“It’s an essentialist argument about what language is… about how it works. It’s like she has this belief about how certain kinds of language are right or proper…. And so they like…. Hold some kind of power… I mean I know words do hold power… but like she is not questioning that power in terms of …. It’s about social class! Okay, this guy who says ‘See here’ rather than ‘Perceive this’ on page … lets see …. ”
Imagine the above with rambling hand motions to accompany the rambling tone. Imagine these spoken and emoted into a room where no heads nod in affirmation. That would be a picture of me last week speaking into the Language and Gender class I am taking this semester. Everyone had their copy of Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue open in front of them, but the discussion wasn’t all that open to my go at critique. For the rest of class I scribbled sideways notes into my daybook to try and peel back the stammer and see the idea under there. So here I am again with another try at articulation-away from the in-class-ego-talk, so that I can make visible this question I have in terms of the arguments about language, power and gender being made in the science fiction novel, Native Tongue.
In Native Tongue Elgin assumes that language holds power to change material circumstances. She assumes that this power is contained in knowledge of language use, and particularly knowledge of the best, clearest, most articulate language. She thus assumes that there exists a best, clearest and most articulate form of language. In the novel Elgin ties this authority with language to a particular group of people, the Linguists, who are for the most part a ruling class in a hierarchically organized culture. The non-linguist characters could be analogous to working class peoples (though there are even more hierarchies within and within and within). In the novel’s world, these characters do not have the facility with language that the Linguists, both female and male, do.
When I put this up next to the ways that language works in my life, it feels like maintenance of current systems of power. In another reading I did for class this week, a chapter from Sexed Texts, Paul Baker gives his tour of early research in language and gender studies. His basic claim is that while all of this early work is historically interesting and useful in making critical turns toward the current discipline, it still does the theoretical and political work of maintaining understandings of gender through essentialism. According to Baker, this period of research saw traits of women or gay people or men as bounded together in firm categories of difference. The characteristics of categories could be known through essential and “true” qualities.
Elgin similarly frames language itself in essential ways. Language in Native Tongue has a true and pure nature, which can be mastered and put to creative use. I am with her (to a point) on thinking that language holds power in the world. My question is more about the essential qualities of this power. I believe that power through language is socially constructed and that no pure and best or true or clearest language exists naturally. It’s all contextual.
Elgin’s argument is that the Linguist’ language is superior to others, not just culturally constructed superiority, but materially is better: better at doing things in the world, better at changing reality. Well. I do see (perceive!) how some language use is socially constructed as better, clearer, more articulate. There is as a material reality to the ways that, for instance, Standard White English functions as a language of power, but this doesn’t mean that the Standard White English is naturally a better dialect or that language users, teachers and theorists should go along with this socio-historical creation uncritically.
Native Tongue sees the creative opportunity of language and is itself a critique of power relations, but it is not a critical examination of how power works through language (and other tools) and to whose benefit. Elgin does an imaginatively intellectual job of naming and disrupting gender hierarchies at work in our own culture by hyperbolizing them in the world of Native Tongue. She does this useful and interesting work, though, by sustaining notions of social class boundaries, which maintains the normalizing of all gender traits as white and middle class, marginalizing all others.
In the end of the novel, through the powerful work of their language use, the upper class, Linguist women begin changing reality to the material advantage of upper class, Linguist women. Meanwhile, Michaela, the only heavily narrated non-Linguist, working class woman, is left to be an awesome listener and to do the dirtiest labors of murder.