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Native Tongue is the product of Suzette Haden Elgin, a linguist who is also a science fiction writer. It tells the story of how Earth in the year 2205 (now dominated by the Linguist Lines) reverts to a patriarchal society in which women are again subjugated to masculine control. However, among the needleworking, post-menopausal women in the Barren House, a revolution is simmering, fueled by the creation of a new female-based language (Laadan) that permits women to express the unique aspects of their experiences that are not transmitted by the existing sexist language and to plot the eventual overthrow of the patriarchy. The book is accompanied by a glossary of this unique language. To make things even more interesting, the male Linguists are allowed to become aware of the development of an unworkable decoy female language called Langlish, which confirms the male Linguists' view that the women Linguists are inferior. This gives the women the freedom to work on Laadan, which is the true revolutionary language.
The premise of the book is that language is a powerful tool for bringing about social change (within the tradition of the Whorf hypothesis that language serves to structure or constrain thought). This notion underlies much of the feminist literature of the 1970s and 1980s. The basic idea is that if we change the language, we can change the way people think and ultimately change society. Elgin uses the scifi format as a "thought experiment" to show how men and women perceive the world in very distinct manners which in an extreme form could result in the development of separate languages to encode those differences. Laadan provides ways to talk about feminine concerns like pregnancy, mothering, menopause, sisterhood, emotional states, and female oppression that are not currently present in the English language. In secondary narrative strands, the distinction between human and non-human forms of communication and their accompanying worldviews is also explored.
In addition to its importance for examining gender relations, the book serves to bolster the status of scifi / fantasy as a valuable form of literature that allows us to imagine the possibilities of human (and extra-terrestrial) life. Elgin hoped to attract more women to the male-dominated genre with her story.
When the book was published, there were those who condemned it as preachy and didactic and criticized it for certain structural flaws, but others praised it for its strong characters and its unflinching exploration of male/female relations. The book went out of print in 1996 but was kept alive by an almost cult following. It is now regarded as a classic in feminist literature, along with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and the works of Ursula Leguin, Naomi Mitchison, and Joanna Russ.
If you want to read a scifi book that's a cut above the rest, try this one.
Nov 2, 2007
This book was recommended as a science fiction book which used knitting to stage a revolution. Instead, knitting was never mentioned--they did mention crochet and needlework, but no knitting!!
It was also formulaic--obviously written in the early 80s using the catastrophic scenarios of what will happen without the passage of the ERA. This doesn't seem like the work of a serious science fiction writer.
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