Native Tongue, linguistics, and the Other.

Okay, so now I’m going to dig into some of the themes of Native Tongue. Spoilers ahoy. (If you just want to hear me gibber gleefully, check out my brief review here.)

There are two different groups in this dystopian future which are relentlessly Othered– linguists, and women. As with many Othered groups (in our world, people of color and women) they are not mutually exclusive and it is in their intersection that prejudice is the most painful.

Linguists have a lot of power in this universe, because they control the Interfaces, which allow infants to become native speakers in alien languages. Only linguists can be effective interpreters and translators– those who attempt to learn the alien languages as adults may become skilled but cannot match the intuitive understanding of a native speaker. However, “Lingoes” are not particularly respected within society– they receive quite a lot of tax money for their services and the main population resents them for it.

The burden of Otherness is quite clear in the linguists’ lives– they must live in communal houses, to find safety in numbers, and live in conditions of enforced poverty to defuse as much as possible accusations that they live in luxury on the taxpayers’ dollar. They also have a system of what amounts to child labor, wherein infants spend all their time being shuffled between speakers of as many different languages as possible, until each child is fluent in at least one alien language and a good number of human languages. Then they go about teaching their languages to younger children and, at perhaps ten, start working as interpreters and translators. They are compelled to work for the government in this position for, as far as I can tell, their entire lives. At no point can they choose to leave the linguists’ houses and take up other work, or even to retire. They are essentially slaves.

Women are also othered in this world, but not because of the power they possess– rather, they are treated as something between animals and children. One may feel affection for them, but does not respect them; they aren’t full human beings. And their Otherness is legally enforced– women are treated as minors under the law (unless they are being tried for crimes) and are talked about or at but rarely to. The men constantly complain to each other– even in front of women– about women’s incomprehensible hysterics. “They’ll talk on and on about stuff no one would want to talk to, and they never get to the point!” “They’ll get mad over nothing and even they can’t explain why!” “They’re constantly nagging and whining over superficial frivolities!” Men share tips on how to “manage” their women– “keep them busy, don’t let them have spare time or they’ll spend it plaguing you” and “give them little presents sometimes, and tell them you love them, they like that, but be careful not to spoil them.”

And, of course, the female linguists are in the worst position of all– culturally mandated to have as many children as possible (to increase the number of linguists) and given less choice than usual in husbands (since genetics are so important), with more independence (as female linguists can’t be spared from working) but unable to keep the benefits of their work (since they are neither paid nor respected). In fact, when working, female linguists aren’t even allowed to be visible. It’s disrespectful to the businessmen involved to force them to see that women can know things they do not.

What’s most interesting about these two groups of Others, though, if the fact that in the book the line between linguist and non-linguist is shown to be permeable, whereas the barrier between men and women is impassable.

Linguists are slaves to the greater population, enslaving their own children from birth, so that everyone else can have leisurely childhoods and live without worry. Linguists are also capable of making other people understand this about their situations– at one point, Thomas, is able to talk so convincingly to a government worker that for a full half hour, the worker understands his own privilege and, more importantly, does not understand his own hatred and fear of “Lingoes.” This is temporary, because he didn’t want to understand, so as soon as he is out of Thomas’ presence, he talks himself back into his ignorant hatred, but it seems that linguists give similar talks every few months– always assumed to be temporary, but still always effective.

But the boundaries are even more impermeable than that– one of our non-linguist characters, Michaela, blames the linguists for the death of her infant son, and actually seeks employment as a nurse for old linguists in order to subtly murder them. But when she goes to work at the Barren House (where female linguists are sent once they’re, well, barren) she discovers that linguists are not the heartless baby-killing theives she thought they were, and that, in fact, they are humans, generally working for the betterment of their society, but always working, and in stunningly poor conditions. Michaela eventually comes to understand that her preconceived notions were entirely wrong, and is haunted by her murders. When she discovers that the women of Barren House are developing a women’s language– and when the male linguist she had taken as a lover to secure her position threatens to destroy this language– she comes to a “good” end by murdering him and going to prison, to save the women’s language and to have justice served for her crimes.

So even people who systematically murder Lingoes can come to understand and sympathize with linguists. But what about men reconciling with women?

It doesn’t happen in this book. Whether that is because no man ever tries (which none does) or because women don’t have the words to explain themselves (which several women complain of), I don’t know what to make of this simple failure. As I’ve said before, I’m not a gender essentialist. I don’t believe that women and men are inherently incomprehensible to each other. It should be possible for a female linguist– ince linguists are famous for being excellent negotiators– to make herself understood.

And yet, that would require a man willing to listen. In a culture that tells men from birth that they don’t need to listen to women. And in fact, when they women’s language comes into use and women no longer need to rail against men with useless words– when they can talk to each other instead, with a language built to express their experiences– they simply stop talking to the men, and rather than wondering why or seeking to change it, the men resolve to build “women’s houses” just like the Barren Houses, so that they only have to see their women when they need them for something.

Linguists and non-linguists can learn to understand each other and work together– but men and women have to live in separate buildings?

What’s most surprising, to me, is that I kind of buy it. These women do not have the words to describe their oppression, so how can they make their oppression understood?

Without a word for “refraining to ask, with malicious intent, even though it is clear someone desperately wishes to speak” all a woman can do is get angry and say, “You didn’t ask about my day!” and since she never vocalized the desire, even though linguists are supposed to be masters of body-language, the man can just say, “How was I supposed to know you wanted to be asked? Why do you need to be asked at all? Why do you even need to talk?” In this way, the situation is not “a man exerting his control over his wife by refusing to let her speak” and instead it is “one of those irrational women going into hysterics again,” and if she’d eventually started to speak anyway it wouldn’t have been “a woman insisting on her right to talk” it would have been “a woman jabbering on about nothing useful even when it was clear I was too busy/not in the mood/too much better than her to talk.” The power dynamics are there, but only the patriarchal excuses have the proper words for them, not the women’s experiences.

Fundamentally, I think this was the big draw for me. This is a book that answers the question, “Why aren’t women’s stories told?” with, “because sexism is so entrenched we don’t even have the right words for women’s experiences.” And while I don’t think things are quite that bad, given the prevalence today of “mankind” to mean “humankind” and all the other little sexisms of speech, I can believe that in a Handmaid’s Tale future, women’s language will have been taken from them too. And that just might make the rift between men and women impassable.


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