Thursday, December 29, 2011

Misunderstanding Láadan

With the help of a Christmas gift card, I got myself a copy of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, which was released in November of this year, from Oxford University Press (emic review). It's a collection of academic papers about various language invention topics. See the review for more details.

After I read the introduction, the first thing I did was go to the index to look for languages I know about. Láadan gets two mentions (in the index it is misspelled Láaden, but the page numbers point to the right place). In chapter 8, Suzanne Romaine's Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages, page 215, we get this lengthy paragraph,

A similarity of purpose and motivation drives inventors of all new languages, whether in the real or fictional world. The perceived need for them arises from dissatisfaction with the current linguistic state of affairs. Recognition that language can be used for promoting or changing the social, cultural, and political order leads to conscious intervention and manipulation of the form of language, its status and its uses. In this sense then, the idea of a modern standard Hebrew as the language of a secular Jewish state sprang from the mind of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, no less than Klingon did from the imagination of its inventor Marc Okrand. Hence the planners of Néo-breton, Modern Hebrew, and other revitalized languages are no less inventors than are authors of speculative fiction like George Orwell or Suzette Haden Elgin, who conceive new languages consonant with their vision of a brave new world. The task is to invent and spread a language to encode it. The project of imagining a world without gender differentiation and inequality gave birth to Elgin's Láadan, invented by women for women, just as much as Modern Hebrew would be conceived as a vehicle for modern Jewish statehood and nationality in the creation of a new land by pioneers, and of a new Jew who would escape the confines of the shtetl. Speaking or narrating in a feminist woman-made language in Elgin's Native Tongue (1984) becomes a liberating force for women dominated by a patriarchal society in the twenty-thrid century, just as Irish became and continues to be a language of resistance in the struggle against British rule.

Ok. Seeing language revivification as an example of language creation should not be new to practiced conlangers who are likely to read this. I look forward to reading the rest of the chapter later.

What drives me ever so slightly bonkers is that this paragraph contains two deep misunderstandings about what Elgin attempted with Láadan. First, Láadan is not "invented by women for women." It is indeed invented by women, and intended to express the perceptions of women better, and is "for women" in the sense that it aims at this goal. But at no point has she said that it is for women only. In fact, she goes out of her way, in both the books and in interviews about Láadan, to explicitly deny this. It is for women and men to use. Romaine's account rather makes it seem like Láadan would not be open to use by men.

Second, "imagining a world without gender differentiation" is not part of Láadan's goals either. In A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan (Second Edition, 1988), Elgin lays out the inspirations for Láadan in the first chapter, The Construction of Láadan. The fourth item is,

I focused my Guest of Honor speech for WisCon on the question of why women portraying new realities in science fiction had, so far as I knew, dealt only with Matriarchy and Androgyny, and never with the third alternative based on the hypothesis that women were not superior to men (Matriarchy) or interchangeable with and equal to men (Androgyny) but rather entirely different from men. I proposed that it was at least possible that this was because the only language available to women excluded the third reality. Either because it was unlexicalized and thus no words existed with which to write about it, or it was lexicalized in so cumbersome a manner that it was useless for the writing of fiction, or the lack of lexical resources literally made it impossible to imagine such a reality.

Láadan, like Esperanto, is a kind of conlang Rorschach ink-blot test. Whatever they might actually mean, they are primarily the vehicles for people's preconceptions about what they are. Here, Láadan has been shoehorned into a thesis about language revitalization. I don't think the misunderstanding of it undermines the argument, but it is astonishing to see it so badly misinterpreted in an academic context, especially when material directly from Elgin is so readily available.