Just One More Láadan Myth

My first post about a Láadan myth had to do with a persistent misunderstanding, much of it my own fault. This one is a completely different sort of thing — but it is all too typical, and almost impossible to do anything about.

In 1991, Routledge (a London publisher) published an interesting and useful book edited by Lucie Armitt, titled Where no man has gone before: women and science fiction. It included a chapter written by Armitt titled “Your word is my command: the structures of language and power in women’s science fiction,” on pp. 123-138. In that chapter Armitt paid me the compliment of devoting a number of pages to Native Tongue and to Láadan; she had many positive things to say, and I thank her for every one of them. However, there’s a problem.

On page 210 of Native Tongue, one of my characters says this:

“There’s no particular reason to expect that nonhumanoid languages would have verbs, subjects, or objects, you see.”

The quotation also appears on page 134 in Armitt’s article. But notice what happens. Here is the section, exactly as it appears:

“Elgin’s labelling of the linguist dynasty as the ‘Lines’ is surely significant. She appears to sympathise with this critique of linearity, making clear the fact that in a women’s language there would be ‘no particular reason to expect that … languages would have verbs, subjects, or objects’ (p. 210), the different grammatical classes of terms being the necessary foundation for a linear structure.” She then goes on, on page 135, to give an example of a Láadan word and carefully prove that it is surely a verb, which “cuts across her position as noted above, and suggests a reassertion of the patrilinear form rather than a movement away from it.”

That is: Armitt says that I first claimed in the novel that a women’s language wouldn’t have to have verbs, and that women reject the linearity that goes with dividing languages up into subject and verbs — but that when I tried to construct a women’s language without verbs I failed and fell smack back into patriarchalism. It’s neatly argued and articulately presented. But wait….

First: The item she quoted from the novel said nothing at all about a women’s language. The word “nonhumanoid” has simply been removed from the quotation. And Láadan, needless to say, is a humanoid language. (The italics that provide emphasis for the word “have” have also been removed.)

Second: No elaborate argument is necessary to prove that Láadan has verbs. You can just look at the Láadan glossary at the back of the British edition of Native Tongue, or at the Láadan grammar and dictionary published by SF3; you’ll find verbs everywhere, clearly labeled as verbs.

There’s little or nothing that can be done about this after the fact; I have no way of reaching all the people who read the book, including the profs who use it as a textbook in their courses. All those people will read that in spite of my doctorate in linguistics I’m not capable even of recognizing that my own constructed language has verbs in it; they will read all that material about linearity and patriarchalism and how I undercut my own position in that context and reassert its opposite. They will quite rightly perceive me as incompetent, if not stupid — and they will have no reason whatsoever to go check the quotation on page 210 of the novel, where they would discover that it was a misquotation.

How could this happen? My guess is that Armitt saw the mutilated quotation somewhere else and re-quoted it without checking it for accuracy because she respected the author of the secondary source where she saw it and had no reason to think it contained an error. That’s only a guess, but it’s a guess based on the fact that it happens all the time in scholarly literature. I’m just sorry that she didn’t contact me to ask me if I had any explanation to offer for the glaring inconsistency and contradiction.

People read other people’s articles, take it as a given that the other person’s quotations are accurate, and then go on to base arguments in their own work on those quotations; people even do this when their secondary source is only someone else’s class notes. Noam Chomsky is notoriously the victim of this practice, with his students — who of course go on to become famous linguists — teaching from notes taken during his lectures, and their students teaching from notes taken during those lectures, and so on ad infinitum. Errors that creep into the quotations as they move through the generations of note-taking students then go into linguistics journals and textbooks and become fossilized. It truly does go with the territory; that makes it no less frustrating for the person it happens to.

Reprinted from (http://ozarque.livejournal.com/340193.html) (11/29/2006) with permission