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Native Tongue #1

Native Tongue

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Called "fascinating" by the New York Times upon its first publication in 1984, Native Tongue won wide critical praise and cult status, and has often been compared to the futurist fiction of Margaret Atwood. Set in the twenty-second century, the novel tells of a world where women are once again property, denied civil rights and banned from public life. Earth's wealth depends on interplanetary commerce with alien races, and linguists--a small, clannish group of families--have become the ruling elite by controlling all interplanetary communication. Their women are used to breed perfect translators for all the galaxies' languages.

Nazareth Chornyak, the most talented linguist of the family, is exhausted by her constant work translating for trade organizations, supervising the children's language education, running the compound, and caring for the elderly men. She longs to retire to the Barren House, where women past childbearing age knit, chat, and wait to die. What Nazareth comes to discover is that a slow revolution is going on in the Barren Houses: there, word by word, women are creating a language of their own to free them from men's control.

327 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1984

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About the author

Suzette Haden Elgin

76 books162 followers
Suzette Haden Elgin was an American science fiction author. She founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and is considered an important figure in the field of science fiction constructed languages. Elgin was also a linguist; she published non-fiction, of which the best-known is the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series.

Born in 1936 in Missouri, Elgin attended the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in the 1960s, and began writing science fiction in order to pay tuition. She has a Ph.D. in linguistics, and was the first UCSD student to ever write two dissertations (on English and Navajo). She created the engineered language Láadan for her Native Tongue science fiction series. A grammar and dictionary was published in 1985. She is a supporter of feminist science fiction, saying "women need to realize that SF is the only genre of literature in which it's possible for a writer to explore the question of what this world would be like if you could get rid of [X], where [X] is filled in with any of the multitude of real world facts that constrain and oppress women. Women need to treasure and support science fiction." [1]

In addition, she published works of shorter fiction. Overlying themes in her work include feminism, linguistics and the impact of language, and peaceful coexistence with nature. Many of her works also draw from her Ozark background and heritage.

Elgin became a professor at her alma mater's cross-town rival, San Diego State University (SDSU). She retired in 1980.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 467 reviews
Profile Image for Wealhtheow.
2,419 reviews537 followers
July 2, 2009
Absolutely excellent. I know The Handmaid's Tale gets more press and praise, but this is a far more realistic and chilling misogynist future. There's really so much meaty stuff, and I'm so far from eloquent, that I'll just say read it and leave it at that.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,230 reviews1,003 followers
November 19, 2015
Read for book club.

OK, first off: Suzette Haden Elgin is clearly a separatist, who believed that both women and men would be better off apart from each other. (Not that she seemed to care much about what might be better for men.)
I do not agree with this premise (not even a tiny bit) - but I'm not demeriting the book for holding a viewpoint I disagree with.

There are some interesting ideas brought up - but most of them are dropped, never to be picked up again. Elgin was a linguist, and as such, did have some interesting thoughts about language acquisition and communication.

However - it's just not a very good book. The language is clunky and awkward, giving the book a feel more like it was published in the 50s than in the 80s. One of the members of my book club theorized that this was done on purpose (a theory bolstered by the fact that language was Elgin's professional specialty!), but I have read one other book by her, published over a decade earlier, and that one was pretty similar in tone and style. (And it was even worse, as a work of literature. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) So I'm concluding that this was just her writing 'voice.'

The premise of the book is that in a near future, when Earth has made contact with multitudes of alien races, communicating with those races in order to hammer out trade agreements has become of primary economic importance. It has been discovered that the only way to communicate with humanoid aliens is to have them send a representative who will interact with a human infant, until that infant picks up the alien language as its 'native tongue.' Only the babies of thirteen Linguist families, who all live in communal houses on Earth, are trained to this important work. Both the Linguists and the larger Earth culture have become extremely misogynistic: women have the status of slaves. However, the Linguist women have been secretly working on creating a "Womens' Language" which they see as the tool of their liberation.

Well, Elgin may have been a linguist, but she certainly was not an economist or a sociologist. The whole situation, as described, feels very poorly thought out.

We have the Linguists, for one. They are the tiny group on which the entire human economy (not just Earth, but a plethora of colonies, which, we are told, are easy and cheap to travel to) depends on. However, they are portrayed as a hated group who have to pretend to be poor and live in ascetic, horrid situations, denying themselves even the smallest luxuries, in order to avoid inciting more hatred. This is just ridiculous. In reality, they'd be like oligarchs (as someone in my book club said) and would not care at all if they were loved or hated. They could have their own private planets, if they wanted.

Similarly - the linguist women are half of the Linguists. They are needed, desperately. Sure, they've been brought up to be slaves, but they're already shown as being smart, savvy, and secretly rebellious. They could also go on strike. Hell, they could've applied for political asylum from another humanoid species - we're explicitly told that other planets' cultures have gender equality. It just doesn't make sense with the author's givens, why they'd just do as they were told.

