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The Gethan Language in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness
Liliek Soelistyo. Proceedings. National Conference LOOW: Language in the Online and
Offline World. June 1, 2010, English Department, Petra Christian University.
Although Le Guin has several novel published prior to 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness
has made her one important figure in Science Fiction canon. The novel won both the
Nebula Award (1969) and the Hugo Award (1970). The overall plot of The Left Hand of
Darkness follows a stranger visiting an alien planet. In this case, Genly Ai is an Envoy
(aka Mobile) of the Ekumen who is on the planet Gethen or Gethan, known alternately as
Winter, an environmentally harsh world of perpetual snow and ice. Genly Ai is the only
Ekumen representative on Gethen because, as he later explains, one person can be
received by an alien culture as an oddity, a vulnerable messenger who poses no threat to
the planet’s cultures. A group of Ekumen representatives, however, might be seen as an
invasion. Genly Ai has the mission of inviting the Gethenian people to join the Ekumen.
In his mission he has several meetings with Estraven, another important character who is
a hermaphrodite. In the planet of Gethen, Genly Ai has a problem to understand their
culture which is so different from his [the earth] culture. This paper is trying to reveal how
Le Guin’s description of the different language used by Gethan, and the people of the
earth that causes the difference in culture of the people, is connected with Sapir-Whorf
Research Method
The research is a descriptive analysis. Kramsch (1998: 11) states that according to
Humboldt (1762-1835) different people speak differently because their language offers them
different way of expressing the world around them (hence the notion of linguistic relativity).
This idea is picked up by Sapir and his student Whorf in their hypothesis claiming that the
structure of the language one habitually uses influences the manner in which one thinks and
behaves. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis consists of two associated principles. These are
"linguistic determinism", which states that our language determines our thinking, and
"linguistic relativity", which states that people who speak different languages perceive
and think about the world quite differently. While Whorf believed wholeheartedly in
"linguistic determinism"; in other words, what one thinks is determined by their language
and he also supported "linguistic relativity", which states that the differences in language
reflect the different views of different people, Sapir believed that language shapes human
perception and directs human behavior. From his view, understanding a culture is
impossible without understanding the historical development of that culture’s language.
Simply stated, the hypothesis proposes that language is not only a part of culture,
influenced by the groups of human beings who construct it, but also an influence on
culture and thought.
Human beings, Whorf believed, see the world in the ways they do because of the
structure of the languages they speak. For example, the Latin language has no word for
the female friend of a man (the feminine form of amicus is amica, which means mistress,
not friend) because the Roman culture could not imagine a male and a female being
equals, which they considered necessary for friendship. Another example of SapirWhorf’s beliefs can be found in George Orwell's book 1984. Here, "Newspeak" was
created to alter the way people think about the government. The new vocabulary is a
method of mind control, since the population could not think of things that are not
included in the vocabulary. In essence, they are prisoners of their own language. The
underlying theory of Newspeak is that if something can't be said, then it can't be thought,
either. This is related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In Le Guin’s The Left Hand of
Darkness, the most important thing for Genly Ai, the main character, is to master
shiftgrethor. Shiftgrethor is an old Gethenian word for shadow. This concept is used by
Gethenians of all nations on Gethen. Shiftgrethor shapes the Gethenians’ perception
about social matters such as gender and sex, and directs their behavior as what Sapir and
Whorf believe.
Gethan Language, Culture, and Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Shiftgrethor is a fictional concept in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. According to
Carrie B.McWhorter (1998) shifgrethor is a sense of honor and respect that provides the
Gethenians with a way to save face in a time of crisis. However, a deep analysis of the
book presents shiftgrethor as a mighty word/concept, used by the Gethenians to get rid of
problem or to solve differences when it is used properly. Yet, if it is used incorrectly, it
can teach the people to have fear and hatred.
In the story, the main character Genly Ai defines the shifgrethor as “prestige, face, place,
the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all-important principle of social authority”
(p.17). He further realizes that he will not be able to understand the culture of the people
of Gethen, if he does not understand this concept, meaning that the shiftgrethor
determines what the people think and shapes their behavior.
One of the examples of the use of shifgrethor is the discussion of the main character with
Estraven about the word “patriotism”. Patriotism is the noun of the word “patriotic”
which means “having or expressing a great love of one’s country.” In the story, when
Estraven asks Genly Ai whether he understands the meaning of patriotism, Ai answers, “
I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I
do know” (p.21). Estraven explains that what he means patriotism is not love but “fear”
(p.21) :
The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry,
aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year. We’ve followed
our road to far. And you, who come from a world that outgrew nations centuries
ago, who hardly know what I’m talking about, who show us the new road-. It is
because of fear that I refuse to urge your cause with the king now. But not fear for
myself, Mr.Ai. There are other nations on Gethen.
