SCI FICTION, October 27, 2004

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"We Have Always Spoken Panglish" by Suzette Haden Elgin

Suzette Haden Elgin's novelette, "We Have Always Spoken Panglish," is an academic sort of tale, an exploration of culture and society through an alien language.  Dr. Alyssa Miche is a linguist on assignment with the U.S. Corps of Linguists (USCOL).  In the course of her research, she discovers the unthinkable.

Panglish is an artificial amalgamation of all the different Englishes, the official international and interplanetary second language.  Alien and human children alike learn it in school as a counterpart to their natural tongue.  It isn't any species' native language; it can't be.  But in a little restaurant in the slum section of Seagarden, a city on the alien planet of Estrada-Blair, Miche discovers that the Losheffas, the lower class, believe they have always spoken Panglish.  It's a mystery, one that leads her on an investigation of culture, repression, and tragedy.

Elgin does an excellent job laying the foundation for a rich and captivating setting.  The alien frames the familiar, the exotic punctuating the commonplace in a nearly-human society.  But though I found it an engaging read, I left "We Have Always Spoken Panglish" dissatisfied.  It felt to me like this story needed more–more depth, more elaboration, more detail.  Elgin teases us with cultural enigmas, but leaves readers wondering.  Dr. Alyssa Miche isn't particularly interesting as a character, although her linguistic insights–one assumes inspired from Elgin's own expertise–are fascinating.  Here was that rarity of a science fiction tale where the science is more enthralling than the characters.

Definitely a captivating read that reveals insights into the human condition, with the obligatory a cautionary note.  But it left this reader unfulfilled.