Illustrations by Rosemarie C. Cattan
There are different types of languages in the world: natural languages, formal languages and constructed languages, among others. In this article, we’re going to focus on constructed languages (you might already be familiar with Esperanto or the conlangs created for TV and movies), and specifically on languages constructed by women, for women.
Disclaimer: For practical reasons, this topic is approached from a binary gender perspective.
The importance of women in the development of natural languages is undeniable: Through biological or social concession, mothers are responsible for transmitting languages to their children — no wonder they’re called mother tongues. This process facilitates a child’s association with identity and culture, and strengthens their sense of belonging to a specific geographic and social community. But linguistically speaking, there is no “women’s language” or a “natural female language.” While this may seem like a small point, the fact is that language reflects our social biases, including misogyny. So what happens when none of the existing languages faithfully express women’s specific feelings and emotions?
Láadan: the language of perceptual knowledge?
This was precisely the question writer Suzette Haden Elgin asked herself in the early ’80s. She came to believe that if women had an appropriate language to express their views, it would likely reflect a very different reality than the one perceived by men. Elgin based this on the feminist theory that existing human languages are unable to fully express women’s perceptions — a theory which draws significant inspiration from the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics.
Elgin relied on this theory of linguistic relativity, as well as on a curious interpretation of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems to create her female language. The key part of Gödel’s theorems that interested Elgin was the idea that perfect systems of logic cannot exist (in that they are fully self-explanatory), because they would have to possess components that could “undo” the system of logic, like a record player playing it’s resonant frequency (a note that causes the player to vibrate so intensely that it falls apart). She theorized that each language contains perceptions that act like resonant frequencies, that is, they can’t be expressed because this would lead to the language’s destruction. Her main question was: What would happen to culture if women had and used a language that expressed their perceptions? Would it self-destruct?
Based on this question, Elgin created Láadan for her science fiction series Native Tongue to act as a kind of thought experiment. In the series, Láadan is a language devised by a group of feminist linguists in the 22nd century as an act of resistance against an oppressive government that deprived women of their right to vote in 1996 (a plot similar to The Handmaid’s Tale). She had also hoped that the language would catch on in the real world, or that it would start a movement to create other women-based languages.
Unlike (many) languages that use the masculine form as the grammatical standard, in Láadan, objects are assumed to be feminine unless otherwise noted with a masculinizing suffix. Its grammatical structure is a simplified version of natural language models (with a Verb-Subject-Object word order, in case you were wondering). In fact, Elgin mainly focused on vocabulary. She wanted a language that didn’t inherit elements from generations of male-dominated rule, and her main interest was to generate language around practical concepts that would help define feelings and situations related purely to “being a woman.”
Some examples are:
|Pregnancy||Lawida||to be pregnant|
|Lóda||to be pregnant wearily|
|Lalewida||to be pregnant joyfully|
|Lewidan||to be pregnant for the first time|
|Widazhad||to be pregnant late in term and eager for the end|
|Loláad||to perceive internally|
|Alone||Sholan||to be alone|
|Doólelasholan||alone at last after tiresome experience or people|
|Búsholan||alone “in the bosom of your family”|
|Sholalan||alone in a crowd of people|
|Elasholan||alone and glad of it|
|Héeyasholan||alone with terror|
|Óosholan||alone with grief|
If you want to learn more words in Láadan, visit the Láadan-English dictionary.
Nüshu, the female language discovered by accident
Nüshu ( 女书) is a simplified Chinese writing system that men did not have access to. It was actually transmitted silently from generation to generation by the women of the Jiang-yonh district in Hunan, China. It’s currently listed as one of the oldest languages in the world and is the only real female language that was never detected. Nüshu was first discovered in 1982 when professor Gong Zhebing took his students on a trip to examine the culture and customs of the Jiang-yonh community. To their surprise, they encountered a strange calligraphy used only by women and referred to by the community as Nüshu (“women’s writing”).
With the help of linguist and professor Yan Xuejiong, the researchers managed to collect calligraphy samples engraved on fans and embroidered on handkerchiefs, which all together formed a vocabulary of some 20,000 words and more than 500 characters. The content of the manuscripts in Nüshu has revealed historical, cultural, social and national identity aspects that reflected some joy, but mostly the pain of oppression and suffering experienced in the feudal society of the time.
Despite being a secret language — written and read only by women — Nüshu has managed to survive and has been portrayed in documentaries, books and even won the Guinness World Record for “the most gender specific language.” The last woman who knew, wrote and read the language, Yang Huanyi, died in 2004.
Even though there are only two women-made languages that we know of, it doesn’t mean they have to be the last. The world is full of conlangs, and the next Esperanto (or would it be Esperanta?) could be made by you.