For that matter though, it doesn't make sense why the Linguists have their monopoly. We're specifically told it's not a genetic difference that gives them their abilities. Sure, people think talking to aliens is 'icky' and 'taboo' - but if the government is willing to experiment and sacrifice non-linguist babies to try to open up communication with non-humanoid aliens (so far, an impossibility), why on earth wouldn't they do the same to break the Linguist monopoly on communication with humanoid aliens?

Speaking of the "impossibility" of communication with non-humanoid aliens, the most ridiculous part of the book is when It was just like those old TV shows where something is entered into a computer and it goes "Does Not Compute... Does Not Compute..." and then blows up. This is just not how lack of comprehension works. (It's not how computers work, either.)

For a book prominently featuring the idea of communication with aliens, it's also quite disappointing that there is not one single alien character developed. We don't know how a single alien thinks; what their cultures want, or how or why they are sending representatives to Earth to teach babies their languages. None do any real interacting with any of the characters. Big missed opportunity....

Last complaint... the ending. It was completely anti-climactic and disappointing.

From this review, there's a good possibility I should've read this instead: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Kaion.
501 reviews99 followers
February 6, 2015
Noting the passing last week of Suzette Haden Elgin: linguist, verbal self-defense teacher, feminist genre writer, & founder of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I read Native Tongue in my first push of reading harder sci-fi a few years ago, and found her approach to the genre really eye-opening. Though perhaps her hopes for the embrace of a universal, revolutionary women's language were disappointed, her writing was proof enough of how writing can change perception.

R.I.P. Suzette Haden Elgin: Author, Poet, Verbal Self-Defense Coach [io9]

To make something “appear" is called magic, is it not? [...] There is a continuous surface of the body, a space that begins with the inside flesh of the fingers and continues over the palm of the hand and up the inner side of the arm to the bend of the elbow.

I will name the “athad” of the person. Imagine the athad, please. See it clearly in your mind— perceive, here are my own two athads, the left one and the right one. And there are both of your athads, very nice ones.

Where there was no athad before, there will always be one now, because you perceive the athad of every that person you look at, as you perceive their nose and their hair [...] I have made the athad appear... now it exists.

Native Tongue is a spectacular example of ‘idea’ science-fiction. Its ideas are about feminism and aliens and human expansion, but the most important ones are on the power of language.

In Suzette Haden Elgin’s dystopia, women’s rights regressed in the later 20th century in a bout of religious fervor and neo-conservatism. Two centuries into the future, women are legally “minors”: maintained under the guardanship of male relatives at all times and lacking basic rights. Seen as lesser beings, they are valued only for their labor and reproductive abilities. Meanwhile, humans have expanded through the galaxy, through colonization and trade with Alien worlds. This contact is largely facilitated through the work of “Lingoes”, fifteen Earth-bound linguist families (“Lines”) who have specialized and monopolized the business of Ali-Human translation and diplomacy.

Despite their education, the women in the Lines are as oppressed as those outside, perhaps even more so under the strict patriarchal order of the Lines. In addition to the the usual indignities (labor exploitation, denial of liberty, etc), they also lack reproductive liberty: forced to bear as many children as possible in order to meet the unsatiable demand for imperialistic expansion. But the women of the Lines are working on a secret project that may change all that— Láadan, a new "female" language that they hope will one day unite all the women of the galaxy.

Why? Elgin holds a Ph.D in linguistics, and Native Tongue plays on the idea that human languages themselves, used for countless years in a patriarchal context, are indeed major tools of female repression. On the same note, language can be the tool of female empowerment, and importance of creating words for the expression of female PoV, for concepts previously inexpressible, such as:
raimmelh: to refrain from asking, with evil intentions; especially when it’s clear that someone badly wants to ask—for example, when someone wants to be asked about their state of mind or health and clearly wants to talk about it.
is tantamount. It is the “magic” that is creation of the world anew, and this insurgent potential of language that holds together Native Tongue’s disparate themes around the journeys of Nazareth Chornyak, a young woman of the Lines who's been spotted the have great potential, and Michaela Landry, a nurse whose trained demeanor masks her mission of revenge against those who killed her young son.

Elgin's dystopia addresses other themes such as human expansion driven by resource scarcity and the limits of human perception and language acquisition. But it is the parts of Native Tongue that are most concerned with the creation of Láadan that are its most transcendent and riveting. Elgin is on shakier ground explaining how this dystopia came about. It’s more than a little hard to swallow women losing all powers of majority by the end of the 20th century!— though these fears offer a historic value from the height of the Reagan era.

Another potential drawback is while Native Tongue's narrative threads end more or less satisfactorily, Elgin leaves the implications of “what next” in the overthrow of the old world order open. The way the novel ends leaves me to presume that this is covered in the two sequels, though judging by the reviews, not in a way that is satisfying to all.

