The Power of Language

By Rachel MacFarland

Native Tongue is the first book in a sci-fi trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin (note the initials of her name: SHE). The books, originally published in the early 80’s before falling out of print, have recently been re-released by Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

The story begins in the year 2205, in the United States, in a society split between average citizens and the people of the Lines — linguists who are valued, hated, and isolated because of their ability to communicate with aliens. Society splits further with men having all the power, breeding and marrying off women in accordance with perpetuating, growing, and improving the Lines.

Once the women are no longer of reproductive value, they are sent off to Barren Houses, to live amongst other women who can no longer bear children. As this is the only place for women to gain any modicum of freedom, the Barren Houses are the women’s subversive center, their focus lies on one grand scheme: the development of a women’s language, known as Laadan. The development of this language is the driving force of the narrative. 

The plot of Native Tongue certainly reigns over character development. Overall, the characters are flat; like the rose is a rose is a rose concept, except in this case, a man is a man is a man. Elgin makes such caricatures of them that they often fail to stand apart as separate beings. Unfortunately, this is also the case with the women, although not as severely so; heroines do slowly reveal themselves.

Despite the downfalls of reading flat characters, there is still an upside. As a woman who has long lamented the overabundance of lame female characters within male literature, it was fairly enjoyable to eye-roll at the cardboard-crotch nature of Elgin’s males; they all suck, which is kind of nice.

The book really picks up speed and depth in its final stretch. No lie—it has a slow start and drags for a long middle, but the ending is worth it. Slowly, slowly, you come to realize how Elgin has taken her time setting up the meat of the trilogy.

This first book, now that I’m on the other side of it, was a long play of the chess pieces; the real game is yet to come. By far, the best part is when she starts dipping into her linguistic expertise and focusing on the notion that women’s ideas are not properly represented by their native language.

At the end of the book, there is a glossary of Laadan words and their definitions. My hope is that this small sampling blooms in the next two books, because the concepts touched upon are truly fascinating. Like the gaps between any two languages, some ideas have words to represent them, and some do not. A feminist angle on those gaps is a beautiful way to give life to the long-silenced. 

Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.