Fictional utopian languages: Part III – Asa’Pili, Láadan

Part III of this three part series, in which Nathan Taylor-Gray explores fictional utopian languages and the utopian ideals of their speakers. If you missed them, here are Part I – Utopian, Houyhnhnm and Part II – Speedtalk, Pravic.

Sketch of a bolo, a utopian settlement where the fictional utopian language of asa'pili might be spoken
Source: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/p-m-bolo-bolo

By the time we reach the 1980s, fictional utopian languages were being invented every year or two. At this point it becomes a challenge to know what to include and what to exclude.

The criteria I’ve applied is to focus on fictional utopian languages that perform specifically idealistic functions, such as describing different ideas of ownership, relationship arrangements, or more equitable systems of economics. I’ve also excluded any language that doesn’t include examples of words in the language. This is why some notable fictional languages don’t qualify.

The Expanse’s Belter patois, the Loonie slang of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, or even the evolved English of Le Guin’s Kesh in Always Coming Home aren’t particularly ideological, even if some of those using it share a utopian ideology. Likewise, the Newspeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is promoted by its fictional society as utopian, but even they admit in secret it was designed for very dystopian ends. Tolkien’s Elvish tongues in The Lord of the Rings were undoubtedly a major influence on the creation of modern fantasy languages. But the Elvish world – while it may be seen as ideal to some – is also exclusionary, with the vocabulary itself not being particularly egalitarian.

The inventors of the two fictional utopian languages to be discussed in this post were intending not just to reflect the ideology of its speakers, as previous fictional utopian languages had done, but to introduce a tool for effecting change in the real world.

Asa’Pili

The fictional utopian language of Asa’Pili appears in Hans Widmer’s 1983 work Bolo’bolo. The book is an anarchist utopia with a very detailed description of community arrangements, but without much in the way of story.

The book is written in retrospect, after the world has been long organised into autonomus, semi-self sufficient communities called “bolos”. It begins in 1984, when Bolo’bolo pamphlets raising awareness of alternative ways of living spread across the world. This focuses the discontent of many people and soon results in the subversion of established systems of government. By 1987, international capitalist systems collapse. The next year, the whole world lives in bolos.

The book is not only a description of a possible utopia, but gives us a new vocabulary in which to understand how it is organised.

Asa’Pili vocabulary

Altogether, Widmer defines 30-40 words, which it is implied are just some of the words from a new universal language. These don’t just cover the unique concepts of the book, but also common words such as ‘person’, ‘food’ and ‘home’:

  • Ibu – person. Although Widmer translates as ‘man’ he seems to intend to encompass all genders
  • Kana – a group of 15-30 ibus
  • Bolo – about 20 kanas, so 300-500 ibus, plus guests (potentially 30-50)
  • Kodu – the agricultural base of a bolo
  • Sibi – practical buildings of the bolo
  • Ganu – meeting places for the bolo
  • Tega – township of 10-20 bolos
  • Dala – assembly of a tega
  • Dudi – delegates to a dala
  • Vudo – a county, around 400 bolos or 200,000 ibus
  • Vudo’dala – assembly of a vudo
  • Sumi – the largest practical unity for bolos and ibus. Can comprise an indefinite number of bolos, or several million people
  • Sumi’dala – assembly of a sumi
  • Asa – the whole world
  • Asa’dala – assembly of the asa
  • Yalu – food, to which everyone is entitled
  • Gano – a room, to which everyone is also entitled
  • Kana – a permanent home
  • Fasi – travelling, which can be done for as long as one wishes, taking a gano in another bolo wherever one visits, without encountering any borders beyond geographical ones
  • Sila – hospitality and tolerance, afforded to everybody
  • Taku – a container every ibu gets from their bolo, measuring 50x50x100cm, to contain their entire personal belongings. The size is similar to a small suitcase, presumably enabling one person to carry it without much inconvenience
  • Nami – the principle that “Every ibu can choose, practice, and propagandise for its own way of life, clothing style, language, sexual preferences, religion, ideology, opinions, etc., wherever it wants and as it likes”
  • Kene – common enterprises that carry out the distribution of essential resources in addition to those each bolo produces through its agriculture
  • Pili – language

The language combines words to make new ones, such as asa’pili (world language), fasi’ibu (traveller) and yalu’gano (restaurant).