As it is, however, Native Tongue is a powerful and radical message of female empowerment, delivered not only in the intelligent 'science' of linguistics but also compelling 'fiction' that documents the concerns of feminism in the era it was written. Rating: 4.5

Also I learned a ton about linguistics and Láadan is just frequently damn cool:
doroledum: Say you have an average woman. She has no control over her life. She has little or nothing in the way of a resource for being food to herself, even when it is necessary. She has family and animals and friends and associates that depend on her for sustenance of all kinds. She rarely has adequate sleep or rest; she has no time for herself, no space of her own, little or no money to buy things for herself, no opportunity to consider her own emotional needs. She is at the beck and call of others, because she has these responsibilities and obligations and does not choose to (or cannot) abandon them. For such a woman, the one and only thing she is likely to have a little control over for indulging her own self is FOOD. When such a woman overeats, the verb for that is “doreledim”. (And then she feels guilty, because there are women whose children are starving and who do not have even THAT option for self-indulgence.)
Profile Image for Rhiannon.
61 reviews39 followers
September 1, 2011
This book had an amazing concept. It was full of amazing ideas (the creation of a secret language for an oppressed second class - women). But, it lacked several things, in my opinion, that prevented it from living up to the proclamation: "feminist science fiction classic."

One of those things was characterization. The first one hundred or so pages in the book had no distinct character for the reader to engage with. There are several plot points expounded in male points of view that readers are supposed to be disgusted by (and are disgusted by!); there is one storyline involving a woman, lacking any real depth, killing out of revenge; and then, there is the mention of some other characters who may be important later. That's it.

In my opinion, having no characters with any emotional depth for the reader to latch onto at the beginning of the story was a serious flaw. It made the pace slow, and frustrated my sense of who or what to believe in in this story.

Another problem I had with this book was the "good guys/bad guys" dichotomy applied by the author. It's simple: All women are good (even the one lady who systematically kills people), all men are bad (even the one guy who appeared to treat a female character like she was equal in intellect and status). I, personally, don't like my contemporary fiction to be so black/white. It is boring, and it is not believable. It narrows the reader's frame of mind and ability to objectively engage with the work. And, if done kind of poorly (as it was here - ), it comes off as petty and trite: an authorial position, a fable, a one-dimensional opinion piece - and not a work of fiction.

The final problem that I had with the book was this - the notion that women should have their own language in the first place. Don't get me wrong! I love imagining the subversive power that a secret language has for the oppressed secondary citizen! It was wonderfully done, and very inspiring! But...

Elgin, and by extension, her characters, believe that one's native language creates one's reality - how one perceives the world (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis), and allowing the women in this story to create and use their OWN language will change their reality. I am all for that notion, ladyface!

The problem with all this is that Elgin really believes - IN REAL LIFE - that women should have a language separate from men. And - in doing so - that we would be essentially better off as separate from them altogether? (What's up, Charlotte-Perkins-Gilman-Radical-Crazypants?)

She believes there are things one can experience as a woman that men could not possibly conceive of. We-ellllllll....

1. There are things that an other experiences that a member of an elite, ruling, or "mainstream" class could not possibly conceive of, true... But, women are not the only other in any conceivable reality, and sometimes, even if they are the other in one reality, they may be the elite, ruling, mainstream in another (in Elgin's case, see: female linguists v. female non-linguists - who dictates what language is/means/can be in that scenario? A-hem, linguists. So, already female non-linguists are the double-other, yes?)

2. The notion of putting "Experience Before Language" and writing "outside of the patriarchy" is a nifty one (Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, Showalter)...But, does it call for an entirely new language, or simply a new way of USING language? See, the manipulation of a language already existing is, in my opinion, the more subversive and empowering act...

3. The terms that Elgin includes in her Laadan Dictionary seem to be:
I. several ways of experiencing empathy
II. descriptions of situations that make one feel overworked and unappreciated
III. different ways that a body is touched, wants to be touched, doesn't want to be touched

I find these to be somewhat generalized as "female" concepts. They border a tad on the side of the insulting. This is because these are HUMAN concepts, and can occur with MEN as much as they can with WOMEN. They have simply been ASSOCIATED with WOMEN, as a "norm," and not ALLOWED to be ASSOCIATED with men - because of the SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF GENDER.

Right? Guys? You experience empathy, right? You feel unappreciated? You sometimes want to be touched, or are uncomfortable when someone is trying to touch you, right? But, you're not allowed to talk about it, because doing so would be UNMANLY, right? Michael Kimmel? Are you there? Can you hear me? Let's all talk about this. In English. Our language. Together.

