11

I read this probably in the 1980s. It was a novel, written in English, and I believe there may have been a sequel. I don't think this author wrote much else--I am almost positive it was not one of the very prolific writers. It is futurisitic, and had a grim tone. The novel focusses on a small segment of society that is sort of a guild. They make use of children's innate ease at language-learning to pair infants/toddlers with the young of alien species to spend several hours together each day so that the young humans grow up fluent in the alien language. The children as they grow up are able to act as translators and interpreters for government and business to allow Earth to interact smoothly with the various alien species it has contact with.

The children are paid handsomely for this service, and the wealth they accumulate for the guild is part of what creates the guild's status. I believe it is just a few families that control this program. Most of the children involved in this program are the children born into the "guild", but a few outside infants are selected to join, on a lottery or scholarship application basis. Parents vie to have their children accepted into the group, as it is a guarantee of status, but I think the parents of children accepted into the program basically relinquish their children to the guild. The children are raised very strictly because of the heavy responsibilities they face as official interpreters from a young age. Depending how many children have been paired with the same species as they were, and for how long that species has had contact with Earth, the child may find himself working as an official translator in situations where accuracy will have a big impact (in financial terms, or in legal terms) by the time they are 8 or 10 years old, and therefore are expected to act as mini-adults almost from babyhood. I believe the children of the guild are only partially educated in the system that the rest of society uses--I think they attend for a couple of hours a day, and the rest of their education would be the equivalent of home-schooling by the guild. I seem to remember that the members of the guild were thought to be of impressively high intelligence which also contributed to their status. The children typically have hard time fitting in with the public education system as they are not allowed to be childish, and don't understand or appreciate the silliness of their classmates. As well, due to being raised to think of themselves as part of this elite group, they regard the children they meet from outside the guild as inferior.

Women are not highly valued members of this group. I think matings are arranged by some authority for breeding purposes to create the optimal children, and also to fit the desires of the males (a male could ask to be paired with a specific woman who had caught his attention, but it didn't work in the other direction--women did not get to express a preference) and it is possible that there are no permanent pairings, or only polygamous arrangements.

Since the group is ultra-focussed on language, the novel explores the idea that language is prescriptive, rather than just descriptive. Eg. Murder is impossible in a society that does not have a word for murder, rather than the lack of the word reflecting that the event has never yet happened. Some of the women in this guild are distressed at the direction they see the male leadership taking the group, and decide they must intervene. They begin by creating an artificial women's language and teaching it to their daughters (since they must have words for the actions they want to take). Their rebellion goes unnoticed for quite some time, as men pay little attention to the private matters of women, deeming them as inconsequential. Eventually one of the women kills one of the most important male leaders (in his bed when she was supposed to be attending him). The killer convincingly pretends to be insane (which results in her being shut away as a dangerous lunatic) in order to protect the women's conspiracy, as the women believe that if she is interrogated, the men will find out everything, and all of them will be punished for daring to interfere with men's business. The killer is revered for her sacrifice by the other women, as it will be necessary for the killer to maintain this pretence until she dies, and the circumstances of her confinement are not pleasant. It did not, I believe have a happy ending.

13

"Native Tongue" by Suzette Haden Elgin

You describe "Native Tongue" by Suzette Haden Elgin almost perfectly. The linguist are the guild that uses the learning ability of children to acquire alien languages.

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzette_Haden_Elgin#Native_Tongue_series, "Native Tongue" was followed by two sequels "Judas Rose" and "Earthsong".

The children are paid handsomely for this service, and the wealth they accumulate for the guild is part of what creates the guild's status.

The linguist as a group are paid well and have enormous influence, because only through them trade with aliens is possible. Yet wealth and influence cause envy, and thus the linguists are hated and despised. To counter this, linguists live a frugal lifestyle.

I believe it is just a few families that control this program.

The family clans comprising the linguists are referred to as the lines.

Most of the children involved in this program are the children born into the "guild", ...

All cases where children from outside the lines were educated as linguist were failures, for different reasons. People from outside the lines become linguists through marriage or, in at least one unfortunate case of failure of an outsider child, adoption.

The children are raised very strictly ... are expected to act as mini-adults almost from babyhood.

"Native Tongue" to a tee.

I believe the children of the guild are only partially educated in the system that the rest of society uses ...

Besides the alien language they were raised to learn as native speakers, children of the lines typically learn several other languages, earth languages as well as alien ones, and Linguistics. Also they have to teach and translate the alien language they are native speakers in. So the time for standard education is limited.

The children typically have hard time fitting in with the public education system ...

The elite status and the intelligence of linguist children are only one reason for their isolation. The main reason is the contempt and envy linguists get as group, directly followed by the frugal lifestyle that doesn't allow linguist children any of the luxuries other children enjoy and have in common.

Women are not highly valued members of this group.

Not exactly: In the whole society described in the "Native Tongue" series, women no longer have the civil rights the have today. They are handled as something between bondmaids and charges. While female linguists nominally have no more rights than non-linguist women, they enjoy quite a bit more freedom, because they are needed as translators.

and it is possible that there are no permanent pairings, or only polygamous arrangements.

Definitly no. More than any other group the linguists have to uphold the appearance of morality.

Since the group is ultra-focussed on language, the novel explores the idea that language is prescriptive, rather than just descriptive ...

Yes, Laadan, the language secretly created by an for women, is the core of "Native Tongue" and its sequels.

Eventually one of the women kills one of the most important male leaders (in his bed when she was supposed to be attending him) ...

Are you sure you don't remember the title and author? You got everything else mostly right. :)

  • @JRE: Thanks for the correction; I'm a bit tainted by MediaWiki markup. :) – straycat Mar 31 '18 at 22:21
  • Nice job, I thought it was Languages of Pao. – Broklynite Apr 1 '18 at 11:18

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