The Asa’pili alphabet

Asa’pili has a much more concise alphabet than English. It is composed of a gang of 18 sounds (+ pause). Some of the symbols seem hieroglyphic. For instance, taku looks like the box it represents, and gano looks like a tent and symbolises housing.

Why Asa’pili?

As for his reasons for coupling his ideals with a new vocabulary, Widmer recollected and explained:

The original idea for creating this weird secret language came up because the European left-wing terminology was no longer viable. Nowadays when people talk about communism, that’s Gulag, no one wants to hear about it. … It is easier to simply say I am for bolo’bolo, and then everyone starts to think of the things all over again, to re-think them. … I invented this language. Bolo’bolo really means nothing other than communism. It is simply the translation”

Although Widmer admitted that Bolo’bolo started as “a mere collection of wishes”, he was hopeful that it could be a practical and realistic solution. “Bolo’bolo can be realised world-wide within five years” he claimed. Maybe those five years are long overdue, but hopefully we have five years left to do so. If society ever does go ahead and create something similar, thanks to Bolo’bolo they will have the words to do so.

Láadan

The fictional utopian language Láadan was created by Suzette Haden Elgin before she wrote the book that introduced it to the world, Native Tongue. Elgin was a language professor and developed her language with the aim that women could express their unique perspectives and experiences. She felt our patriarchal society had influenced language in ways that disadvantaged women, affecting not only their vocabulary but also their thoughts.

Elgin was also a science fiction writer and extolled sci-fi as a medium for women’s liberation. Native Tongue was published in 1984, with a grammar and dictionary following the year after. Unlike Le Guin’s fictional Pravic, Láadan was intended to be used as a real and unique language.

Elgin said she had the idea because, after speaking about the problems women have with language, she was repeatedly asked “If women aren’t satisifed with the language they have, how come they’ve never made up their own?”. In an interview she explained:

[I] was distressed by that question; I wasn’t aware at that time of the language constructed by Hildegard of Bingen, for example. It seemed to me that it would be useful for me to do a language, and specifically a language designed to express female perceptions – just so that I could say that it had been done.”

Women Writers.net

The presentation of Láadan in Native Tongue

Native Tongue is set many years after amendments to the US Constitution by conservative Christians have repealed all rights for women. We follow the story of Nazareth Chornyak, a woman who is the most gifted linguist of her age. While such “lingoes” are essential to human/alien communications, women are treated as children by the misogynist society of the time. Once they are too old to give birth, they are retired to the “Barren House”.

It is in the Barren House that Nazareth and her fellow women develop their own uniquely female language. Their purpose is to empower young women to fight against their oppressive culture. In a conversation within the book, a woman named Aquina muses about its potential:

Suppose we begin to use it, as you say we should do. And then, as more and more little girls acquire Láadan and begin to speak a language that expresses the perceptions of women rather than those of men, reality will begin to change. Isn’t that true?

“As true as water,” Nazereth said. “As true as light.”

Native Tongue, p.250

Láadan vocabulary

The language has a multitude of words for women, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, love and sex. Many words, and all pronouns, are gender neutral, until a gendered suffix is added. Elgin suggested male and female suffixes. Other proponents of the language have since suggested non-binary suffixes, as well as expanding LGBT+ specific terms.

The vocabulary offers other insights into the utopian themes of community, organisation and the unique relationships and connections that form in the subculture described in Native Tongue. For example, their word for community means not just an arrangement or collection of individuals, but also a feeling of belonging. Likewise, their word for family can refer to birth parents and siblings, but also people connected closely who create adopted family relationships.

There are specific terms for homosexual relationships, which are valued within the culture. In other ways it is more traditional: marriage is a monogamous arrangement between men and women, and children are raised by a parent. Yet the word for marriage insists it is something two people do together. As the dictionary states: “Láadan wouldn’t allow ‘X married Y or ‘Y married X’, which presupposes that marrying is something one person can do to another. It has to be a joint action, done together.”

The women are treated as chattel and assigned places to live and work, until they are sent to the Barren House. As such, current property relationships don’t quite apply. But the language still has words for possessing and owning, especially when it comes to personal items.

Clarity of communication

Being understood clearly is very important to the speakers of Láadan. An additional feature of the language is words to indicate the intent of your statement, e.g. whether in jest, in anger, or as a question. It also has words to indicate your own conviction in your statement, and whether or not you have a trusted source for any information you divulge.

