Cite as: Hélène Cixous, ‘I say Allemagne’, lecture presented at the conference Untying the Mother Tongue: On Language, Affect, and the Unconscious, ICI Berlin, 12 May 2016, video recording, mp4, 01:12:53 <>
12 May 2016

I say Allemagne

By Hélène Cixous
As soon as I say 'Allemagne', Algérie rises and follows it like its shadow. I note that I say 'Allemagne'; in French, because it is in French that my mothers wove and sheltered their house and their body aus Deutschland. Hid them, when they thought it was necessary during the war. They 'smuggled' their primary truth under cover of French. At home in Oran, Omi always said 'where we come from', 'chez nous', in French, to formulate a law or an authoritative custom, and this 'where we come from' was Germany. On occasion I heard her say 'Bei uns', but her imperative way of printing the German order in our brains chose to 'speak German in French' to us in order to impose herself. Still today, the word Allemagne has the taste of Dom and Schlagsahne for me, or a Schubertian sonorous fluidity. In my double language childhood – Dyoublong, as Joyce says – French passed as German and German flowed into French, to my great satisfaction. Invitations from one language to another gave me a playful pleasure that seems to me today like the primal scene of all jouissance: to be two, as two, to be the other with myself, to always have the helping hand of a supplement, to never be enclosed in the cell of the proper-to-myself, of the national, to dispose of all means of transport, to overflow at will. The delight of painlessly foreigning oneself.

Born in Algeria in 1937, from a Sephardic Algerian father and an Ashkenazi German mother, Hélène Cixous moved to France in 1955, where she quickly became Professor of English literature. She created the experimental Université Paris VIII in 1968, and the first French doctoral program in Women’s Studies in 1974. She is now Emeritus Professor and teaches at the Collège International de Philosophie. She has been distinguished with honorary degrees by many universities around the world, and her literary prizes include the Prix Médicis (1969), the Prix des Critiques for best theatrical work (1994), the Prix Marguerite Duras (2014) and the Prix de la langue française (2014). She has been 'house playwright' at Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil for more than thirty years. The translations into a wide range of languages attest to the international recognition of her oeuvre. A writer who consistently breaks down the boundaries of genre (and of gender), she poses many intellectual challenges with her texts that are rooted in the practices of fiction, theory, and criticism, and yet depart from them.

Introduction by Antonio Castore


ICI Berlin
(Click for further documentation)

Organized by

Claudia Peppel

Video in English

Format: mp4
Length: 01:12:53
First published on:
Rights: © ICI Berlin

Part of the Conference

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
(Click for further documentation)


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

Organized by

Federico Dal Bo
Antonio Castore