Suzette Haden Elgin (1936-2015)

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Suzette Haden Elgin, a linguist and feminist science fiction writer, died on January 27 at the age of 78. From io9:

Suzette Haden Elgin, who died last week, was a pioneer of using linguistics in science fiction, creating a whole constructed language in her novel Native Tongue. She was a giant of feminist SF. And she helped bring SF poetry to prominence, while also teaching us to defend ourselves with wit rather than bile.

Elgin had a PhD in linguistics, so it’s no surprise that her Native Tongue book trilogy is all about language. The book takes place in a dystopian future, where women have been stripped of all rights when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed in 1996. A group of women, who work as part of a corps of linguists who help to communicate with alien races, develop a new secret language for women to use as part of their resistance to their oppression. This language is called Láadan, and Elgin has a whole vocabulary and syntax on her website.

From Timmi Duchamp on Ambling Along the Aqueduct:

In 1978, she founded the Science Fiction Poetry Association; the Elgin Award is named in her honor. She had a PhD from UCSD in linguistics, and in fact began writing science fiction to pay for graduate school. Her science fiction, especially the Native Tongue trilogy (for which she invented a new, feminist language, Láadan) exercised a powerful influence on feminist science fiction. Her 1969 story (and first sale) “For the Sake of Grace” was the inspiration for Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them. She also wrote a series of books on “The Gentle Art of Verbal Defense” and other works of popular linguistics.

Her member page on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website contains many links to her work, including issues of newsletters that she published: The Linguistics & Science Fiction NewsletterThe Verbal Self-Defense Newsletter, and The Religious Language Newsletter.

Elgin was an occasional commenter on Language Log posts. She corresponded with Mark Liberman about a few posts in 2007, and Mark included her trenchant observations here, here, and here. I also like a comment she left on a post of Mark’s from 2008, “Language and personality“:

When I wrote The Language Imperative, I interviewed more than one hundred multilinguals, and one of the questions I asked them was “When you’re using a different language, do you feel as if you’re a different person?” The responses I got fell into two distinct groups, summarizable as follows:

“Of course! What a ridiculous question!”
“Of course not! What a ridiculous question!”



8 Comments

  1. Eric said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

    I’m sorry to hear that. I was a fan of her work.

  2. Joyce Melton said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 12:26 am

    I met the lady a few times. She was witty, funny and seemed to enjoy everything. We exchanged electronic correspondence for a time back in the 90s or early 00s, talking about science fiction and the Ozarks. We had some fun comparing colorful language use from Arkansas.

    I remember seeing a few of her comments here and I thought about sending her emails again but never did. She had humor, insight and grace and she is missed.

  3. Lance Nathan said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 2:08 am

    I’m saddened to hear this. I can’t swear that it was Elgin that inspired me to go into linguistics, but I can say that I had barely heard of the field until I read Native Tongue in 1995 or so, which meant that when I saw “linguistics” in the course guide for the Spring ’97 semester, I had some idea what it was and thought “Well, I’ll give it a shot”.

    I’ll have to put “The Grammar of La’adan”, of which I have a copy lying around here somewhere, on my reading list for next week.

  4. Rodger C said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 7:52 am

    Of her fiction I know only the Ozark trilogy, which isn’t mentioned here. These are, I think, by intention youth novels, but they’re among my favorite Southern Highlands-themed fiction.

  5. michael farris said,

    February 6, 2015 @ 10:49 am

    I never had the pleasure of meeting Suzette in real life but did have contact with her online where she was equally generous, gracious and wise.

    I’m glad someone here mentioned the Ozark books (the most purely likeable of her fiction I think) flying telephathic mules, sharp tongued grannies and magic that works by the rules of transformational grammar, what’s not to like?

    She will surely be deeply missed.

  6. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 8:24 am

    I read her blog for a while, some years ago. I don’t remember specifically why I stopped, but it may have just been that she had so many fans that the comment section felt too crowded for my taste. Anyway, there are lots of language blogs I used to read when I had more time.

    There are questions I wouldn’t have minded asking, mostly about the philosophy behind some things she wrote, but they weren’t important so I never did. (And they aren’t important now, either.)

    Suzette and I are mentioned on the same Wikipedia page. I take a quiet pride in that, though it is of no rational significance whatsoever.

  7. Joseph F Foster said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 9:55 am

    I join Ben Zimmer and commenters in lamenting the death of Suzette Elgin. In addition to the other books, blogs, and newsletter that have been mentioned, we should also note her contributions to mainstream Linguistics. She published a textbook in I believe the late 1970s, called, I think, What is Linguistics?”. She also had a substantive correspondence — by US Mail — with other linguists, and she wrote the article on Ozark English and Crossover phenomena in the first volume of the series on Syntax that Academic Press published, edited by John Kimball; My copies of all this are not readily accessible so I apologize for not giving full references.

    Despite her chronic illness that led to her early retirement from the professoriate, she was a gracious host and a good friend.

  8. Joseph F Foster said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 9:57 am

    I join Ben Zimmer and commenters in lamenting the death of Suzette Elgin. In addition to the other books, blogs, and newsletter that have been mentioned, we should also note her contributions to mainstream Linguistics. She published a textbook in I believe the late 1970s, called, I think, What is Linguistics?”. She also had a substantive correspondence — by US Mail — with other linguists, and she wrote the article on Ozark English and Crossover phenomena in the first volume of the series on Syntax that Academic Press published, edited by John Kimball; My copies of all this are not readily accessible so I apologize for not giving full references.

    Despite her chronic illness that led to her early retirement from the professoriate, she was a gracious host and a good friend.

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