Overall, I would recommend this book for its interesting obsession with language and reality. For its "Oh no, they didn't!" factor. But, Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale) did it better: she gave us better reasons for these fucked behaviors, gave us a couple of good men to save our faith in the HUMAN race, made me love Offred (sorry, Nazareth, not gonna happen), and made me cry. She wins.
Profile Image for DivaDiane.
933 reviews84 followers
January 4, 2022
I read this at least 21 years ago, when a listserv book club called The Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy and Utopia book club run by Laura Quilter I was a part of had closed up shop. The group had a lot of well-known (ish) authors and academics. I’m not sure why they let me in, but it was great just being a fly on the wall! We did not read this book but it was on everyone’s must read lists for the field.

I remember enjoying it, being fascinated by the ideas. I have not gotten around to reading the sequels.

Now that the SFFBC sub-group challenge is going to read it, I’m looking forward to rereading it and then carrying on.
Profile Image for Nefeli.
101 reviews95 followers
March 12, 2022
This was... interesting. It had some great ideas but they didn't get explored as much as I'd like. Parts of it made no sense and the ending was quite anticlimactic, but there's a solid foundation here.

Going in, I didn't know it was a trilogy (yes, I know, it says right there under the title "Native Tongue #1" but I'm an idiot who doesn't pay attention to things, okay?) so I'm thinking that maybe the sequels will fix the problems I had with this one. Then again, given the fact that I didn't have such a great time reading this, I'm not entirely sure I'm interested in reading the sequels. I'll think about it and let you know. I'm sure you're all on the edge of your seats.
Profile Image for Nathan.
127 reviews7 followers
June 8, 2008
I'll never forgive the university professors who made me read this novel. Some of the sci-fi elements in it were interesting and it posed some compelling linguistic questions but mostly it was just tiresome. The majority of the narrative is the kind heavy-handed man-hating that has done more to hurt the cause of feminism than further it. Every man in the novel is a cowardly, misogynistic tyrant while every woman is a long-suffering, angelic saint. I found the whole thing simply tedious.
Profile Image for Kaila.
807 reviews99 followers
December 25, 2022
Reread, July 27, 2021

I remembered the main premise - women regain their power by creating a language - but could not have told you anything else about the story. Upon rereading, I can see why. The characters are not memorable and there is little world-building. Most of the "character development" is making it very, very clear to the reader that this future sucks for women. Holy shit, WE GET IT. I'm knocking it down to 3 stars.

I understand the premise that everyone hates women, fine. But I never understood why everyone hated the linguists so much. A solid part of the book was people talking about either hating women or hating linguists and it got real boring.

There was a weird time jump that I still can't quite figure out. Michaela comes to live in the Chornyak household when Nazareth is like 16. Then she is still there when Nazareth turns 40 but it does not seem like any time has passed for Michaela at all. Something weird happened there and I either missed it or it was wrong.

Original Review, April 13 2013

Upon buying:

Just look at how amazing that cover is. HOW COULD I SAY NO.

Upon finishing:

The cover had disappointingly little to do with the book. I wanted babies in giant test tubes presided over by gigantic happy aliens, ok?

I am torn as to what I should rate this book. I think it's a 3.5 but I'll round up. Parts of the feminism were so ridiculous that after a while I was like God I get it, women's lives suck in your future! Women are considered minors in this crappy future, and can't hold jobs or buy anything without their husband's say so. I mentioned this to my boyfriend and he shot back "Well women basically weren't citizens until the 1800s. They couldn't acquire much wealth or be landowners, they were basically slaves."

Damn, he's totally right. So this book is basically the shitty Dark Ages but in the future. Lots of alien languages are part of this future, coincidentally, but very few actual aliens.

The thesis put forth is basically - language is empowering. Feminism is empowering. What's more empowering than a language meant just for women?

Edit: OH MY GOD IT'S A TRILOGY. Time to acquire. Oh yes, my pretties.
Profile Image for Jenna.
Author 9 books318 followers
December 23, 2019
I first bought a copy of this book around the time that my poetry collection A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora placed second in the 2017 Elgin Awards, an annual award bestowed on books of poetry by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The Elgin Awards are named in honor of author Suzette Haden Elgin, who founded the SFPA in 1978. Although I already knew some things about Elgin at the time, I wanted to learn more about her, and so I made it a project to spend some time over the coming months with her most famous work, the 1984 cult classic novel Native Tongue.

Of all other books, Native Tongue probably gets compared most often to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which came out only one year later, in 1985: both novels imagine a dystopian future in which women have been stripped of their rights and must revert to being treated as chattel by men. Feminist science fiction is not the only subgenre of science fiction Elgin pioneered in Native Tongue, though: Elgin also blazed a trail in how she envisioned the expanded role linguists might play in future civilizations, as the need for humans to communicate effectively with extraterrestrials becomes a reality. It might be argued that without Elgin's Native Tongue, we would not have, say, Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," the linguist-centering 1998 short story that inspired the acclaimed movie Arrival. Elgin's fable of women furtively working together to invent a new language that will bring about their liberation is a tremendous novel of ideas, one that -- like Chiang's story, a decade later -- explores the implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a dizzyingly original way.