Elgin was convinced of the utility of her language. She was therefore disappointed it was not adopted more generally outside of her novel. In a 2007 interview she disclosed that on the basis of Native Tongue being a thought experiement her own hypothesis – that within ten years women would either adopt her language or invent another one – had been disproved. However, Láadan does continue to have a life outside of the book.

Other sources of information about Láadan

As a fully developed language there is more to set out than can be described in this blog post. Look out for a bonus post coming soon with examples of the vocab. More information can also be found at http://www.laadanlanguage.org/.

Summary

In the novels covered in this series, the invented languages have specific purposes. The need to find new words to express the ideals of their new society, for instance. Or, the need to rid themselves of negative words from the old society that undermine their new ideals.

This gives the authors a reason to introduce new words that address the inadequacies of English. Especially problems with possessive terms for how humans relate to each other and things, and gendered words that don’t account for the complexity of the identities of their characters, or the dynamics of their relationships.

The future of utopian languages

The increase in fictional utopian languages has come with the increase of new utopian literature. This has been written for a number of reasons, such as:

  1. A new generation has grown up with the utopias of the ’60s
  2. Whereas political groups reacted negatively to earlier utopians or saw them as frivolous (Marx and Engels were particularly critical), there is now more acceptance that positive fictional portrayals of possible futures may inspire and foster greater ideological understanding and even prompt revolutionary action
  3. With the advent of the web and new ways of finding readers, this makes it easier to reach those who share an interest in utopian literature or the ideals related to it
  4. Our own age has specific challenges (or those challenges have become more severe or we are more aware of them) which inspires writers to come up with new solutions (or apply old ones in new relevant ways)
  5. Authors from other cultures and non-traditional backgrounds who now have greater access to potential readers, are seeing it as a means of expression, bringing their own unique viewpoints and voices

For all these reasons and more I would expect the trend of creating new fictional utopian languages to continue, as well as further development of the ones we have into real world constructed languages. Perhaps some of the words these authors have created will yet make their way into slang or even common usage. But even if they don’t, the ideals behind them will continue to prompt new ways of envisaging and building the future. New words will always be part of that utopian process.

A Little Woman’s Utopia

A Little Woman's Utopia: illustration by Flora Smith showing the gathering in of the harvest at Fruitlands

Astrid R. Abildgaard is a teacher and recent MA graduate in English and History from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In this article, she argues for using utopia not as a blueprint, but as a method for finding productive desires for a more just world, even in the most unexpected places.

A Little Woman's Utopia: illustration by Flora Smith showing the gathering in of the harvest at Fruitlands
Gathering in the harvest at Fruitlands. Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard.

When we think about the concept utopia, we usually imagine an island or a planet full of uncorrupted nature where people (or aliens!) have established a progressive social order. It is a fully physical space, even if it is imaginary. That is the type of utopia described by Thomas More when he first coined the term in 1516 by conflating the Greek eutopia (meaning good place) with outopia (meaning no place). In other words, More’s utopia is an ideal place that does not or cannot exist.

However, as the utopian theorist Ruth Levitas has pointed out in The Concept of Utopia (1990), utopia can also simply be a desire for a better way of living, which can become a catalyst for real change in some place. That type of utopia is one that can spring up in unexpected places – even in the seemingly traditional domestic novel of one of your favourite authors.

Utopian desire in… Little Women?

Ever since Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868-69, it has been a staple of children’s literature all over the world. It is a universal yet traditional girls’ story about growing up, as we follow the four March sisters’ trials and tribulations on their way to womanhood and (one might say “of course”) marriage.

The story has also maintained its popularity among adults because of its multiple screen adaptations, most recently in the form of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 box office hit.

Little Women film poster

Gerwig’s adaptation is especially interesting because it recognizes what many readers had already picked up on: that the rebellious sister Jo is really a fictional version of Alcott herself – a fact that Alcott confirmed in her journals. Jo is an aspiring writer, who proudly vows to never marry and let a man stand in the way of her career. Accordingly, the traditional ending – in which Jo marries a much older professor – has confounded readers ever since the novel’s publication.

