Interview with Suzette Haden Elgin


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.

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12 Responses to “Interview with Suzette Haden Elgin”

  1. Pete Bleackley Says:

    What I might have asked Dr Elgin is whether there might be flaws in Muted Groups Theory, or at least in applying it to a group that makes up about 50% of the population. After all, at the age when children are learning to speak, they’re around their mums pretty much all the time. And I’m sure my wife tells me to stop waffling on and get to the point at least as much as I say it to her!

  2. David Peterson Says:

    Responding to Sai’s addendum: Indeed, at some point one simply has to evaluate it on its own terms, and to assume that the assumptions hold. If not, it becomes an endless discussion of, “Well, I don’t do x, or women in my experience do in fact do y“, etc. One obvious thing that jumped out to me, though, when talking about “love” is that that’s nothing particularly male about English. After all, there are tons of languages (Greek probably the most famous) that have more words for “love” than English. I suppose the question, then, is how much it matters to have a single lexeme to stand for a single concept, as opposed to a phrase or a compound.

  3. Pete Bleackley Says:

    It also occurs to me that ancient Greece was a very male-dominated society, even by the standards of the times.

  4. Mia Soderquist Says:

    I don’t think that gender roles have softened that much in the culture at large. I was born in the second half of the 1900’s, but I have experienced a lot of being cut off by men while still in the middle of the background information that’s just getting toward my point, which almost never happens with women, who understand the need for that introductory material. Also, in my experience, women tend to restate things multiple times, perhaps with some changed wording, in a conversation, as a way of communicating empathetic solidarity, which seems to annoy some less gender-enlightened men, who just hear it as “saying the same thing over and over again”.

  5. Mia Soderquist Says:

    (Pardon the second comment, but…)

    Also, I think that it is exactly right that there’s a huge amount of pressure on young women, or women in general, to not waste any time. There’s a huge amount of guilt in doing things that aren’t somehow _productive_. I am not even sure that it is just young women, since my own mother is in her 60’s, still working, and feels guilty for even spending 2 hours watching a movie. How would learning a conlang fit into that?

    I guess I’m rather liberated in that regard. My dad isn’t exactly a “new male”, but he is an artist and musician in his spare time, so he’s always been sympathetic toward “wasting” time on creative pursuits, which helped me duck the pressure to “do it all”. Also, I’ve never been one to even attempt to _act normal_.

  6. David Peterson Says:

    Maybe this is why I get so much pressure from my mother to “do” something, whereas all the men in my life couldn’t care a lick what I do…

  7. kaleissin Says:

    Mono recording or is something broken on my end?

  8. Arnt Richard Johansen Says:

    kaleissin: sounds like stereo to me. (But the channel separation is not that large, so you probably won’t notice unless you use headphones.)

  9. Jim Henry Says:

    Some of the earlier podcast blog posts had links to download the podcast mp3 file offline, e.g. to copy to an mp3 player; this one as far as I can tell only allows you to play it in the browser. I had to view page source and copy the URL into another browser tab to download the file for later playing. Am I missing something with the controls on the plugin?

  10. Sai Emrys Says:

    How are you viewing these – through the website or RSS?

    If RSS, you should just see them automagically linked.

  11. Emmie Says:

    Personally, I like the invented gender-neutral pronouns, especially ze/zie, co, and the Spivak pronouns (ey). I use them frequently in my writting and also in speech. My friends and family think I’m a little odd, but it’s also catching on among some of my friends. (They use gender-neutral pronouns mainly just around me.)

    Also, I’d like to kindly point out that usage of invented pronouns did not, in fact, result in complete failure. I know of a few communities that use them on a regular basis, as a natural part of their language. In at least two Baltimore, Maryland high schools, students use yo. The people of Twin Oaks Community in Virginia use co. Alternative pronouns are becoming popular among some people in the transgender community, too.

    They as singular just never felt right to me. Call me a pedant if you must, but It feels grammatically incorrect.

  12. David Peterson Says:

    Regarding Emmie’s reply, see an interesting article about the use of “yo” here.

    I have to say, I’m going to remain skeptical until I see some actual data (there’s not that much in the article). That just sounds wacky to me. I mean, really?! They really use it of their own accord? And why Baltimore? I have to say, I find it pretty amazing! I don’t think folks at my high school would ever have put up with something so linguistically innovative…