Native Tongue: Frequently Asked Questions

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

Native Tongue
by Suzette Haden Elgin

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: Why were the linguists in the book hated so much?

Human cultures seem to have an ongoing and consistent need for some group to hate. Our real-world U.S. has focused in the past on hating people because of their ethnic heritage or sexual orientation; in my fictional future U.S. that kind of hatred has been replaced by hatred of the Linguists of the Lines. They’re hated for at least four reasons:

  1. Because “everybody knows” that Linguists really do know how to get access to the languages of nonhumanoid Aliens — something the U.S. and its colonies desperately want to do — and that they they’re just greedily keeping that knowledge a secret, even though it means that human babies are dying.
  2. Because “everybody knows” that the Linguists’ role as interpreters and translators for humanoid Aliens has made them enormously wealthy and privileged.
  3. Because “everybody knows” the Linguists have language skills that they can and do use to make non-Linguists feel stupid and small, skills that nobody but a Linguist can learn.
  4. And because at some level everybody knows that the lives the Linguists lead (especially the lives their children lead) are absolutely crucial to maintaining the far easier lives of the rest of the population, and the rest of the population doesn’t want to give that up, no matter how unfair it may be.

The first two reasons are false. Part of the third reason — the idea that only Linguists can learn to use language as skillfully as Linguists do — is also false. But these myths are vigorously supported and spread by the establishment and the government, because of the fourth reason, and most of the population really believes them to be true. Given that fact, the hatred is understandable.

And while I’m here, I should point out two things. First, that in this real world of the year 2002 linguists are often greatly disliked. And second, that reason (4) is analogous to the situation in the real world U.S. today in which it’s taken for granted that women will do most of the housework and caretaking work, and will do it without pay or benefits; the rest of the population doesn’t want to give that up, no matter how unfair it may be.

Q2: Why are all the Linguists white?

They aren’t. I’m asked this question often, and it always surprises me. I don’t know why readers assume that all the Linguists are white; there’s nothing in the book to support that idea — and there are things intended to let the reader know that some of the Linguists are people of color. (One of the Lines has the name “Mbal,” for example. I assumed that a reader would perceive a Terran character named Dano Mbal as a person of color; I was wrong in that assumption.) I suppose it must be like the fact that readers tend to assume that any leading character doing “heroic” things is male unless the writer specifically makes it clear that that’s not the case. Race doesn’t come up in the book overtly because — in the future society I’m writing about — race is no longer something people feel has to be constantly kept track of and commented on.

Q3: What is the significance of referring to the linguists in the book as “Lingoes”?

“Lingoes” isn’t just slang; it’s a pejorative — a term meant to be insulting. It’s one of a set of related perjorative terms in the book (all derived by analogy with the term “Negroes” in today’s real world) that includes also “medicoes” and “wimpoes.” One of the things you try to do in writing sf with linguistics as its focus is to show readers how linguistics and language work. We know from historical linguistics that it would be plausible for a set of terms like these to develop and become part of English; I tried to show that happening in my fictional future by constructing the set and putting the terms into the mouths and thoughts of my characters.

Q4: Why did you put all those phony quotations at the beginnings of the chapters?

I learned to do that from reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Like Herbert, I was writing something that had to stretch over very long periods of historical time. Putting as much of the historical information as I could into those “phony quotations” (called “epigraphs”) had several advantages. It kept me from having to include many boring scenes where characters do lengthy monologues presenting that information — as in “Well, Bill, I’m sure you know a lot about the War Between The Cabbages, but you may have forgotten that et cetera et cetera.” It kept me from having to insert long chunks of straight historical information directly into the text of the novel. And it gave readers an option; once they realized that the epigraphs weren’t crucial to the plot, they knew that they could just skip them if they didn’t find them interesting.

Q5: Why do you hate men so much?

This very frequent question also surprises me. Nobody assumes that because a mystery writer’s main character is a serial killer the mystery writer approves of serial murders or has the characteristics of a serial murderer. In just the same way, the fact that some of my characters do hate men doesn’t mean that I do. I don’t.

Q6: Why do you do so much male-bashing in the book? Why do you make all the male characters so horrible?

Reader comments about this aspect of the book have always fallen into two groups — those who accuse me of being unfair to men and doing constant male-bashing, and those who accuse me of being way too easy on the male characters and constantly excusing them for their behavior. Both groups have read the same book, but they most certainly haven’t taken the same meaning from it. What I was trying very hard to do was to show ordinary human men — men who had grown up in a culture where they were taught to believe that they were superior to women in every way — behaving as they could logically be expected to behave, and convinced, most of the time, that what they were doing was moral and right.

Q7: Why do you restrict your woman-language (Láadan) just to women?

I don’t. The women in Native Tongue do everything possible to restrict the language to women and girls because it would be literally dangerous for them to do anything else. That’s consistent with their fictional circumstances. In the real world, where Láadan “escaped from the lab,” I have always taken the position that the language was for anyone of any gender to use if they wished. Many of the people who’ve called and written me over the years to order Láadan grammars and tapes, to ask questions about the language, and so on, have been men; I’ve always done my best to respond helpfully.

Q8: Why do you write “Linguist” with a capital L and “Alien” with a capital A?

I needed a way to identify the linguists who were part of the Lines and were interfaced with Aliens in infancy that would distinguish them from the “lay linguists” who weren’t members of that group. To have to say “a linguist of the Lines” or some such thing every time I used the word would have been cumbersome, so I used the capital letter instead. Where “Alien” versus “alien” is concerned, I needed a way to distinguish between aliens in the sense that we use the word today, and aliens who were extra-terrestrials; ET aliens are identified by the capital A.

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