Imbolc 2003, Vol 2-2
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Zine for Goddess Women Near & Far
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:
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. (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.
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.
Change: 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:
Note: To change any
of these friendliness words to unfriendliness, start the word with the
prefix ra [raw].
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.
+ 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.