And if you're worried that being heavy on ideas might make Native Tongue dull, you can rest easy. Elgin's characterizations are lively, and the book is stuffed so full of dramatic incident -- murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, nefarious government men doing the creepy things nefarious government men do -- that it actually borders on feeling pulpy. I admit I was initially a bit concerned that this might be a simplistic novel of moral outrage, focused on the obvious conflict between a righteous group "A" and a vicious group "B," but it turns out that Elgin's realistically complex world contains factions within factions: women opposing men, populists of all genders opposing an intellectual elite class, elites slyly jockeying for power with and/or outright backstabbing other elites, alliances and friendships being struck across faction lines, etc., etc. -- no one here is wholly innocent. In this, Native Tongue somewhat reminded me of another recent read I enjoyed more than I first expected to -- William Browning Spencer's Zod Wallop, which similarly blends authorial loftiness of mind with purely pleasurable plottiness.
Profile Image for Mary Holland.
Author 3 books26 followers
July 21, 2012
Women have no rights and are the property of men. Aliens communicate with humans through the families of the linguist 'Lines', who have a monopoly on learning Alien languages. The women of the Lines, as restricted and patronized as any other women, have developed a secret language for women only. If the men find out, they're doomed. But the Aliens are watching ...

I read this book years ago (it was published in 1984) and I had an immediate visceral reaction: yes, she's right. The male characters patronize, humiliate, and denigrate their women. They treat them as not-very-bright semen receptacles. Any woman who has sat in a meeting with men will recognize the interactions. Elgin created an actual 'women's language' called Laadan which is still active today, and I think, like Tolkien, the language came before the story.

It's interesting that current reviews on amazon refer to the book as dated and several people say it's history and things are not like this today. Well, things may be better, or we at least have the concept they should be better, but this is not dated.
Profile Image for Jenny H.
17 reviews3 followers
December 27, 2017
I enjoyed it the first time I read it (I've studied Linguistics myself, which made it interesting) and I occasionally enjoy re-reading. But the re-reads expose more and more holes in the plot that get more and more irritating.

How on earth did the US constitution get amended at a time when women still had the vote? And why does a change to the US constitution apparently affect the whole world?

Why do Linguists live so austerely as a public relations measure when they can see for themselves that it doesn't work?

If there's nobody on Earth who can speak Alien Language X, how do the Linguists persuade an alien who speaks it to come and live in their Interface and teach it to a human baby? What does the wretched alien do all day when it's not talking to a baby?

If the languages are being learnt by babies and toddlers, how do they become so proficient in all the vocabulary and cultural nuances that never come up in the conversations of babies and toddlers?

And if Teenager Y is the only person in the universe (apart from a couple of toddlers) who speaks both X and English - where do the dictionaries come from that the second-best backups look things up in?

And how
Profile Image for Mikhaela.
102 reviews22 followers
December 30, 2007
Considering how obsessed I am with dystopian science fiction, I can't believe I never read this feminist cult classic until now. It's not as well-written as the Handmaid's Tale, but it's still pretty amazing.

The stuff about language reminds me a lot of 1984 and the Newspeak dictionary--the idea that taking away words for certain concepts or creating/encoding words for others can change the way people think and behave and affect whether they have the capacity to rebel against an authoritarian regime.

The book's biggest flaw is gender essentialism. The women in the book are for the most part unreservedly good and nurturing and sweet. The men are pretty much evil bigoted pigs, although a few are a little more complicated than that. The book seems to advocate creating a women's world and women's language that totally writes off all men as irredeemable. (Although despite that, all the characters in the book also seem to be heterosexual, which is a whole other issue).

That said, it's still a great and fascinating read. Plus one of the heroines of the book is an assassin spy named Michaela, so how could I not love it?
Profile Image for Anna.
1,656 reviews617 followers
December 14, 2022
I picked up Native Tongue while browsing the library and am surprised I’d never heard of it before. It’s one of the SF Masterworks series that I’ve read avidly and has a fascinating conceit. The setting is 23rd century America, where women have the same inferior legal status as children. Humanity has made contact with many alien species and relies upon a small number of secretive families to act as translators. The linguist families raise their children, male and female, to speak many human and alien languages. The narrative loosely follows Nazareth, a highly gifted linguist, through her gruelling career, terrible marriage, and retirement. Once linguist women can no longer have children they move into ‘Barren Houses’, spaces away from men that allow some independence and even resistance. The narrative doesn’t just focus upon Nazareth, though, but also follows others connected with the linguists in various ways.

