Láadan Language Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

by Suzette Haden Elgin

Question 1:  Why did you construct the Láadan language?

Answer:  I had four reasons….

  1. I was writing a novel that had the construction of such a language as a major plot element. It was obvious to me that I’d be able to do a better job of portraying that process if I went through it myself. The women linguists in the novel were working as a group, and I had to work alone; still, I was better informed than if I had relied entirely on my imagination.
  2. Science fiction is intended to have two parts: science, and fiction. When chemists or astronomers write sf novels, they’re not expected to provide expert scientific information on geology (although they’re expected to be accurate, if they include those fields in the book); they are expected to provide expert information about chemistry or astronomy. As a linguist writing sf, I have the same obligation regarding information about linguistics. I was less likely to include scientific errors about the linguistics of Láadan if I constructed it before writing about it.
  3. Láadan was described as a language designed to express the perceptions of women. I had to find out what that meant; I had to find out what design elements could plausibly be included in such a project. [Note: Here, and in the material that follows, please understand that I’m referring to English-speaking women and to American English unless I specify otherwise; I’m not qualified to talk or write about women in their roles as native speakers of other languages.]
  4. When I did teaching or “public speaking” about the problems women have with language, people would ask this question: “If women aren’t satisfied with the language they have, how come they’ve never made up a language of their own? How come there aren’t any languages constructed by women?” I was distressed by that question; I wasn’t aware at that time of the language constructed by Hildegard of Bingen, for example. It seemed to me that it would be useful for me to do a language, and specifically a language designed to express female perceptions — just so that I could say that it had been done.

Question 2:  The Láadan Grammar & Dictionary says that it’s a “case grammar.” What’s a case grammar? And why did you do the grammar that way?

Answer:  The word “case” in this context refers to the roles that nominals have in a sentence with respect to its predicate. That is, a case category in “The kids ate the pizza really fast on the porch last night ” specifies who did the eating, what was eaten, where the eating happened and when, and how — in what way — the eating happened. Linguists analyze languages using a theoretical model; some of us prefer the case grammar model. I used the case grammar model for my dissertation on Navajo syntax, and I’ve always used it for any language that I was teaching (including English), and it has served me well. In my opinion, there is no clearer way to describe and discuss a language. (Case grammar in contemporary linguistics is usually associated with the work of Charles Fillmore.)

Question 3: Is it hard to construct a language? Doesn’t it take a very long time?

Answer:  That depends on how you define “language” and “construct.” By some definitions, a language could be made up of only A, B, and a “repeat” symbol; its utterances would be AB, ABB, ABBB, ABBBB, and so on. I could put together a dozen of those in five minutes, and nothing could be easier. If you’re talking about something intended to be usable as a human language, it’s more complicated — but not as complicated as looking at some constructed languages might lead you to believe. No law requires a constructed language to have seventy different meaningful sounds or fifty different personal pronouns or two hundred verb endings; the “constructors” may choose to provide all those things, but they don’t have to. The set of things that human languages must include isn’t very large; I could easily construct several languages in a single day. Any decent computer programmer could set up a computer to construct twenty-five of them in a single day.

Having said that, however, I have to explain a thing or two. It’s one thing to construct something that meets the definition of a human language, in theoretical terms; that’s not terribly difficult. But languages don’t live because they meet a list of specifications. They live because they are used and loved and worked with and treasured; they live because they are associated with a culture. When Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings he was taking steps to provide his Elvish languages with a culture, so that they might become more than just squiggles on a page. Constructing a language that might become a living human language is a like writing a novel or composing a symphony, with all that that entails. It’s not just a matter of meeting technical specifications. It could take a lifetime. (If you’re interested in looking at a lot of constructed languages, go to Google, type “constructed languages auxiliary languages artificial languages” in the search box, and follow the links.)

Question 4:   Is it possible to get permission to do things with Láadan? What if I want to write poetry in Láadan, for example, or fiction? What if I want to start a Láadan study group? What if I want to make some changes in the language?

Answer:   No living human language is “owned” by anyone or anything. Since Láadan was launched as a scientific experiment, intended to live or die on its own like any other language, there was no way I could “own” it except in the sense of having copyrighted its original form. From the very beginning, every chance I got, I made it clear that I not only was willing to have other people do things with the language, I encouraged it. Nobody has to have my permission; nobody has to clear what they do with me, or report to me, or anything like that. People who want me to credit them for new Láadan words and materials in a future edition of the Láadan Grammar & Dictionary (and when I write or speak about the language) have to send me what they’ve done; there’s no other way for me to know about it. But that’s entirely up to them.

About making changes…. Adding new words, as long as they follow the rules of the Láadan sound system, is always fine; that’s how real languages work. Adding new rules to the language — new grammar rules, new sound system rules, and so on — is different. Of course people can do that. But they need to know that what they have after they make the change is no longer Láadan — it’s something else, the way “Esperanto Reformed” is no longer Esperanto. Rule changes certainly occur in living languages, but not because they are “decreed”; they happen gradually, over time, as a consensus develops about them among speakers of the language.

Right now, for example, English is losing the distinction between “may” and “might,” so that younger people say “If he had known that, he may have left.” For me (age sixty-six) that has to be “If he had known that, he might have left.” The developing native-speaker consensus is that “might” as the past of “may” isn’t needed, and its demise is inevitable. But the change is happening over decades, and it’s happening in the living speech and writing of many thousands of English speakers; it’s not happening because someone got up one morning and published a new rule.

I’m always interested in what’s happening with Láadan, and I’m always more than willing to offer advice if it’s asked for; I’m pleased when people tell me about their projects — but they don’t have to. If some media mogul were to try to publish a Láadan grammar or use the language in a movie or anything of that kind without involving me I would fight that, on principle. But otherwise, Láadan is on its own.

Copyright © 2002 by Suzette Haden Elgin
Originally posted at: http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/nativetongue/laadan_faq.html Copied with permission.