Suzette Haden Elgin
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
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Q1:Why are you so rough on the Roman Catholic priests and nuns in this book?
I doesnít seem to me that Iím particularly rough on them, but Iíve been asked this question many times; there are clearly readers who disagree with me about this. My feeling is that there are good and bad people among Catholic religious, just as there and good and bad people in any other group; priests and nuns are human beings with human frailties, and that is how I tried to portray them. (I think I was a good deal rougher with the Protestant clergypersons in the book.)
Q2:At the beginning of Chapter One youíve put new lyrics to "Amazing Grace"; donít you think thatís disrespectful?
No, I donít think so. Judeochristian culture considers it normal for new translations of the Bible to be published from time to time, to reflect changes in the language and culture of readers. In exactly the same way, itís normal for the words to hymns and prayers and other religious language to change over time. The lyrics I wrote were proposed for a far-future reality in which human beings have settled many planets in many galaxies, and in which people can perceive themselves as citizens of the universe. It seems to me that Iím showing great respect for "Amazing Grace" by proposing that it will still be a beloved hymn even that far into the future and doing my best to write worthy lyrics; it was certainly my intention to be respectful.
One thing I didnít do was to make changes in the English itself, as itís used in the hymn. Thatís not scientifically correct; we know that every human language changes as the years go by, and the English of that time would unquestionably be very different from todayís English. For the same reason that Star Trekís characters speak contemporary English -- that is, because scientifically accurate language change would make the narrative hard to understand -- I left the language alone. If I were writing the trilogy today I wouldnít do it that way; I would try to find some acceptable ways to show the progress of language change in the novels.
Q3:You put in quite a lot of information about the Linguist children. The way they talked, and the way they behaved, and so on. Do you really believe that children could be like those children?
Yes, I do. Linguists are passionate about their discipline, and if you put a bunch of them together in one place what theyíll talk about (and argue about) a great deal of the time is linguistics and language. The children of linguists have an advantage that the children of physicists and chemists and astronomers donít have: The subject that most fascinates their parents is something about which they not only are expert but in which they are at the peak of their abilities. Infants and young children donít come into this world equipped in such a way that if theyíre surrounded by physicists from birth theyíre experts on physics by age six. Where language is concerned, however, itís a different matter; children are born with the skills needed for working out the rules of language from raw data (which is what linguists do), and they will never be better at that task than they are before they reach puberty. They donít have adult sophistication, and they canít write scholarly articles, but they can certainly do the analysis.
Q4:I donít understand why you think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity hy-pothesis, or whatever you want to call it, is so important. What difference does it make?
Suppose the hypothesis is true. Then all the trouble many people go to today to avoid sexist language is useful and worthwhile; itís rational to hope that change in the language will help bring about change in attitudes about gender. Suppose the hypothesis is false, on the other hand; suppose social change has to come first, and language only reflects that change. Then the people who say that nonsexist language is silly and awkward -- people who want to always say "Every physician must wear his lab coat" instead of "Every physician must wear his or her lab coat" -- have a strong case. If saying "Every U.S. president makes decisions after consulting his or her Cabinet officers" makes it more likely that a woman could become president, the hypothesis is true. Unfortunately we donít know whether itís true or not; there is evidence for both positions. If the hypothesis is true, control of language (and of media that use language) is power of a quite different kind than if itís false. In the novel, I presuppose that itís true and write from that point of view.
Copyright © 2002 by Suzette Haden Elgin