Láadan Langauge Site continues to grow, with rapidly expanding dictionary, series of lessons, and a third edition of A Third Dictionary & Grammar of Láadan, updated and augmented by Jeanne Gomoll and Diane Martin is now available. There is also an excellent set of lessons composed by Amberwind Barnhart available, with a series of accompanying recordings in development. Unfortunately I cannot recommend the various wiki projects dealing with Láadan, as they are generally overwhelmed by people attempting to interpret it through the lens of queer theory, which is a serious mistake.

  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. In earlier versions of this essay, I referred to several supposed "phobias" including lesbophobia and homophobia. Now, having learned more about phobias and the rhetorical reasons this terminology, despite their one-time rhetorical usefulness, I must concede the points made by Phyllis Chesler and so many others. Referring to specialized forms of sexism as types of phobia is wrong and deflects us from dealing with the root issues.
  13. It doesn't matter whether Tolkien intended to challenge the status quo or not.
  14. Edited by Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler; Pandora Press, London, 1992.
  15. MacMillan Press Ltd., London, 1985.
  16. 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.
  17. Pages 129-131 in "Feminism and Linguistic Theory."
  18. 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.
  19. "Patience and Sarah" by Isabel Miller; Ballantine Books, New York 1971.
  20. Pages 49-51 in Elgin 2000.
  21. Truth be told, essentialism as a belief is also surprisingly dangerous when it comes to abstract objects. See for example the ferocious battles within religious communities over symbols such as the cross, the triangle, and the circle.
  22. Jeffreys has argued for this throughout her extensive body of work, which includes hundreds of articles and twelve sole-authored books. The one that is most detailed and deals directly with the arguments raised by "postmodernism" is Unpacking Queer Politics, (Polity Press: Cambridge, 2003).
  23. I sympathize with the deep desire so many people, especially younger people, have to somehow short circuit sexism by denying the existence of sex. Would that it were that simple!
  24. The first 1985 editions of The Spinster and Her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880-1930 were with pandora press of london and spinifex press of north melbourne.
  25. These can usually be identified by the references to "being queer," "queerness" and so forth.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Friday, October 30, 2015 19:21:46