Láadan, the Constructed Language in “Native Tongue” Books

by Suzette Haden Elgin

Everyone knows about the constructed languages in Tolkien’s writing (Elvish, for example); what is perhaps less well known is that Tolkien said he wrote his novels to provide a showcase for the languages. That sort of passion for language is unusual; it would be a shock to read that Star Trek had been created as a showcase for the Klingon language. Usually, as with Klingon (constructed by linguist Marc Okrand), the fiction comes first and the language is added later if it is added at all. Elvish and Klingon are famous conlangs; Klingon not only has a journal published by an institute located at a university, it has two competing Bible translation projects, it has a Shakespeare translation project, it has summer camps…. But there are also many little-known sf conlangs, among them Láadan, the language I put together for the novel Native Tongue.

Many science fiction stories and novels make references to fictional languages of one kind or another, and they usually include a handful of words or phrases from such languages. Some have glossaries in the back that expand the vocabulary and may include some additional information. But few writers feel a need to go beyond that and set up an entire constructed language (conlang). A conlang is a language put together with the intention that it should have enough grammar and vocabulary to make it possible for someone to use it to communicate, just as they would use an existing natural language. There are some very famous conlangs; Tolkien’s Elvish tongues and Mark Okrand’s Klingon come immediately to mind. There are also very obscure conlangs, like Láadan, the language that serves as a major plot element in the Native Tongue series. (If conlangs appeal to you, an Internet search with the words international auxiliary language as your search term will provide you with a lifetime’s worth of fascinating material to read.)

When I put Láadan together, it was to serve two purposes. First, much of the plot for Native Tongue revolved around a group of women, all linguists, engaged in constructing a language specifically designed to express the perceptions of human women; because I’m a linguist and linguistics is the science in my novels, I felt obligated actually to construct the language before I wrote about it. Second, I wrote the novel as a thought experiment with the express goal of testing four interrelated hypotheses: (1) that the weak form of the linguistic relativity hypothesis is true [that is, that human languages structure human perceptions in significant ways]; (2) that Goedel’s Theorem applies to language, so that there are changes you could not introduce into a language without destroying it and languages you could not introduce into a culture without destroying it; (3) that change in language brings about social change, rather than the contrary; and (4) that if women were offered a women’s language one of two things would happen — they would welcome and nurture it, or it would at minimum motivate them to replace it with a better women’s language of their own construction. I set a ten-year time limit on the experiment — since the novel came out in 1984, that meant an end date of 1994 — and I turned it loose. I didn’t know in 1984 that the experiment would escape from the novel that was its lab, but in the long run I was glad that it did; it make the final results more interesting.

Constructing a language is formally easy, especially with today’s computers. Any competent linguist can run up half a dozen in just a few hours or program the computer to spit them out at a fantastic rate. (You’ll find instructions in the Excerpts section on this site, if you’d like to try your hand at conlanging.) Making the language interesting, which is art rather than science, is much harder. Making it a living language, used by living human beings attached to a living culture, is enormously difficult. It’s hard enough to keep natural languages alive, hard enough that we’re losing them today by the hundreds; keeping a conlang alive is a quantum leap in difficulty. Nevertheless, there’s a theory that women are distressed because existing human languages are inadequate to express their perceptions; if that theory has any validity, it would seem that women would welcome a language that better served that purpose. And suppose they did, what would happen? Finding at least one answer to that question was the point of constructing Láadan and putting it into a novel.

Now, what does it mean to say that a language expresses the perceptions of women, or that existing natural languages don’t do that adequately? Let me stipulate immediately that I don’t know all existing human languages or even a tiny percentage of them. It may be that there’s one somewhere that, unknown to me, is the perfect medium for expressing women’s perceptions. I don’t know all women, either, or even a tiny percentage of them. The complaints around which the theory was constructed have come from women who are native speakers of well-known languages (especially English and languages in the same family as English); they were the research subjects for the experiment. With that constraint (which makes the experiment what scientists call a “pilot” experiment) stated, I can go on to tell you that I saw two major problems — for women — with English and its close linguistic relatives. (1) Those languages lacked vocabulary for many things that are extremely important to women, making it cumbersome and inconvenient to talk about them. (2) They lacked ways to express emotional information conveniently, so that — especially in English — much of that information had to be carried by body language and was almost entirely missing from written language. This characteristic (which makes English so well suited for business) left women vulnerable to hostile language followed by the ancient “But all I said was….” excuse; and it restricted women to the largely useless “It wasn’t what you said, it was the way you said it!” defense against such hostility. In constructing Láadan, I focused on giving it features intended to repair those two deficiencies.

The results of this experiment were clear. For the first three hypotheses being tested — that the weak form of the linguistic relativity hypothesis is true, that Goedel’s Theorem applies to language, and that change in language brings about social change — I ended up with nothing more than anecdotal information. The fourth hypothesis — that if women were offered a women’s language they would either welcome and nurture it or would replace it with a better one — was proved false. (It was of course almost inevitable that if the fourth hypothesis failed I would learn nothing much about the other three, since they only begin to be tested if the fourth one succeeds.)

As I said…interesting. It was well worth the effort. Whether results would have been different if I’d given the experiment twenty years instead of ten, or if Star Trek had decided to present episodes about a war between a Láadan-speaking population and the Klingons, or any of a multitude of other modifications in conditions, is impossible to say; whether something different will happen when the reprint edition of Native Tongue comes out from Feminist Press is impossible to say. Experiments have to have limits or they have no scientific value.

Meanwhile, the Klingon language thrives — from which you are free to draw your own conclusions.

Copyright © 1999 by Suzette Haden Elgin
Originally posted at: http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/Laadan.html Copied with permission.