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Feminism and Spirituality
by Feral

Imbolc 2003, Vol 2-2
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three figures in black, blue and red

a friend is a friend is a friend

Finding the Words for What We Do

I'm a cat person, myself. But I know more names for breeds of dogs than for kinds of friendship.

Maybe there are languages rich in words for human connections. I don't know those languages. I know English, a language so impoverished that I can't say what I feel without a paragraph. For example, English has no word for:

(a) the friendship I feel for one who was once my enemy and whom I now love and trust except in her memory of that old conflict.
(b) the friendship I feel for one who was my lover for three years when we were young.
(c) the friendship I feel for one who was my closest colleague in a bizarre and stressful work situation, where we shared the humor and madness and came to know and value each other deeply but always in a work context, and then one of us changed jobs and we never see each other now.

Let's say I'm talking with you about something I learned from friends (a) and (b). I could give you the full definition once (as above), but not every time -- no listener is that patient. So I would start to use a shortcut, like their first names, or "my ex" and "the one I couldn't stand." It would be so easy for you to remember the shortcut and forget the complex reality. After a while, I might forget, too. And if you repeated my story to someone else, that person would have no way of knowing how I really felt about those friends.

With no intention to harm, you could still wind up lying. English may donate words about commerce and technology to all the languages of the world, but it's poor in words for complex truths about emotions and relationships. And many of the words we have are mashed flat or warped beyond recognition after long (and often deliberate) misuse; consider love.

Reclaiming words has been part of the feminist movement for forty years.

Reclaiming words has been part of the feminist movement for forty years. (Now, of course, one of the words needing reclamation is feminist. It has become a word that requires an explanatory paragraph, at least in some circles.) Reclaiming the word witch is a project that will continue for decades, I suspect.

Some linguists believe that language actually shapes reality, that it's impossible to perceive what you have no name for. If that's true, then inventing the words to express our reality is a practice that could change the world.

A Woman's Language
book cover, Native TongueIn the 1980s, Suzette Haden Elgin wrote a science fiction novel called Native Tongue, in which the women characters (disenfranchised and legally considered as children) were inventing a woman's language. Elgin, herself a linguist, decided to do more than make up a few words for the dialogue. She invented the language, and documented it in a First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, which was published by SF3, the organizers of Madison's feminist science fiction convention, WISCON.

When Elgin first spoke about Láadan at WISCON, she used the clearest example of the deficiencies of English: there's no word for what the woman does in the act of [hetero]sexual intercourse. A funny silence held for a moment (you could hear people turning over the various words in their heads) and then there was a buzz of comment. It was oddly shocking -- both that it was true, and that we hadn't noticed.

Elgin considered Láadan a 10-year experiment. Would the invented language take root? Would it have any impact on reality? Later, she said the experiment wasn't a success, noting dryly that more people speak Klingon (the constructed language of a warrior species on Star Trek) than Láadan.

Like many others, I bought the Láadan dictionary but didn't learn the language. It could be said I contributed to the failure of the experiment… but I don't think it was a failure. Elgin and Láadan gave me the word "encoding" -- a linguistic term for giving a name to something that had no name before. A lot of the work I've done since, as a writer and as a community member, has been about encoding our reality (though in clumsy English).

Some of the Láadan encodings have stayed with me, too -- not the words, but the meanings. Watching a friend struggle to talk about her brother, I asked whether she meant he was "a sibling by birth but not of the heart." She nodded, looking relieved.

Another time, I witnessed a weird interaction between two women and realized I needed Elgin's word for "refraining from asking, with evil intent, especially when it's clear that someone badly wants the other to ask." That word (I looked it up) is ramimelh. That concept is one of the foundation strategies of girl-group cruelty, and there is no word for it in English. So the victim can't easily identify it, or voice it, and is left feeling crazy as well as hurt and frustrated and unable to explain why.

In Láadan, each sentence ends with a syllable that identifies the speaker's relationship to what she just said. My favorite is wa, which means, "I speak this from the evidence of my own senses." Though I haven't yet incorporated the Láadan words for friendship into my dealings with my friends, I've been using that phrase "the evidence of my senses," for years. It's my internal test for the validity of what I mean to say. And it's incredibly handy to say out loud when somebody tries to persuade me out of my perceptions.

Reality Change: Another Experiment
If we had the words, would we do better at perceiving our relationships for what they are? Maybe it's time for another experiment.

Teach yourself the set of words that follows -- or just teach yourself the definitions. Then use these words/phrases to think as clearly as you can about your relationships with your coven, social circle, family, community. Here's the list:

Láadan word English definition

Rough Pronunciation

dehena friendliness, despite negative circumstances [deh-hen-ah]
dena friendliness for good reason [den-ah]
dina friendliness for no reason [din-ah]
dona friendliness for foolish reasons [doe-nah]
duna friendliness for bad reasons [due-nah]

Note: To change any of these friendliness words to unfriendliness, start the word with the prefix ra [raw].
A few more words:

ab love for one liked but not respected [ahb]
ad love for one respected but not liked [odd]
éeme love for one neither liked nor respected [EH-eh-meh]
do to be strong [doe]
rado to be weak [raw-doe]
dórado to dominate [DOE-raw-doe]
dólhórado to dominate with evil intent [DOLE-HOE-raw-doe]
donidaná lovingkindnesser, one who channels lovingkindness [doe-nih-dah-NAH]

By the way, Láadan has an equivalent number of words for anger and joy, and many more for love.

I'm proposing that you bring just the encodings you need from Láadan, teach them to your friends, and use them to deal more honestly with your own and your friends' perceptions. You can get some of the words from Láadan website. Or you can buy the dictionary (the website tells you where).

This linguistic borrowing is commonplace. There's no English word for that eerie feeling of something having happened before, so we use déja vu. There's angst, which means so much more than anxiety. There's macho. These words are powerful; they're full of juice. They may have started as French, German, and Spanish, but now they belong to us English-speakers, too. Maybe this could happen with the vital, wonderfully specific words of Láadan, bringing us sháadehul. That means "growth through transcendence, either of a person, a non-human, or a thing" - such as a community; such as our community.

+ Native Tongue, 1984, by Suzette Haden Elgin. The Native Tongue trilogy, where the invention of Láadan is part of the plot, comprises Native Tongue, 1984, DAW; The Judas Rose, 1987, DAW; and Earthsong, 1993, DAW. The Feminist Press, University of New York, has brought the trilogy back into print.
+ A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, Second Edition, 1988, by Suzette Haden Elgin, edited by Diane Martin, published by the Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction (SF3), Madison, WI.
+ girl-groups: see my two previous articles -- Imperfect Love, Imperfect Trust (MatriFocus, Lammas 2002) and Starting from Where We Are (
MatriFocus, Samhain 2002).
+ The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for a good summary of this theory of the relationship of language and thought.

Graphics Credits
+ a friend is a friend is a friend, staff graphic copyright © 2003 Sage Starwalker. All rights reserved.
+ Native Tongue book cover, courtesy of The Feminist Press.
Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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