Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

A bit of light reading (not really) for International Women’s Day

About two years ago, I read an absolutely fascinating SF novel, Native Tongue, by Suzette Haden Elgin, which I’ve thought about often since, particularly whenever certain troubling socio-political trends rear their ugly head. And since today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, it seemed particularly apropos.

Sorry for the image quality – that’s a scan of the copy I bought for about 50 cents in a thrift shop

That’s because Native Tongue is set in a dystopian future, the 22nd century, in which women are at best second class citizens. The ball got rolling in the US, which repealed the 19th Amendment (the one that gave women the right to vote) in the early 1990s, and most other countries in the world followed suit. (That’s an extremely concise summary of that aspect of the story, it’s elaborated far better in the book, obviously).

Otherwise, at this point, humankind has made contact with many alien races and is engaged in commerce with them, which requires the services of top-notch linguists who have to learn alien languages and then constantly serve as go-betweens in communication between various alien races and humanity. The main character is Nazareth, a woman who belongs to one of the most prominent linguistic houses (they’re very closed and exclusive and organized as kinship groups). She’s a brilliant linguist, but treated pretty much like chattel by the men in her house, used for the hard labor of interpretation and also child-bearing. She looks forward to moving out of the main house to what’s called the ‘Barren House’ (where post-menopausal women are sent to live), and once she gets there, she finds out that her predecessors have been developing a separate language meant just for women, which then empowers them. By the end of the book, it alters the way these women think, giving them greater confidence in dealing with men, and their slightly altered behavior actually gets the men to change the way they treat them – not by giving them more rights, but by unwittingly giving them more autonomy.

Again, that’s a very rough summary of the story and its main themes. It is a really fascinating and worthwhile book to read – not least because Haden was also a linguist, so she put a great deal of thought into that aspect of the story. Otherwise, the bleak future presented therein is very much like Margaret Atwood’s far better known book, The Handmaid’s Tale (which came out a year later). As in the latter, the hyper-male dominated society that’s posited seems like it could never really come about, and of course, critics of both books often point that out. However, every time I see moves to (further) restrict women’s bodily autonomy by, say, individual US states, or by countries like Poland or Hungary, or just the tenacity of politicized religious fundamentalism, I have to wonder. Moreover, and I wouldn’t recommend doing this, just go to some of the most fervid swamps of online message boards, and you’ll see a shocking number of people indeed seriously calling for the revocation of women’s franchise and even worse proposals…

Haden, by the way, wrote two follow-up books, The Judas Rose and Earthsong, which I’ve haven’t (yet?) read. The thing is, I rather like the kind of ambiguously hopeful way Native Tongue ends.

By the way, the central idea of Native Tongue, that language dictates the way an individual thinks, perceives and interacts with the wider world, is called linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (bet none of you realized that the NCC 1701-D’s security chief engaged in linguistic research in his spare time).

If you want to read a different take on this idea in a science fiction story, I’d highly recommend Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao. Here, the story involves a planet populated by a largely complacent, pastoral population who are forced to pay tribute to a hostile war-like alien race. Wanting to remedy this situation, the planet’s ruler calls in a technology advisor (called a ‘wizard’) from yet another world. His proposal is to take large swaths of the planet’s population and teach them different languages from childhood to make some of them warlike, others suited to production and craftsmanship, and others to become innovative and develop high technology. The results are astounding.

Vance’s book, although not as gripping as Haden’s, is still quite fascinating and thought-provoking.

*  Note: if you click any Amazon link to a book in the post, and end up buying anything, a (very) little something comes back to us here at the Atomic Junk Shop. Thank you.


  1. Elgin’s Ozark trilogy (psionic Appalachians in space!) is very good.
    A number of conservatives have argued that we’d be better off without women’s suffrage (Ann Coulter, Lana Lotkeff, John Lott, Bryan Fischer). They also argue it was never needed because the head of the household voted for his wife and kids. But adult sons living with their parents got to vote; widows heading their own household didn’t. So it’s bullshit.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      I’m sure Haden’s other books are really good; at this point, though, given the state of my Shelf of Shame, I’m always hesitant to jump into a new series – which is why I noted my uncertainty about even reading the remainder of the Native Tongue trilogy.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    China had a women’s language, Nushu, used in the a section of the Hunan province. I think I saw something about it on the British panel show QI (Stephen Fry era), about it being passed on to young women, with their marriage.

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