Láadan is a language created in the 1980s by Suzette Haden Elgin, a linguist, feminist, and “verbal self-defense coach.”
Suzette Haden Elgin
Though this lovely language has its problems [no particular way of referring to non-binary people, for example], its strengths far out-weigh these. For example, here are some things that I love about Láadan:
- Evidence particles: used by some real-world languages, these evidence particles convey in a single syllable the trustworthiness of the statement.
- Pejorative suffix: this useful little suffix easily conveys the message that the root word is bad, corrupted, evil, or negative.
- Many ways to eliminate ambiguity: The two points above aren’t the only way to make yourself clear in Láadan. Speech-act particles clarify that the speaker is saying a warning, a story, speaking in love, and more. As an autistic person, this is something I really wish English had. How many times have I misunderstood because I was expected to read between the lines or understand someone’s body language? In English, this information is implied in body language, and is absent from written language. But Láadan makes it explicit.
- The sound: Beauty is subjective, but to me Láadan is one of the most aesthetic languages out there. It has a soft, rolling quality, rather like Quenya or Finnish.
- An abundance of useful words: from rilerahum [silence acutely painful to you, but the other person seems totally unaware] and rashida [a non-game, a cruel “playing” that is a game only for the dominant “player” with the power to force others to participate], Láadan contains many intriguing and useful words.
- It’s not particularly difficult: While not as easy as Esperanto, Láadan is much easier than the natural languages that inspired it [like Navajo]. There are very, very few irregularities and the grammar rules are simple. I don’t know if she was inspired by Muskogean languages like Chickasaw, but I can definitely feel some similarities between the two, particularly how they handle verbs.
- Ease of coining new words: Enough words and suffixes exist in the lexicon that coining new words is fairly easy.
My point here is that Laadan is capable of expressing nuance easily and it has a lot of interesting features. So why does the idea of a “feminist language” disturb some people?
The word for butterfly
Why did Láadan fail?
Elgin conceived of Láadan as an experiment. She gave it 10 years to succeed, either by communities picking it up and using it, or by others creating women-centric languages. Elgin felt that it failed by either measure. But why did Láadan, a beautiful and interesting language, fail?
Whether or not Láadan is better suited to express a feminine point of view is irrelevant. People aren’t learning Esperanto because it succeeded in becoming a global auxiliary language – they learn it because it is interesting.
One word that gets criticized over and over is ásháana [to menstruate joyfully]. Why does this word so irritate people? I’ve seen trans women say it sickens them, others accuse Elgin of never experiencing the reality of menstruation, and saying that the word is useless.
In English, we refer to menstruation as “the curse of Eve.” Menstrual taboos exist all over the world that claim menstruating people are unclean. Menstruation means many girls can’t go to school or participate in family life.
Yet this is not the case in every culture. Among the Cherokee, moonblood was a source of great power and could be used to destroy enemies. The verb ásháana shows us that menstruation doesn’t have to be a horrible experience; there are several situations where it could be used – a pregnancy scare, for example, or after an extended illness that eliminated healthy menstruation. And among cultures that do not denigrate this natural event, perhaps the word would have many other uses too.
Thamehal is the word for planet.
Incidentally, ásháana is only one of a set of verbs: osháana [to menstruate], desháana [early], elasháana [for the first time], husháana [painfully], zhesháana [in sync with someone else]. Names have power and by naming these experiences, Láadan allows us to express a reality that would be difficult to describe otherwise. These words are part of a trend in Láadan: giving names to things that aren’t deemed worthy of having one.
After a while it becomes psychologically disorienting for women to look out at a world where their reality doesn’t exist.
In the end, Láadan failed because it was labelled “feminist.” In a patriarchal society there can be no worse insult.