In 2205, the Nineteenth Amendment has long been repealed and women are only valued for their utility. The Earth’s economy depends on an insular group of linguists who "breed" women to be perfect interstellar translators until they are sent to the Barren House to await death. But instead, these women are slowly creating a language of their own to make resistance possible. Originally published in 1984.
... [a] highly readable introduction to Elgin’s world. There are decided commonalities between Elgin’s Fundamentalist Christian misogynist dystopia and Margaret Atwood’s better known The Handmaid’s Tale ... Each chapter in Native Tongue begins with an epigraph of text from a fictional historic source. These epigraphs help world-build and also create a clear history of the rise of the misogynist society that exists in the present day of the novel. While there is a lot of world-building and feminist-rhetorical work done in the novel, it’s important to note that it’s also a very engaging read ... As engrossing as any well-written genre novel, Native Tongue entertains while it also shocks and illustrates the depths of oppression these women are forced to live under. But aside from all of this, Elgin’s genius resides in her ability to create compelling and memorable characters: the reader wants these women to survive, to succeed in their rebellions, and when terrible things transpire, it’s deeply upsetting. These characters will stay with the reader long after the last page—their lives, their joys and nearly unendurable suffering helping to humanize the deeply relevant and compelling feminist themes in the novel.
The book is expansive, exposing the reader to the institutional and familial sexism that infects this world; but it is also focused, rooted in the private rebellions and inner fury of women ... This carefully crafted, fascinating dystopia is a call to action even decades later, and highlights the importance of language and its uses in politics of power.
Elgin’s dystopia is both unsubtle and limited: lacking the concept intersectionality, she eliminates racism from her future with a stroke of the pen and omits homosexuality and gender fluidity entirely. On the other hand, Elgin deftly shows how inequality enters the vocabulary that people use to talk and think about each other, skewing it in favor of the powerful while the oppressed lack the verbal wherewithal to make their feelings and experiences clear ... If the vocabulary of Láadan is essentialist and a bit mushy, the grammar feels like a queering of the established order ... in an era when the public discourse feels particularly phallogocentric and the dicks seem to be in charge, Native Tongue still feels like a necessary and exhilarating book. It doesn’t look like flash cards and grammar lessons are going to bring the revolution. But Elgin is Atwood-level good at showing how patriarchy is perpetuated through talk. And in re-creating the verbal manipulations of alpha-male spew, she makes her readers aware of how it’s done, which is to say, how to resist it.