Conference Go to:Core Project EventsGo to:Videos

Untying the Mother Tongue

On Language, Affect, and the Unconscious

May 11-12, 2016

The term we still use to designate someone’s attachment to a particular language, her potentially flawless competence, or the very “place” for her thoughts to emerge in coherent form, is “mother tongue”. We take it to be a natural condition of language acquisition, equally valid for every individual speaker, and thus forget that it is a mere metaphorical reference to the “first” language, spoken by what is referred to, with an even more misleading metaphor, a “native” speaker. Throughout history, the use and connotations of the expression “mother tongue” have undergone several changes. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, the Latin lingua materna referred to the vernaculars in opposition to the learned Latin. In the eighteenth century, “mother tongue” became an emotionally charged term: establishing a more intimate, allegedly natural and privileged relationship between the speaker and her primary language, it lent authority to the Romantic aesthetics of originality and authenticity. The new emphasis on the “maternal” element in the metaphor inscribed the speaker into broader networks of relationships, from kin to nation. Carrying gendered and political meanings, the term “mother tongue” thus links its fortune to a “monolingual paradigm” coeval with the historical constellation of the emerging nation-states.

French poststructuralist thought has problematized the notion of a “mother tongue” by dividing it into two discrete elements—the “maternal” and the “linguistic”—and by exposing their metaphysical and colonialist presuppositions. Thus, Derrida has exposed the metaphysical implications of the dream of a “mother tongue”: a desire for origin, purity, and identity. In his Monolingualism of the Other—permeated with reflections about his affective relation to French—, Derrida has maintained that “the language called maternal is never purely natural, nor proper, nor inhabitable”. Julia Kristeva, on the other hand, has addressed the relationship between “maternal” and “language” in her elaborations on Plato’s concept of chora—a sort of pre-ontological condition of reality. While the Platonic chora is a formless matrix of space, in Kristeva it becomes “a non-expressive totality”: that is, paradoxically, botha generative principle through which meaning constitutes itself and a force subverting any established linguistic or epistemological system.

The conference Untying the Mother Tongue intends to re-think affective and cognitive attachments to language by deconstructing their metaphysical and colonialist presuppositions. If traditional constructions of a monolingual speaker, a pure “mother tongue” reveal the ideology of the European nation-state, then today’s celebration of multilingual competencies simply reflects the rise of global capitalism and its demand for transnational labor markets. French poststructuralist thought has problematized the notion of a “mother tongue” by dividing it into two discrete elements—the “maternal” and the “linguistic”—and by exposing their metaphysical and colonialist presuppositions. Can something be salvaged of the notion of a mother tongue? What are the remains, traces, or vestiges of a language no longer directly tied to the mother yet resounding with a maternal echo and at the same time manifesting itself as a primary idiom with respect to its affective and aesthetic dimensions? This “residual notion” of a mother tongue supposes that language is indeed a basic human need (like food, shelter, or clothing), since it provides an indispensible access to a symbolic dimension shaping affectivity and knowledge.

Programme (PDF)

Wednesday,  11 May 2016

Morning coffee


Panel I: Rethinking the Mother Tongue

Michael Eng
Philosophy’s Mother Envy. Has There Yet Been a Deconstruction of the “Mother Tongue”?

Deborah Achtenberg
But You Don't Get Used to Anything: Derrida on the Preciousness of the Singular

Jakob Norberg
The Mother Tongue at School: Jacob Grimm

Coffee break

Micha Brumlik
Does an (Ethnic) People Need a Mother Language? Considerations About Fichte and Weisgerber

Uli Linke
Speaking in Tongues. Language and Belonging in Europe

Zsuzsa Baross
Mother Tongue at the Limit

Lunch break

Panel II: In Translation

Eran Shuali
Holy Tongue or Mother Tongue: The Choice of Language in Translations of the New Testament

Anastasia Telaak
Mother Tongue, Father's Moses and “the Errant Verbal Matter.” Translations of the Other’s Language(s) in Alejandra Pizarnik’s Writing of Trauma and Exile

Panel III: Hebrew. Mother of All Languages

Michael T. Miller
The Original Language and the Seventy Languages in Jewish Tradition

Reuven Kiperwasser
Mother Tongue/Mother Land in Rabbinic Rhetoric

Cedric Cohen-Skalli
The Multilingualism of Isaac Abravanel:The Space of Hebrew within Christian Iberian Society

Coffee break

Zohar Weiman-Kelman
Dream of a Common Mame-Loshn. Yiddish Beyond the Mother Tongue

Elad Lapidot
The Infantile Native Speaker. Her Construction and Prohibition in the Event of the XX Century Hebrew

Federico Dal Bo
“My Mother Tongue is a Foreign Language:” On Edmond Jabès’ Writing in Exile

Coffee break

Keynote by Daniel Boyarin
Philological Investigations: The Concept of Cultural Translation in American Religious Studies

Thursday,12 May 2016

Morning coffee

Panel IV: Nostalgia, Trauma, and the Unconscious

Juliane Prade-Weiss
Scarspeak. For a Traumatic Notion of the Mother Tongue

Rivka Warshawsky
Afflicted by Lalangue: or, Mutism in the First Hebrew-Speaking Infant

Mathias Verger
Nostalgia and the Demythologisation of the Mother Tongue

Coffee break

Monica Monolachi
Avatars of Mother Tongue, with Samples of Romanian Poetry

Anne Isabelle Francois
Estranging the Mother Tongue

12:30-14:00    Lunch break

Panel V: Mother Tongue and Literature

Stefano Evangelista
Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: The Daughter of Too Many Fathers

Jeffrey Champlin
“I know you can cant”.Slips of the Mother Tongue in F. Moten’s B Jenkins

Coffee break

Ramsey McGlazer
The Manse of Mothers: Joyce, Reproduction, and the Past as Pensum

Nimrod Reitman
On the Stuttering of Language:Ingeborg Bachmann's Inconsolable Silence

Antonio Castore
“Die erfundene Wahrnehmung” or the Pantomime of Words:On Herta Müller’s Theoretical Writings

Closing Remarks

Coffee break

Keynote by Hélène Cixous
I say Allemagne

Organized by Federico Dal Bo and Antonio Castore

Flyer (jpg 560kB) Programme (PDF 130kB)

Time: 11-12 May 2016
Venue: ICI Berlin
In English

← Back To New Website