The social world-building in Native Tongue is effective but, not to put too fine a point on it, grim as fuck. These are the thoughts of Thomas Blair Chornyak, head of the linguists, about a nurse that he’s having an affair with:

They were frail reeds, women, especially in the hands of an experienced man like himself, and a man who was – as he was – a master of the erotic arts. If he’s had any doubts about that mastery, due to his advancing years and Rachel’s dutiful lukewarm attentions, Michaela’s rapt ecstasy at even his most casual efforts would have swiftly dispelled them. She was never in any way indelicate, never demanding, never lustful – lustfulness was abhorrent in a woman, and had she shown any sign of it he would have instantly dispensed with her. […]

An entirely satisfactory woman, this Michaela Landry. As nearly flawless a woman as he had ever encountered. Under the circumstances, he was willing to forgive her inability to resist his advances and live up to his earlier expectations. It is unjust, he reminded himself, to expect of a female more than her own natural characteristics allow her to accomplish.

Michaela is a wonderful character. She isn’t a linguist, so acts as an outsider perspective on them when she joins the household to nurse Thomas’ elderly father.

It’s the linguistic elements that really stand out, as the antifeminist dystopia isn’t as original. One narrative thread follows a group of morally abhorrent government scientists who murder babies in the process of trying to dislodge the linguist families' oligopoly. They are trying these appalling human experiments because attempts at computer automated translation have so far failed. I found Elgin’s angle on this amazingly prescient, given the novel was published in 1984. The quote below is essentially still applicable 38 years later:

The only way there is to acquire a language, which means that you know it so well you never have to be conscious of the knowledge, is to be exposed to that language while you are still very young – the younger the better. The infant human being has the most perfect language-learning mechanism on Earth, and no-one has ever been able to replicate that mechanism or even to analyse it very well. We know that it involves scanning for patterns and storing those that are found, but that’s something we can build a computer to do. But we’ve never been able to build a computer that can acquire a language. In fact, we’ve never even been able to build a computer that can learn a language in the imperfect way that a human adult can learn one.

We can now automate translation via machine learning, but the computer certainly doesn’t understand the language. Would machine translation be trustworthy for vital international treaty negotiations? I don’t think so; it’s just replicating patterns ‘learned’ by crunching vast amounts of data created by humans. Native Tongue examines the ways that languages can be oppressive but also liberatory. During their minimal spare time, the linguist women work on an experimental language that would allow them some freedom. Thus a generally depressing plot ends on rather a hopeful note, which made me keen to read the other two books in the trilogy. Although Native Tongue is hard to read in places due to relentless oppression of women and cruelty to babies, it is rewarding and interesting in its treatment of linguistics.
Profile Image for Francesc Cortès Cid.
Author 2 books4 followers
February 19, 2021
Una de les novel·les cabdals de la ciencia-ficció feminista. Hauria de ser més coneguda i llegida.
Profile Image for Repellent Boy.
483 reviews500 followers
October 1, 2018
3,5. La historia de Lengua materna nos presenta un mundo futurista en el que la mujer ha perdido todo derecho. Las mujeres están sometidas completamente a los caprichos del hombre y son poco más que objetos para el uso y disfrute de éstos. Todo este entorno opresor convivirá con una sociedad ubicada aproximádamente en el 2200, con grandes avances tecnológicos. Lo primero que choca, indudablemente de la novela es eso. Normalemente el progreso suele ir acompañado de más progreso. Conocer un mundo tan avanzado en inteligencia, y tan atrasado en derechos, asuta. Y da mucho que pensar. ¿Qué pasaría si el hombre llegara a tener un poder y una conciencia tan avanzada? ¿Lo usaría para el bien común? ¿O seguría buscando el privilegio propio?

Las historia ira sucediendo a lo largo de varias décadas y se nos irán presentando diferentes personajes. En este mundo se distiguirán dos tipos de humanos. Los lingos y los "normales". Los lingos no son otra cosas que lingüistas. Personas terriblemente inteligentes y dotadas de un gran talento para adquirir idiomas. Tantos humanos como alienígenas. Bajo toda esta trama, las mujeres encontrar una manera de luchar. La única arma que tienen a mano. La creación de un nuevo idioma. Un idioma creado por mujeres para mujeres.

El libro me ha gustado mucho. Los personajes feméninos son increíbles. Sobre todo los personjaes de Michaela y Nazareth. Los masculinos era asquerosamente desagradables, por igual jajaja. La pega que le pongo es que, quizás, al tratarse de una trilogía, se me ha quedado como que quedá demasiado abierto. Ahora tendré que leer las otras partes. Y las sagas no son lo mío.

En difnitiva. Un buen libro feminisita. Representa demasiado bien la sociedad en la que podríamos acabar si no se lucha. Buscaré pronto la segunda parte. Merece más fama de la que tiene.
89 reviews
September 4, 2012
First let me say that the "concept" of this book is definitely 5 stars. The idea that a language can influence culture and behavior, and ultimately the outcome of history is really brilliant. However, the author fails to take this brilliant idea beyond the concept. The plot drags, the storytelling is boring, the characterizations are flat, and the flow is cumbersome.

