The Construction of Láadan

From A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan: Second Edition
Edited by Diane Martin
SF3 1988, pp. 3-6.

Introduction: The Construction of Láadan

by Suzette Haden Elgin

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…and I was reading — and re-reading — Douglas Hofstadter’s Goedel, 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 Goedel, Escher, Bach a reformulation of Goedel’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 would 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 were 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 know, 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. …

Somewhere along the way, this all fell together for me, and I found myself with a cognitive brew much too fascinating to ignore. … I…chose as 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 in 1984.

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….

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.

Note: The very first tiny Láadan dictionary, before the one published by SF3, was prepared and illustrated by artist Karen Jollie. It hasn’t been available for decades.

Originally posted on Suzette’s SFWA website.  Copied with permission.