Archive for April, 2009

Interview with Suzette Haden Elgin

Sunday, April 19th, 2009
Sai and Sally interview Suzette Haden Elgin about her language Láadan—its genesis, its goals, and its status as a linguistic experiment. They also discuss the nature of gender bias in language, and the evolving roles of language users.

MP3Elgin’s websiteLáadan Language LessonsEssay About LáadanElgin’s LiveJournal

I have to say, this gives me a chuckle, this interview
—primarily because Sai seems to be suffering from foot in mouth disease. Not that that’s his fault. Poor Sai is so sincere.

It’s interesting, Elgin mentions how difficult it is to introduce new vocabulary into an existing language (e.g. English).
One thing she mentions in particular is a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. In English, we don’t have one (or, at least not an animate one). Elsewhere, Elgin mentions that much of what she’s observed is true of her generation, but not necessarily the younger (specifically, the more recent—the millennial) generations.

I think these two elements have converged in the behavior that current (especially younger) English speakers exhibit specifically with respect to the third person singular pronoun. When referring to a human being in English via a pronoun, one simply can’t use “it”, even though it’s technically gender-neutral, because it’s inanimate. That leaves one with “he” or “she”. If the gender of the referent isn’t known or if one is simply referring to a human of either gender (i.e. gender isn’t important), using either “he” or “she” seems rather inappropriate. So, what is one to do?

English speakers of the past had an answer to this question: Use “he”. Why? Because it was the default. Why is “he” the default? No reason. Seems pretty sexist, doesn’t it?

Many progressive (mainly academic) writers decided to try to fix this in the latter half of the twentieth century. Several attempts were made to create ex nihilo a gender-neutral pronoun (cf. “xe“), all of which failed. There is, of course s/he, which is a bit clunky, and some authors who write books with chapters alternate by chapter, using “he” for the odd chapters, and “she” for the even. One can even knock oneself out by using “one” anywhere one is forced to use a gender-neutral singular pronoun, but such a one might find one’s efforts to be cumbersome and unnatural.

So, what to do? Somehow, English speakers have found a way: they use “they”.

Think about it. “They” is gender-neutral and animate. Sure, it’s plural, but given how liberally European languages treat plural pronouns (French “vous” is the second person plural and the formal second person singular?! And don’t get me started on Spanish “ustedes”!), why can’t English speakers mess around with plurality? After all, it’s not as if the practice is brand new (though the coinage “themself”—the singular reflexive, as opposed to “themselves”—just might be).

I try to spread the word about this particular language fact everywhere I can.
It seems relevant to point it out here.

As a graduate student at UCSD, I and many others there worked with a Niger-Khordofanian language called Moro. It’s a fascinating language for a number of reasons, but one incredible thing we found has to do with gender.

In Moro, there are gendered words for humans—for example, the word for “man” is udzhi, and the word for “woman” is obwa. There isn’t a general word for “person”, though. In such a language, one is forced to make a choice. Spanish, for example, uses the masculine as the default (niño is “boy”, niña is “girl”, and niños is either “boys” or “children (of mixed gender)”). It’s been hypothesized that all language will do what Spanish does and choose the masculine term to be the gender-neutral or “basic” term over the feminine.

Not so with Moro.

Udzhi is “man”; obwa is “woman”; ladzhi is “men”; and lobwa is “women” or “people” (gender-neutral).

The phenomenon is pervasive, too. When we asked our native speaker (in English) if he had any children, he replied, “Four girls.” We followed with, “All girls, eh?” He replied, “No. Two boys, two girls.” In other words, he was borrowing his native practice right on over into English.

(Oh, and by the way: This practice hasn’t resulted in gender equality, by any means. Based on our investigation, it’s still very much a male-dominant culture.)

Elgin mentions two reasons she feels Láadan hasn’t caught on with women.
She discusses the second reason (that using Láadan causes women to feel vulnerable), but doesn’t discuss the first: that women are “too busy” to learn a language.

This reminded me of a discussion in which Sally participated on the Conlang List several years ago.

In 2005, Sally Caves (creator of Teonaht) conducted her “Lunatic Survey”: a general survey of the members of the Conlang List to see what generalizations could be found. The resulting discussion turned to the question of why, proportionately speaking, so few women conlang. I think one of the hypotheses Sally put forth was quite illuminating. In this message from 2005, she writes:

Perhaps competitive women, on the whole, don’t want to waste time on the road to social and professional success. I’ve known that since I was knee high to a grass hopper that “having it all” (profession, good sex life, marriage, money, social prestige, children) was urged very seriously on women starting in the last third of the twentieth century.

In answering the question of why women (real world women) didn’t take to Láadan and embrace it, perhaps one needs to step back and first remember that Láadan, aside from everything else, is a constructed language. In a world where success is so important, who could afford to “waste” time on anything that doesn’t translate immediately to social or professional success?

The answer is those that aren’t as concerned with social or professional success, or those who have already achieved it. Focusing on the former, who is more likely to be unconcerned about success: a young man or a young woman? I believe Sally suggests (she can correct me if I’ve misinterpreted what she’s said) that would be a young man, for whom success is all but certain—something that eventually will be attained; that doesn’t necessarily need to be fought for.

Addendum by Sai:

I think it’s important to pay attention to the caveat that Elgin gave: she intends to express the perceptions and unique communication needs of women, as interpreted by American women born in the early 1900s.

When I asked whether her communicative focus – aside from specific kinds of sexually female vocabulary, such as for various kinds of menstruation – was perhaps more accurately stated as being about emotions than about femaleness, her immediate example was that women want to express more fine-grained kinds of love than are available in English. I too use similarly nuanced descriptions of my feelings towards others. I – as a Generation Y androgyne – find it to be totally unrelated to sex. Her other examples in support of this idea of the femininity of Láadan are very similar – they work only under that caveat.

This reflects, as Elgin put it, the ongoing decrease in distinction in gender roles. Personally, I consider that a good thing, as I find strongly defined gender roles to be rather strange.

So perhaps in a sense, Elgin’s goal of enabling better forms of communication for women is indeed happening… just in a different way than planned.

Audio edited by Virgo Audio Production Services; music by Gary Shannon.