But Gerwig changes this much contested part of the story by blurring the lines between Jo and Alcott and having Jo bypass marriage to pursue literary success like her author (who, in fact, complained in her letter that her publishers made her marry off Jo “in a very stupid style”). In this way, Gerwig highlights not only the autobiographical connection between Alcott and her protagonist, but also the independence and feminism of both. By acknowledging this autobiographical connection, we can uncover another progressive note in the novel: one of utopian desire.

Alcott’s life at Fruitlands: a fruitless utopia

To do this, we need the context of Alcott’s life and writing. Few people know that as a child in the 1840s, Alcott participated in (or rather: was the victim of) her father’s experimental utopian society called Fruitlands. This community sought to transcend society’s evils like private property, trade, animal labor and self-indulgence through a focus on philosophical self-improvement. However, it lasted only seven months before it was brought to an end by the coming of winter and the men seemingly having forgotten to do the farming necessary to feed the community.

This childhood experience stuck with Alcott, and she wrote about it in her journals from the time as well as later in a less-known satirical short story called “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873). In this story, Alcott ridicules her father’s unrelenting focus on philosophy and resulting disregard for the practical measures needed to sustain the utopian plan, which all resulted in an overburdening of the women in the community: Alcott herself, her mother and her three sisters.

The women save the community, first, by bringing in the harvest in the absence of the men, who have gone on a philosophical pilgrimage, and then by forcing the family to leave the doomed experiment and taking the practical measures to secure the family a more stable home. Alcott’s message in the satire is clear: lack of appreciation for women’s practical work is what undid Fruitlands, and women’s work for the community is what saved the family from impending dystopia.

Leaving utopia: illustration showing the removal from Fruitlands, January 1844
Removing from Fruitlands Jan. 1844. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Principles and practicality (and matriarchy)

When read in this context, Little Women displays a similar criticism of impractical utopianism. In the novel, Alcott reiterates Fruitlands’ ideals of self-improvement and self-sacrifice as guiding principles for the March family, but it is the reign of the mother, Mrs. March, that secures their practical implementation and prevents them from getting out of control. In the 11th chapter, “Experiments,” she lets her daughters skirt their chores – as an allegory to Fruitlands – letting them realize the necessity of practical work for the community on their own. Mr. March is notably absent throughout most of the story, and the happy, well-functioning home consists only of a community of women.

Alcott does not, however, let this childhood utopia stand unchallenged for long. Realistically, she depicts that the little women must grow up and eventually marry for money or love or both (or die like the sister Beth). Although Alcott idealizes the community of women throughout the novel, she seemingly does not want to get rid of men altogether; rather, she seeks to redefine their role in the household.

The three sisters that marry (Meg, Jo, and Amy) all take control of their marriages and teach their husbands how to help them with domestic chores and childcare while letting the women have their own agency and independence. Thus, Jo proclaims to her husband that their marriage will be one of equal responsibility and that she is intent on earning money herself. Alcott seems to argue that a happy marriage requires men and women to have equal responsibilities for domestic duties and equal amounts of independence in the family community. If that had been the case at Fruitlands, maybe they would have been fed, and the utopia would have had a chance.

A feminist yet practical utopian desire for gender equality

Alcott makes her desire for an altered relationship between men and women clear at the end of the story, when she depicts a functioning alternative to Fruitlands. The family celebrates Mrs. March’s birthday at Plumfield, the school Jo has established with her husband. Unlike Fruitlands, Plumfield allows for equal influence from the female and male elements (!), and Jo takes on the role of the matriarch of the community. The second half of Little Women, then, does not show a lack of utopian desire, but rather Alcott’s awareness of the limitations for women at the time.

Alcott criticizes her father’s unrealistic attempt at utopia in More’s sense while presenting an alternative in the form of feminist yet practical utopian desire for gender equality – even as she submits to the traditional ending in marriage. Thus, we can reconcile the conflict over the ending of Little Women without changing it to fit the independent feminism Alcott expressed elsewhere.

The example of Little Women reminds us not only of the feminist possibilities (and limitations) of 19th Century women’s fiction; it also shows us how we can use utopia not only as a blueprint for an ideal that is inherently impossible, but as a tool for discovering productive patterns of thought about a more just world, even in the most unexpected places.

Vintage book cover for the utopia 'Little Women'

Much of this article is based on Abildgaard, A. R. (2022). A New Biographical Interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: A Practicable Feminist Utopia? [Master’s thesis, University of Copenhagen]

Explore other guest posts on the Just Utopias blog here.