There are so many flaws in this story. The characters are terribly two -dimensional, almost to the point of being inhuman. For example, the women are asexual and the men are cave-mannish. The author doesn't give any single character any type of profound thoughts that would add to the character development. You can sum up the male thought processes in four words: "Man smart. Woman dumb." You can sum up the women's thought processes in five words: "Male species=Rapist baby-killers. There is no back story that explains or, more importantly, supports the reasons behind the supposed change in the constitution. Many of the chapter openings are just trite. The story drags horrendously. There are chapters where the author can't decide if she is writing a murder mystery, complete with a femme fatale, or if she is writing a thriller with evil basement Pentagon scientists. Most of the time the dialogue is just confusing or seemingly incomplete. All-in-all, I would strongly recommend that any teacher looking to assign feminist sci-fi literature consider something other than Native Tongue; Grass by Sheri Tepper or The Handmaid's Tale are much better choices.
Profile Image for El Biblionauta.
602 reviews99 followers
April 29, 2020
Si hagués de triar un sol motiu pel qual la ficció especulativa m’agrada molt més que no pas la realista/mimètica, diria que és perquè en la primera les autores es permeten plantejar plans paral·lels al nostre per tal d’assajar hipòtesis sobre la realitat que habitem. En aquest sentit, Llengua Materna, de Suzette Haden Elgin s’emmarca dins la tradició feminista que la fa servir per investigar qüestions de gènere, amb experiments literaris tan diferents com els de les ficcions de Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Nalo Hopkinson, Han Kang, Johanna Sinisalo, Mōto Hagio, Emily Carroll, Emma Ríos o Caitlín R. Kiernan. I, està clar, Margaret Atwood amb el seu El conte de la serventa, novel·la amb la qual hem trobat sovint comparada Llengua Materna. Estimada lectora, crec que cal trencar aquest símil amb urgència.

Podeu valorar el llibre i llegir completa la ressenya deTatian Dunyó a: https://elbiblionauta.com/ca/2020/04/...
Profile Image for darcy.
32 reviews3 followers
March 9, 2023
amazing book about female solidarity and language. i hate describing things as combinations of other things but this is kind of like the handmaids tale with aliens. highly recommend.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,129 reviews17 followers
February 7, 2012
When your novel starts with a board meeting, you know you're in for a real thrill ride. I feel like this was written by an author with good ideas and solid linguistic knowledge, but no real feel for writing fiction. The multiple plots meshed together awkwardly. The characters were mostly one-dimensional, particularly the male linguists. Almost everything was told, not shown.

Does this have value, as the essay in my edition* claims, as a feminist document? I don't know. In 1984 when this was published, I was too busy being the biggest feminist in my fourth-grade class to really relate to what the author is talking about. I think it's highly problematic that all the men are evil and most are stupid. One of the back cover blurbs says that this novel will "inspire those who believe that women's words can change the world." OK, but that wasn't really anything I ever doubted. Of course, the 1980s were a foul decade, and maybe people needed more reassurance back then.

*By the way, this edition had so many typos in it, you would not believe it.
Profile Image for Joe Schmutz.
2 reviews
November 8, 2010
This fiction is one of the more masterful pieces of literature of the 20th century. It should be considered for inclusion in reading lists for English majors. Don't let that terrorize you. The book is engrossing; the plot is multilayered; the concept is unique; and the characters are easy to understand.

On the surface it's about learning to communicate with life forms so alien, it requires human children to interact with aliens during the child's language forming years. A secondary plot line deals with the continued struggle between man and woman. Underlying all that is a theme dealing with freedom of speech.

This book has me scrabbling for every novel Ms. Elgin brings out.
Profile Image for Megan Bell.
217 reviews22 followers
June 11, 2018
It’s a damn shame this feminist science fiction cult classic trilogy is out of print today. Elgin was a linguist, and this novel explores a world where women’s rights have been revoked, but the birth of a women’s language may change everything. Also ALIENS! Native Tongue is not a subtle book but it is a fascinating one, narratively, historically (2nd Wave feminism, Moral Majority), and in how it interacts with linguistic theory. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.
Profile Image for Dana DesJardins.
254 reviews34 followers
June 17, 2015
The premise that language shapes worldview is attractive but much disputed. Audre Lorde famously said that one cannot use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, which seems to be the foundation of this very angry book. Other reviewers have noted the chracter traits seem to line up positively and negatively along gender lines, and I think Haden Elgin was conscious enough of trying to avoid that to introduce some (underdeveloped) outliers to offset that criticism. That said, I thought the idea of women as so socially devalued was an example of reductio ad absurdum that commented obliquely on our current struggle for reproductive rights, wage equality, and legislative representation. (Haden Elgin was writing more than two decades ago, which makes her observations that much more damning.)
I kept reading past my fatigue with the writer's cliches and the flawed central premise, that linguists had somehow become an almost genetically insular group of "Lines," because the book really engages with its ideas, and the ideas are provocative. That said, I think the comparisons to Atwood are aspirational; the latter's MadAddam trilogy addresses how language and gender interact while not parading a homogeneous cast and syntactic banality.
79 reviews1 follower
November 28, 2008
A nice concept, badly executed. From reading this I got the image of the author sitting behind a typewriter bashing the keys while screaming 'All men are bastards!' over and over again.

