11 – 12 May 2016

Untying the Mother Tongue

On Language, Affect, and the Unconscious
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’. 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, both a 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. 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 indispensable access to a symbolic dimension shaping affectivity and knowledge.


ICI Berlin
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Deborah Achtenberg
Zsuzsa Baross
Micha Brumlik
Michael Eng
Elad Lapidot
Juliane Prade-Weiss
Hélène Cixous
Daniel Boyarin

Organized by

Federico Dal Bo
Antonio Castore

In English

First published on:
Rights: © ICI Berlin
Cite as: Untying the Mother Tongue: On Language, Affect, and the Unconscious, conference, ICI Berlin, 11–12 May 2016 <>