Introduction: The Construction of Láadan

In the fall of 1981, I was involved in several seemingly unrelated activities. I had been asked to write a scholarly review of the book Women and Men Speaking, by Cheris Kramarae; I was working on a speech for the WisCon science fiction convention scheduled for March 1982, where I was to be Guest of Honor; and I was reading—and re-reading—Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. I had also been reading a series of papers by Cecil Brown and his associates on the subject of lexicalization—that is, the giving of names (words, in most cases, or parts of words) to units of meaning in human languages. Out of this serendipitous mix came a number of things.

  1. I became aware, through Kramarae’s book, of the feminist hypothesis that existing human languages are inadequate to express the perceptions of women. This intrigued me because it had a built-in paradox: if it is true, the only mechanism available to women for discussing the problem is the very same language(s) alleged to be inadequate for the purpose.
  2. There occurred to me an interesting possibility within the framework of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (briefly, that language structures perceptions): if women had a language adequate to express their perceptions, it might reflect a quite different reality than that perceived by men. This idea was reinforced for me by the papers of Brown et al., in which there was constant reference to various phenomena of lexicalization as the only natural and self-evident possibilities. I kept thinking that women would have done it differently, and that what was being called the “natural” way to create words seemed to me to be instead the male way to create words.
  3. I read in Gödel, Escher, Bach a reformulation of Gödel’s Theorem, in which Hofstadter proposed that for every record player there were records it could not play because they would lead to its indirect self-destruction. And it struck me that if you squared this you would get a hypothesis that for every language there were perceptions it could not express because they would lead to its indirect self-destruction. Furthermore, if you cubed it, you would get a hypothesis that for every culture there are languages it could not use because they would lead to its indirect self-destruction. This made me wonder: what would happen to American culture if women did have and did use a language that expressed their perceptions? Would it self-destruct?
  4. I focused my Guest of Honor speech for WisCon on the question of why women portraying new realities in science fiction had, so far as I knew, dealt only with Matriarchy and Androgyny, and never with the third alternative based on the hypothesis that women are not superior to men (Matriarchy) or interchangeable with and equal to men (Androgyny) but rather entirely different from men. I proposed that it was at least possible that this was because the only language available to women excluded the third reality. Either because it was unlexicalized and thus no words existed with which to write about it, or it was lexicalized in so cumbersome a manner that it was useless for the writing of fiction, or the lack of lexical resources literally made it impossible to imagine such a reality.

Somewhere along the way, this all fell together for me, and I found myself with a cognitive brew much too fascinating to ignore. The only question was how I was to go about exploring all of this. A scientific experiment and a scholarly monograph would have been nice; but I knew what the prospects of funding would be for an investigation of these matters, and I was without the private income that would have let me ignore that aspect of the problem. I therefore chose as a medium the writing of a science fiction novel about a future America in which the woman-language had been constructed and was in use. That book, called Native Tongue, was published by DAW Books in August 1984. Its sequel, Native Tongue II: The Judas Rose, appeared from DAW in February 1987.

In order to write the book, I felt obligated to at least try to construct the language. I’m not an engineer, and when I write about engines I make no attempt to pretend that I know how engines are put together or how they function. But I am a linguist, and knowing how languages work is supposed to be my home territory. I didn’t feel that I could ethically just fake the woman-language, or just insert a handful of hypothetical words and phrases to represent it. I needed at least the basic grammar and a modest vocabulary, and I needed to experience what such a project would be like. I therefore began, on June 28, 1982, the construction of the language that became Láadan.

Because I am a linguist, I have studied many existing languages, from a number of different language families. In the construction of Láadan I have tried to use features of those languages which seemed to me to be valuable and appropriate. This method of construction is often called “patchwork,” and is not looked upon with great favor in the Patriarchal Paradigm that dominates contemporary science. I would remind you, nonetheless, that among women the patchwork quilt is recognized as an artform, and the methodology of patchwork is respected.

My original goal was to reach a vocabulary of 1,000 words—enough, if well chosen, for ordinary conversation and informal writing. I passed that goal early on, and in the fall of 1982 the journal Women and Language News published the first writing in the language, a Nativity story written from Mary’s point of view.

There was one more factor that entered into my decision to construct Láadan, and I saved it for last because it was not there originally but developed out of the work that I was doing. I found myself discussing the idea of the woman-language, proposed need for it, etc., at meetings and conferences and among my friends and colleagues. And I found that it was possible to get the necessary concepts across, if I was patient. (There was, for example, the useful fact that English has no word whatsoever for what a woman does during the sexual act…this generally helps to make some points more clear.) But I got thoroughly tired of one question and its answer. People would ask me, “Well, if existing human languages are inadequate to express women’s perceptions, why haven’t they ever made one up that is adequate?” And all I could ever say was that I didn’t know.[1] This became tiresome, and frustrating, and it was a relief to me when I was at last able to say, “Well, as a matter of fact, a woman did construct such a language, beginning on June 28, 1982, and its name is Láadan.”

This book is a teaching grammar of Láadan, with an accompanying dictionary. It is only a beginning, and for all I know, the beginning of a failure, something that will never be of interest to anyone but the collector of linguistic exotica. But because this book exists, it will be very hard to “lose” Láadan in the way that other languages have been swallowed up by the History of Mankind. For that, I am most grateful to the members of SF3, who thought the work was important enough to justify publication.

Suzette Haden Elgin
near Old Alabam, Arkansas


[1] At that time I had not yet had the opportunity to read Mary Daly’s book, published in May 1984, called Pure Lust. In that book Daly tells us that St. Hildegarde of Bingen, who lived from 1098-1179, constructed a language consisting of 900 words, with an alphabet of 23 letters. She was a distinguished scholar, with publications to her credit in a number of fields; as Daly says, it is impossible for us to know how much of value was lost to us when this language was lost. And I now have an alternative answer to that persistent question, although I have no way of knowing whether St. Hildegarde’s motivation for the construction of her language was a sense that no language adequate to express her perceptions was available to her.

A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan
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