Besides that, the dystopian society is just not very well realised. Why are women second class citizens? *shrug* As far as I remember, it isn't mentioned. I would have to assume it's because all men are bastards.

Having more of the language in the actual book would have been nice.

For a good feminist dystopian story, read The Handmaid's Tale. This is mediocre.
Profile Image for Bridget.
277 reviews23 followers
August 17, 2009
The premise of this book is intriguing - a future where a combination of alien contact and patriarchal rule has led to a subculture of women-centered linguistics. Sadly, focuses mostly on the male perspective, never makes the world believable, and never really delves into the "revolutionary" idea of a female language.
Profile Image for metempsicoso.
239 reviews178 followers
August 9, 2022
Penso che alla base di Lingua nativa ci sia una delle idee più interessanti che mi è capitato di incrociare negli ultimi anni ed è un peccato che questa distopia femminista imperniata sulla lingua e la comunicazione sia finita, almeno in Italia, nel dimenticatoio. Pubblicato un anno prima de Il racconto dell’ancella, con cui inevitabilmente condivide la medesima aspirazione, probabilmente aspetta soltanto la lungimiranza di qualche produttore americano per tornare in auge.
È palese la matrice da linguista di Elgin, poiché questa fa da colonna vertebrale a tutto il mondo fantascientifico da lei immaginato, dando sostanza e peso tangibili ad una realtà che, nella sua assurda verosimiglianza, ci si auspica davvero non si verifichi mai. Salvo poi accendere la tv generalista, su un telegiornale qualsiasi, e scoprire che non sarebbe poi davvero così improbabile, ritrovarsi in una distopia, tra cataclismi, pandemie e politicanti svociati che gridano dell’importanza dei sani valori patriarcali.
Il motivo per cui mi fermo a tre stelle è che, per mio gusto, alla raffinatezza approfondita dell’idea di Elgin non corrisponde un pari talento narrativo capace di spingere in alto mare la barchetta di questa vicenda. Lo dico non senza ironia, ma ho trovato che troppo spazio venisse dato ai personaggi maschili, ricorrendo per gli stessi sempre alla medesima odiosa caratterizzazione. Che, se da un lato ha contribuito a rendere ancora più soffocante questa ambientazione in cui gli uomini sono cresciuti non solo credendo di essere i padroni del mondo, ma essendolo davvero per ogni singolo istante della loro esistenza, dall’altro mi è parso che ciò appiattisse lo spessore dell’opera di per se stessa.
Non so quanto questa sia stata una decisione voluta, da parte dell’autrice, ma sono convinto che all’interno della presa di posizione di rendere insostenibili gli uomini di Lingua nativa si sarebbe potuto trovare un po’ di variazione. La presenza maschile è poi così preponderante che, giunto all’ultima pagina, mi è parso d’avere soltanto un’idea molto generica e sommaria anche della protagonista e delle altre donne della Casa Sterile.

Non c’è approfondimento nella psiche di chi sta sulla scena di questa storia: si raccontano di abusi, di tragedie e violenze, ma l’autrice non mostra mai come questi vengono affrontati e torna a chi li ha subiti solo a distanza di anni narrativi che, ovviamente, hanno smussato l’impatto dell’esperienza.
Mancano poi anche alcune nozioni fondamentali sul perché determinate cose, in questa società, funzionano come viene raccontato. Per esempio, Elgin ci dice che i Linguisti sono odiati strenuamente, ma manca una ragione sensata sul perché ciò accade.
Anche il ritmo narrativo è debole (c’è tutta una sottotrama che, per l’interezza di questo volume, è superflua e inconcludente, di certo usata per qualcosa che avverrà nel seguito), per arrivare ad un finale davvero debole che lascia con l’impressione d’aver letto solo un lunghissimo preambolo alla storia che comincerà con il prossimo volume. Il problema è che, da quello che ho letto online, non ho capito se la trama generale proseguirà con o senza la stessa protagonista e, purtroppo, al momento attuale le restanti due parti della trilogia non sono ancora state tradotte in italiano. E chissà se lo saranno mai.

Insomma, di certo molto interessante, ma non altrettanto godibile.
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