(Copied with permission from Suzette’s SFWA website to preserve for posterity’s sake.)
by Suzette Haden Elgin
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1: Why are you so rough on the Roman Catholic priests and nuns in this book?
It doesn’t seem to me that I’m particularly rough on them, but I’ve been asked this question many times; there are clearly readers who disagree with me about this. My feeling is that there are good and bad people among Catholic religious, just as there and good and bad people in any other group; priests and nuns are human beings with human frailties, and that is how I tried to portray them. (I think I was a good deal rougher with the Protestant clergypersons in the book.)
Q2: At the beginning of Chapter One you’ve put new lyrics to “Amazing Grace”; don’t you think that’s disrespectful?
No, I don’t think so. Judeochristian culture considers it normal for new translations of the Bible to be published from time to time, to reflect changes in the language and culture of readers. In exactly the same way, it’s normal for the words to hymns and prayers and other religious language to change over time. The lyrics I wrote were proposed for a far-future reality in which human beings have settled many planets in many galaxies, and in which people can perceive themselves as citizens of the universe. It seems to me that I’m showing great respect for “Amazing Grace” by proposing that it will still be a beloved hymn even that far into the future and doing my best to write worthy lyrics; it was certainly my intention to be respectful.
One thing I didn’t do was to make changes in the English itself, as it’s used in the hymn. That’s not scientifically correct; we know that every human language changes as the years go by, and the English of that time would unquestionably be very different from today’s English. For the same reason that Star Trek‘s characters speak contemporary English — that is, because scientifically accurate language change would make the narrative hard to understand — I left the language alone. If I were writing the trilogy today I wouldn’t do it that way; I would try to find some acceptable ways to show the progress of language change in the novels.
Q3: You put in quite a lot of information about the Linguist children. The way they talked, and the way they behaved, and so on. Do you really believe that children could be like those children?
Yes, I do. Linguists are passionate about their discipline, and if you put a bunch of them together in one place what they’ll talk about (and argue about) a great deal of the time is linguistics and language. The children of linguists have an advantage that the children of physicists and chemists and astronomers don’t have: The subject that most fascinates their parents is something about which they not only are expert but in which they are at the peak of their abilities. Infants and young children don’t come into this world equipped in such a way that if they’re surrounded by physicists from birth they’re experts on physics by age six. Where language is concerned, however, it’s a different matter; children are born with the skills needed for working out the rules of language from raw data (which is what linguists do), and they will never be better at that task than they are before they reach puberty. They don’t have adult sophistication, and they can’t write scholarly articles, but they can certainly do the analysis.
Q4: I don’t understand why you think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity hypothesis, or whatever you want to call it, is so important. What difference does it make?
Suppose the hypothesis is true. Then all the trouble many people go to today to avoid sexist language is useful and worthwhile; it’s rational to hope that change in the language will help bring about change in attitudes about gender. Suppose the hypothesis is false, on the other hand; suppose social change has to come first, and language only reflects that change. Then the people who say that nonsexist language is silly and awkward — people who want to always say “Every physician must wear his lab coat” instead of “Every physician must wear his or her lab coat” — have a strong case. If saying “Every U.S. president makes decisions after consulting his or her Cabinet officers” makes it more likely that a woman could become president, the hypothesis is true. Unfortunately we don’t know whether it’s true or not; there is evidence for both positions. If the hypothesis is true, control of language (and of media that use language) is power of a quite different kind than if it’s false. In the novel, I presuppose that it’s true and write from that point of view.
Copyright © 2002 by Suzette Haden Elgin
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