Native Tongue: Questions & Topics For Discussion

(Copied with permission from Suzette’s SFWA website to preserve for posterity’s sake.)

Native Tongue
by Suzette Haden Elgin

Questions & Topics For Discussion

  1. In the Star Trek universe, those who need to communicate with Aliens have been able to rely on a device about the size and shape of the average flashlight, called a “Universal Translator” (UT). Suppose you speak only an extraterrestrial Alien language (let’s call it Language X), and I speak only the Terran language American English. I can point my Universal Translator in your direction and talk to you and — SHAZAM!: You’ll hear what I say to you as if I’d said it in Language X, and I’ll hear what you say to me as if you’d said it in American English. If the people in Native Tongue had had UTs available to them, what would that have done to the book’s plot? Would the U.S. government have had any need for the services of the linguists, for example?
  2. While we’re on the subject, how plausible do you think the idea of a Universal Translator device is? Is it an extrapolation from current science and technology (the usual requirement for science fiction) or is it more like a magic wand (which would ordinarily limit it to fantasy fiction)?
  3. When Native Tongue was written, the whole idea of language translation by machines was considered very unlikely, especially for languages that weren’t closely related. Today machine translation is booming, with MT sites on the web and full-length MT feature stories in major magazines, and businesses taking MT for granted. (The most successful MT systems translate both languages into a shared “intralanguage” first, and then into the final translation.) Does this mean that the Universal Translator is just around the corner?
  4. The linguists in Native Tongue give tremendous significance to the idea that there are two kinds of languages in the universe: humanoid languages — which are the human languages of Earth, or the languages of extraterrestrials enough like Terrans to be called humanoid — and then all the others, the nonhumanoid languages. They believe that nonhumanoid languages are potentially dangerous to human brains. Assume that the linguists are right, and that those two kinds of languages are really that different. If that’s true, what does it mean for efforts to discover signals coming to us (today’s humans in the real world) from Alien civilizations? Is it possible that we might have signals in Alien languages going on around us all the time and simply fail to recognize them as languages?
  5. When Aquina finds out that Nazareth is keeping a notebook of encodings (chunks of meaning that have had no communicable shape until Nazareth gave them one), Aquina feels that she has a right to find the notebook and use its contents. Because she believes the material is potentially so valuable for the construction of the Láadan language, and believes that Láadan is so important to the future of humankind, she considers herself fully justified in using Nazareth’s work without her knowledge or permission. Do you agree? Is Aquina right, or wrong? There are many controversies in the real world today that revolve around whether scientists have the right to study (and perhaps make use of) items — including languages — from other cultures.The scientists say that for the sake of science and human knowledge they are entitled to have access to the information; the people whose cultures the items come from say, “Those items are ours. They belong to us. And if we don’t want to share them with anyone outside our culture, that is our right.” What is your opinion about this?
  6. It has been suggested that the tubies (infants conceived in test tubes and nurtured until birth in artificial wombs of some kind) would be exactly like human beings born from human wombs — except that they would not have souls. What is your opinion about that idea? Do we have enough information about human souls to discuss the question in any rational way? Is it a scientific question or a religious question, or both?
  7. Susan Squier and Julie Vedder (in the afterword to the new Feminist Press edition of the book) identify three plot strands, which they describe on page 310 as follows: “The primary story follows the development of the woman-language Láadan by the women of the Linguist Lines… A parallel story line traces the U.S. government’s secret attempts to break the linguistic monopoly of the Lines by successfully learning…a non-humanoid alien language. A third narrative strand follows Michaela, a non-linguist, as she attempts to avenge her infant, who was killed in a state experiment to break the language monopoly; instead she finds surprising commonality with the linguist women.” Do you agree that the story of the development of Láadan is the “primary” story? If not, which one do you feel is primary? Are there any other major plot strands in the novel besides the three in the quotation?
  8. The novel doesn’t tell us about the origins of the linguists’ Interfacing system — the system ofputting linguist infants and humanoid Aliens together in special environments called Interfaces, so the infants can learn the Alien languages natively. Presumably there was a specific time when some linguist had to persuade a particular Alien to participate in this system. How do you suppose that was done? Was the author wrong not to include this information in the novel? Why do you suppose she left it out?
  9. A hypothesis that appears in the book proposes — at least for speakers of English — that one of the major reasons women are important to men is that women are willing to listen to men talk; for Michaela’s husband, that is the single most important thing she does for him and the reason he values her so highly. Do you think this is true outside the novel, or is it only science fiction?
  10. What do you think of Nazareth as a person? The book tells us that she’s not especially popular, and that people often find her irritating; certainly her husband and father don’t value her other than for her skills at translating and interpreting (and at bearing more children for the Lines). Why do you think this is? What do you consider to be the flaw(s) that keep her from being better liked?
  11. The book treats linguistics as a science, on the same basis that chemistry and astonomy and biology are sciences. It also treats linguistics as a technology — as a mechanism which, if used with skill, can bring about major social change. Does this strike you as plausible? If so, why do you suppose undergraduate education in the ignores linguistics almost completely? How do most people in the U.S. today feel about linguists? Do people understand what it is that linguists do? Would it be possible for the U.S. government to turn people against linguists as did the government in the novel? Have you seen anything like that happening in the real world?
  12. What is your opinion about the possibility that women in America could be declared legally minors, as happens in the book? Could that happen? Is it an impossibility? (Consider the situation of women in Afghanistan today; it hasn’t been so long ago that those women were doctors and lawyers and professors.) Could it happen without any need to use force? Would the fact that there are women in the U.S. armed forces make it more difficult? Have you seen anything in the news recently that’s relevant to this question (for example, reports of research claiming that women’s brains are significantly different from men’s)?
  13. Native Tongue is a book which assumes that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis) is true — it assumes that human (and nonhuman) language does have power to structure human perceptions in significant ways and can be used deliberately to bring about social change. (As opposed to the idea that the social change must come first and will then be reflected in changes in the language.) What is your opinion of this idea? Does it matter whether it’s true or not? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it’s true. What would then be the consequences of being able to speak and understand several different languages?
  14. Native Tongue is written as a novel within a “metanovel” frame. The preface introduces it as a historical document that’s significant because it is the only work of fiction ever written by anyone from the Linguist Lines; the preface asks readers for any information they might have that would make it possible to learn more about the novel’s origins. Why would an author construct a novel this way? Does it serve a useful purpose? Does it add anything to the novel’s plot?
  15. In the novel, the known universe is filled with many different languages, requiring translators and interpreters in order to get anything done. Would it be better to have just one universal language that could be used by everyone, regardless of what their native language might be? If so, how do you suppose the decision would be made as to which language should become the universal one? Would it be better to choose some existing natural language, some existing “artificial” language, or to construct a brand new artificial language for the purpose? How would people learn the universal language? What problems would arise if not everyone using the universal language were human or humanoid? Could there still be just one language, or would there have to be two or more?
  16. What do you think is the primary message of Native Tongue?

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