As what Sapir and Whorf states that people who speak different languages perceive and
think about the world quite differently, Estraven and Genly Ai have a different perception
about being patriotic. While Genly Ai perceives the word as being related to “love”,
Estraven means that the word is related with the words “fear” whose expression is
political since it conveys “hate”, “rivalry”, and “aggression.” Therefore, when Ai tries to
understand this concept, he feels “cold, unconfident, obsessed by perfidy, and solitude,
and fear” (p.21). What he feels reflects his difficulties in understanding a Gethenian
because he does not understand the shiftgrethor that exists among the people. When I
analyze further, I find out that the word “patriotism” which means “fear” has something
to do with the political matter in Gethen. The main character, Genly Ai finds himself in
the middle of political intrigue that has a crucial bearing on his mission. The fact that
Estraven tries to help Ai to communicate with the king, offering an alliance with the
nations of Earth, and is considered a traitor, not a patriot although what he does is for the
sake of the development of Gethen, shows what Whorf believes that language, thought,
and culture are interrelated. Here I think, the concept of shifgrethor, the “prestige”, and
the “pride-relationship” may be associated with the words “traitor”, and “patriot”. The
people of Gethen have perceived “patriotism” differently from the earth’s culture.
Because of the prestige of the people of Gethen, they create the concept of “fear” to any
intruder to their culture. As a consequence, Estraven is punished and exiled for treason as
he is seen as conspiring to weaken the authority of Gethen and is subsequently
condemned. So, the Gethan language then is not merely a way to express the people’s
ideas, but it determines the range of ideas they can have.
Another form of how Gethan culture is perceived differently because of the language
they use is the concept of androgyny. Sapir and Whorf believe that if there is not any
word or term for a concept, it is hard even to conceive it. An androgyne is a
hermaphrodite who has combining characteristics of both sexes, male and female. People
in Gethen do not have any biological sex. Male/masculine and female/feminine
designations have no place in Gethen. The main character, Genly Ai cannot escape
gendered designations since he comes from the earth that only recognizes single sex
species. Therefore, his efforts to connect with Gethan culture are flawed because he
cannot help but see a Gethenian “first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him [the
Gethenian] into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own”
(Le Guin, p.12).
In addition, the meaning of the word “woman” is asked by Estraven by questioning
whether women are different from men. “Are they like a different species?” (p.159).
Genly Ai answers : “No. Yes, No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very
important. I suppose the most important thing … is whether one is born male or female.”
(p.159). When Ai says that Estraven has “never seen a woman” (p.158), it implies that
the vocabulary “woman” has never existed in their mind since the Gethenians could not
think of things that are associated with the vocabulary. In essence, they are prisoners of
their own language as Sapir says. Therefore, a woman creature is a stranger to the people
of Gethen.
Further, the concept of being female has been an argument since the people of Gethen
will apply the word “female” only to a person in the culminant phase of kemmer, a
reproductive cycle wherein the Gethenians change into male and female partners for
reproductive purposes. Therefore, when they find out that on earth, a female becomes
female “permanently” (31), they do not understand. Further, due to their sexual
physiology, they cannot tolerate any dealings with a woman that they label as “creature
so monstrously different” (p. 32). Consequently, Genly Ai has experienced not only a
cultural shock but a biological shock because he is a human male among human beings
who are hermaphrodite neuters.
The most interesting use of Gethan language in sexual matters deals with the words “
abnormal” and “ normal”. The excessive prolongation of the kemmer period in which
there is a hormonal imbalance toward the male or the female causes what they call “
perversion” (p.49). A Gethenian may be a physiological pervert or an abnormal person
because they stay a female and a male for a long period of time while in Earth culture,
this is normal. Le Guin tries to compare them with the homosexuals in bisexual society
[Earth], where they are not excluded but they are tolerated with some disdains (p.50).
Yet, the call them the “half-deads” (p.50). Comparing to the earth’s sex-life, the entire
pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here in Gethen. People do not see one
another as men or women. Hence, the reality of the Gethan culture is created by their
language; among other things their language shows what a culture thinks is important
enough to name.
Another important aspect of the language they use is the pronouns “he”, “she”, and “it”.
It is very interesting that the Gethenian lacks ‘human pronoun” (p.70) used for persons
when they are not in kemmer condition. They use “he”, for the same reason as the people
on earth use the masculine pronoun in referring to a male person. The pronoun “he” is
less defined, less specific than the neuter or the feminine. They will only mention the
pronoun “she” when they are in a reproductive cycle (kemmer). So, during the period of
somer (the opposite of kemmer), they have a word “man” which actually to people on
Earth it is “manwoman”. .Yet, when the baby is born, they do not think the baby as “it”.
Le Guin emphasizes that the baby is not “neuters”, but “potential” or “integral” (p.70).
She is also forced to repeat herself in “Is Gender Necessary?” reinforcing that “he” is the
generic pronoun. Nevertheless, Le Guin admits that the novel is perhaps not as
convincing as is needed to depict androgynes as it may leave out too much: “One does
not see Estraven as a mother, with his children, in any role which we automatically
perceive as ‘female’: and therefore, we tend to see him as a man. This is a real flaw in the
book” (168).
