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Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

Native Tongue

by Suzette Haden Elgin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Native Tongue (1)

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7672217,666 (3.83)1 / 81

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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
An interesting set up, but her agenda got in the way of what could have been a good story ( )
  JanetNoRules | Sep 17, 2018 |
Suzette Haden Elgin published Native Tongue, the first book in this eponymous trilogy, in 1984. I was 22 in 1984.

I remember Reagan’s election and how many of us on the left (I was already quite at home way over on the left wing) were frightened by the possibilities, many of which have come to pass. I also remember the beginnings of the backlash on feminism, a backlash that just keeps growing 30 years later. So, I get where Haden’s coming from with her story of a dystopian future USA where women have lost all their rights and are now the property of men in worse ways then they were before the second wave of feminism. My 22 year-old self would have eaten this book up and looked for more.

I’m sad to report, however, that the book didn’t really do much for my 51 year-old self. The story immediately irked me with the premise that the constitutional amendments revoking the 19th amendment and turning women into minors under the law would have happened by 1991. I mean, okay, Reagan and his ilk scared me, too, but 1991? That seems awfully premature.

That’s always a risk writers take, putting events in the super-near future. I’m still miffed that 2001 came and it was nothing like the movie. There was a 33-year gap there. To predict something this cataclysmic happening less than 10 years from when you’re publishing? Might have wanted to think that through a little more.

So, I had to try to push that aside as I read further. Fortunately the rest of the book takes place centuries in the future, the 22nd to be exact. There we discover that not only do women still not have any rights, but society has been divided up into two antagonistic groups: the Linguists and everyone else. The Linguists are the only people capable of communicating with all the alien societies humans have met, so they’re necessary as translators to make all the treaties and do all the negotiating. Regular people hate them, so the Linguist families (the Lines) live in large communal houses buried in the earth away from prying eyes and violent reaction.

One of the reasons that regular folk hate the Linguists is that Linguist women are allowed to work outside the home as translators because, apparently, there’s so much translating that needs to be done, they have to. Then we have all the stuff happening with babies blowing up because they can’t fathom non-humanoid alien languages (no, really). I haven’t even gotten to the Linguist women’s work on creating a language that allows women to express their thoughts better than standard English, French, German, whatever. This, one might argue, is really the point of the book, but it gets lost, to me, amidst all the other stuff.

Oh, and there’s a serial killer. (Who’s actually my favorite part of the novel; her first murder? That chapter would make a great Tales from the Crypt of something.)

I hate to say this, because Elgin’s short story “Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me” remains one of my favorite short stories (Top 10, no question. It’s awesome. And hard to find. I have it in Dick Allen’s Science Fiction: The Future (1983 edition).), but I found Native Tongue to be too bloated and ponderous, too preachy and heavyhanded. While not all the women are saints, by any means (see: serial killer), most of them are and there isn’t one kind man in the whole thing. They’re all stupid, misogynistic assholes, every one of them, which is just bullshit. Even in 1984, I had allies. Still do.

None of the characters are really developed at all; they’re all just game pieces for Elgin’s philosophical/linguistic chess board. And there are so many plot holes. What do the aliens in the Interface do all day when they’re not communicating with (and occasionally destroying) the babies? And what happened to all the kids who’d been fed hallucinogens in an attempt to keep them from blowing up after they were taken to the orphanage? The list goes on.

Things I liked? The serial killer character, as I said. She’s really the only person whose character evolved (however slightly) over the course of the novel. I also enjoyed Elgin’s discussions of language and the linguistic “tricks” that one male linguist in particular would use to win arguments. Those were interesting. And I liked the notion that an academic field such as linguistics would become so powerful. But the negative outweighs the positive for me.

Biggest disappointment? The cover of the edition I read. Nothing like that image happens in the book. I wanted my motherly alien! (2.625/5) ( )
  MFenn | Apr 22, 2018 |
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.
( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
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/106328141) 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 the baby physically self-destructs because it can't understand the alien language. 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. I really wanted it all to end with the women speaking the new language, and making all the men 'blow up' like the baby did. But it didn't happen. Instead, the men decide that they want to send the women away so they don't have to deal with them, and the women are happy. But they're still subservient, not truly liberated. 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/1435429567 ( )
1 vote AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
I feel about this dystopia about like I feel about The Handmaid's Tale - it seems at once entirely too extreme to be plausible and entirely too plausible to be comfortable. I kept feeling like it was getting excessive and then remembering men who've been exactly like that. But! The linguistics, which was what I was reading it for, were absolutely delightful. I enjoyed it very much, but although there are sequels I doubt I'll bother. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Apr 1, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elgin, Suzette Hadenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Armstrong, OenaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bauman, JillCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marín Trechera, RafaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shapiro, SusanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Squier, Susan M.Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vedder, JulieAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0879979453, Mass Market Paperback)

With the passage of the twenty-fifth amendment, which denies women equal rights, a cold war between the sexes ensues for several hundred years in a world that relies on interplanetary trade. Reissue.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:10 -0400)

"It is the year 2205 and the women of Earth are once again property. Two women, Nazareth and Michaela--one a brilliant linguist, the other a rebel servant--are destined to challenge the power of men. What neither woman realizes is that a revolution is already underway: women, hidden away in Barren Houses, are slowly creating a language of their own to free them from men's control and make resistance possible for all women." -- back cover.… (more)

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