Native Tongue

Cover to Native Tongue, a novel by Elgin. Figure of ghostly woman.

In Native Tongue, women in a patriarchal society develop a new language, with new words to express new concepts, and teach it to their daughters in order to free themselves.

In our society, oppressed groups also develop new language, though not quite so dramatically. Things like vocal fry, uptalk, “like.” When they use their altered speech, they are further marginalized. But like in the novel, the language is passed on to the next generation:

as women tend to be primary caregivers, the next generation develops language with those speech effects in place, so these changes to language are female-dominated. The changes happen incrementally over time as children and adolescents alter their modes of speaking to align with their groups. As the speech feature becomes more widely spread across a range of speakers and speech groups it appears it may be adopted, often unconsciously, by more conservative speakers until it is eventually a stable part of mainstream speech and becomes uncontroversial.

This doesn’t have the happy ending of Native Tongue, however. Rather than using the new linguistic elements as intended, they can be perverted by the powerful:

When uptalkis used by young women the common interpretation has been that it is suggestive of weakness, as though the speaker is uncertain of their information or lacks self-confidence. But from a discourse point of view, it may be that, as women are socially conditioned to be cooperative rather than competitive, uptalk has evolved as a linguistic method for verifying that a listener is following the conversation in rather an efficient way. What’s also interesting is rather than indicating weakness, there are studies which show uptalk may be used more often by people in dominant positions to assert power

Suzette Haden Elgin, the author of Native Tongue, died a few months ago. She wrote numerous science fiction novels and also published in linguistics. In her novels, she explores what it means when “language enforces a particular understanding of the world,” especially in the context of patriarchy.