Earthsong: Frequently Asked Questions

(Copied with permission from Suzette’s SFWA website to preserve for posterity’s sake.)

by Suzette Haden Elgin

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q1: Why is Earthsong so different from the other two books in the trilogy? It doesn’t seem like part of the trilogy at all! What happened?

Native Tongue and Judas Rose portray a fictional future that is tightly structured, well organized, under rigid control, and orderly in every way. In Judas Rose, however, that orderly society has broken down into a future that is unstable at best and is punctuated by long periods of chaos. I was trying to write the books in such a way that their form reflected — stood as a metaphor for — their content. That meant writing two tightly-structured orderly novels followed by one somewhat chaotic one. It may have been a mistake in esthetic and/or literary terms; I have no way of knowing. But it was done deliberately, and for what I thought were good reasons.

Q2: Why did you just drop the story of the Láadan language?

I didn’t drop it completely; you’ll find it mentioned and discussed at various points. But you’re right that it’s no longer a major plot-strand as it was in the first two books. I did that because, in addition to being novels, the three books represented a scientific experiment, what’s called a “thought experiment.” With the first two books I had released Láadan into the real world, and then I had stood by to observe what happened to it. Two things could have happened. It could have been welcomed the way Klingon was welcomed when linguist Mark Okrand published its grammar for the Star Trek television series; a university could have set up a Láadan Institute and funded it, along with a Láadan Journal; there could have been Láadan conferences and summer camps and coffee mugs and bumperstickers. And so on. Alternatively, people could have looked at Láadan and said “That’s all wrong — that’s not what a language designed to express women’s perceptions should be like!”, and then they could have constructed a better alternative to replace it. If either of those things had happened, Láadan would have been a major focus of the third book and it would have reflected the outcome of the experiment in the real world.

Since neither of those things happened, even with ten years going by, I tried in the third book to illustrate what linguists would do in a situation like that. The Linguist women’s ultimate purpose with Láadan was to do something about the problem of humankind’s violence on this earth; when the Láadan project failed, they noted that, accepted it, and immediately started working on a different project (audiosynthesis) with the same goal. It would never have occurred to them to simply give up because one way of dealing with the problem didn’t work. A linguist who is trying to solve some troublesome linguistic problem would think nothing of trying a dozen different ways to solve it and having them all fail; at that point the linguist would start immediately on a thirteenth plan for finding a solution. (If linguistics problem-solving interests you, you might look at the Real World Linguistics 101 course posted on this website.)

Many people were angry with me because I didn’t go on with Láadan in this book; they felt that since we’re talking about fiction, not history, I should have written a book in which the Láadan project did succeed, never mind what happened in the real world. They may well be right; I wish they’d been around to discuss the question with me at the time. But the lack of attention paid to the language during the ten years after Native Tongue was published gave me no reason to think readers would react that way, and so I made a different decision.

Q3: Why didn’t you promote the Láadan language? Why didn’t you start an organization and run it, and do some press releases, and maybe set up a conference yourself? Why didn’t you buy some ads? I mean, how did you expect Láadan to make it without any help at all?

I didn’t promote the language because I was trying not to throw any wild variables into the thought experiment. Natural languages — human languages like English and Chinese and Cherokee — don’t get “promoted.” If they survive, it’s because people love them and use them and speak them to their children, not because a big marketing budget is behind them. If I had had requests for interviews about the language, even because it was seen as a “human interest” story, I would have done them. But to go hunting for them would have hopelessly contaminated the experiment.

Q4: In “Teaching Story Three,” in the appendix to the book, you have an old woman saying “Your, your, your!” What is that supposed to mean? Is it a typo?”

This is what happens when a writer gets too cute, or when a linguist tries to impose a linguistics joke on nonlinguists. In English we say, “My, my, my!” to express various emotions and attitudes — mild surprise, for example. “My” in that expression has no semantic connection to the word “my” in a phrase like “my house.” I thought “Your, your, your!” would be recognized as like “My, my my!”, and that it would be perceived as funny. Based on the number of times I’ve been asked this question, I was wrong.

Q5: I don’t understand all those short pieces that keep turning up in the book out of nowhere.

They don’t have anything to do with the story. Why did you put them in there?

In the foreword to the book, Nazareth Chornyak (who is the narrator) explains that because she is dead she can only get the book out by channeling it. And in that context, she says this: “I know there’s no way I can make the story come to you in tidy chronological order; it will have to come in chunks and pieces tumbling out of time, beyond the reach of my planning or my control. I know from experience that pieces will leak through which seem to be unrelated to the tale I’m telling…. All of this is to be expected, and it can’t be helped.” The short pieces you’re asking about are the pieces that “leak through,” as Nazareth predicted that they would.

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