Furthermore, the lack of sex division between men and women is also related to the
concept of shiftgrethor. It refers to the important principle of social authority. The social
activities are not based on gender roles. Biological sex is temporary, so gender roles
cannot be assigned. The structure of the society, the management of their industry,
agriculture, and commerce are shaped to fit the system of reproduction in the community.
For example, whatever a Gethenian’s position is, no one is obliged to work in kemmer.
Besides, the social authority’s control has been able to regulate the life of the Gethenian.
The people’s sexual behavior is regulated by some rules that are so different from the
rules on Earth. The further extreme of the practice is the custom of “vowing kemmering”,
which is based on monogamous marriage. It has no legal status, but socially and ethically
is an ancient institution. They do not have the word “divorce”, but they can separate.
They cannot have remarriage after the separation or the partner’s death, because they can
only vow kemmering once.
However, there is a resemblance between social correctness of the people of Gethen and
the people of Earth about marriage. In my opinion, although they differ in their
intentions: in Gethen marriage is socially instituted to enhance the power of the
government because people have to stop working and they have a sexual intercourse
during kemmer, while on Earth, marriage is legally, and socially instituted to bestow
rights and obligations for the husband and wife, both the Gethenians and the people of
Earth believe that when possible, one is obliged to have only one partner/ spouse.
Referring to this issue, Le Guin states that the novel does nothing to challenge
heterosexuality; in other words,
straight relationships are still advocated as the normal sexual condition. This is
clearly evident in kemmering, as Gethenians default to male/female binaries and
pair up in that fashion; although there are incestuous partnerships, there
apparently are no homosexual relations (Bernardo and Murphy, p.33).
Therefore, kemmering is considered normal as what an earthman has done in marriage. In
other words, there are male and female who are having the intercourse during the
marriage and both are instituted.
Nevertheles, since a Gethenian during kemmer may become either female or male, in
my opinion, they may not associate social roles with a biological ability to reproduce and
raise children. This is proven by the fact that each Gethenian is allowed to potentially
have the ability. Everyone is “tied down to childbearing” (p.69), meaning that everyone
has the same risk to be female who delivers a child. Therefore, nobody in Gethen is so
free as a free male anywhere else [Earth]. However, they do not have the word “mother”
although they admit that a child or a “descent” is reckoned from the female. They call the
mother as “the parent in the flesh” or “amha” (p. 68). Here again, this is related to what
Sapir and Whorf have stated that to what extent the language people speak influences
what and how people think. The people of Gethen think that the role of a mother is not
as important as a mother in our definition. Because they consider that a child does not
have a psycho-sexual relationship with his mother and father, the child is only a
The last aspect of the shiftgrethor that shows how they rule their life is the fact that
because of the absence of gender roles, there are also the absence of war, jealousy,
hatred, rape and sexual exploitation. It is mentioned in the novel that the further
consequence of the absence is that
There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves,
protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact
the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be
lessened, or changed, on Winter”[Gethen] (p. 69).
In my opinion, the shifgrethor here is used to solve the problem that might occur as what
happens on Earth as Genly Ai has experienced about war. War is assumed to be a
“purely masculine displacement activity, a vast rape’ (p.71). Therefore the elimination of
war in the story might mean Le Guin’s experiment to eliminate “the masculinity that
rapes , and the feminity that is raped” (p.72). This has something to do with their being
Words shape ideas about things, meaning that they shapes human perception and directs
human behavior. The Gethenian culture's reality is to some degree created by their
language. The perception of the people about sex, for example, happens because they do
not have the word “woman”, resulting in what they call kemmer.
The analysis does not only prove that Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be accepted,
especially when it proves that Le Guin uses the Gethan words to see the difference
between the culture of Gethan society and the culture of the earth (ours), but also proves
that there is a strong relation between language, thought, and culture.
Secondly, the relation between language, culture and human being’s thought is not
temporary, but systematical and continuing or lasting for all future time. This has been
proved that the shifgrethor , the concept, which includes the language, behavior, and
custom in Gethen, has been living in the people, and influencing their behavior and
Bernardo, Susan M, and Graham J. Murphy (2006) Ursula Le Guin : A Critical
Companion. Greenwood Press: London.
Green, Jonathon (1985). Newspeak: a dictionary of jargon.: Routledge & Kegan Paul:
London, Boston.
Le Guin, Ursulla (1969). The Left Hand of Darkness. Cox & Wyman Ltd.: London
_______ (1976). “Is Gender Necessary?
Mc.Whorter, Carri B. Brandishing Shiftgrethor: Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
Note on Contemporary Literature. January, 1998: 28(1)
Whorf, Benjamin (1956). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of
Benjamin Lee Whorf. John Carroll, ed. MIT Press: USA.