Sunday, February 10, 2013

Native Tongue

1984, first edition, from DAW
Suzette Haden Elgin
Native Tongue
Original price $3.95, purchase price 25 cents
Very worn paperback

This is very much a product of its time, and not just with the little jokes against Reagan.  Set roughly 200 to 250 years in the future, and taking one of the main characters from childhood to early old age, it presents a dystopia in which women's rights have been revoked, 13 families of linguists are both the elite and the underclass, communication with humanoid aliens is widespread but dangerous, and the government conducts secret experiments with infant humans, nonhumanoid aliens, and LSD!  I'll definitely be comparing it to 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, but for the moment I can say that while it has an interesting set of concepts, I don't think it quite works.  The biggest issue I have with it is actually a comparison to the real 1980s, or now for that matter.  Those were and these are less repressive times than Elgin's 22nd and 23rd centuries, yet the last 30 (arguably 50 or more) years have contained men who are feminist and women who are anti-feminist.  Yet, none of Elgin's women agree that it was good to take away their rights to their own votes, money, and bodies (although most of them offer a surface docility when the men are around), and only one man seems to have even slight concerns about the way women are oppressed.  Is Elgin saying that even such women as Phyllis Schafly secretly are rebellious against sexism under the surface, or is she saying that if women got oppressed enough, we'd all turn into rebels?  Or is it just that she can't be bothered to show any men or women that think in a different way than the majority of their respective sexes?

Also, while I am noticing a larger number of typos lately, the ones in this book stand out because, well, it is about language.  I will say that Elgin does have a flair for parody; many of the excerpts of "modern" male writers that begin each chapter are not far off from some of the Victorian "thinkers" in The Experts Speak and other nonfiction works I've read.  Whenever she writes from a male perspective, she gets the right tone of smugness for that type of man.  But it is all too one-note.

As for the communication-with-aliens thread, I actually wanted more of this, and I'm not particularly a sci-fi reader.  It did bug me that ten of the thirteen of the linguist Lines are in the U.S., without any good reason, because it's not as if English is more analogous to the alien languages than any other Terran tongue.  The title by the way refers to the language that the linguist women are secretly developing to express concepts they can't in the "men's" language.  This is elitist, because they're going to (eventually) share it with nonlinguist women, rather than creating it in common with other women.  (Yes, the "Lingoe" women have the academic knowledge, but sometimes the unsayable is said by women without higher education, like Sojourner Truth.)

I like this book enough that I've read it a few times, but I was never intrigued enough to go on to the rest of the trilogy.

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