Mother Tongues and Literary Languages

By Lepschy, Giulio | The Modern Language Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview
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Mother Tongues and Literary Languages


Lepschy, Giulio, The Modern Language Review


'Native speaker' and 'mother tongue' are two symmetrical and converse notions. They seem to refer to the same reality from two opposite viewpoints. Native speakers, by definition, speak their mother tongue, and a mother tongue is the language of a native speaker, but, in spite of this correspondence, the implications and the history of these two designations are very different, and, for both expressions, part of the difficulty lies in the relation they have with the notion of literary language.

In this lecture I shall discuss four points: native speaker; mother tongue; births and deaths of languages; and literary usage. I shall look in particular at topics emerging in the context of Latin, Hebrew, and Italian. The paper was written from the perspective of someone who is prevalently a linguist but one who is also interested in the literary aspect of the questions he is discussing, who, in fact, believes that although the two approaches, the linguistic and the literary, are distinct, they can only gain from being linked to each other, and in some cases they inevitably suffer from being kept apart.

Native Speakers

The notion of native speaker seems to be central for modern linguistics. This centrality is usually traced back to Leonard Bloomfield, who in his Language of 1933 noted: 'The first language a human being learns to speak is his native language; he is a native speaker of that language', (1) and to Noam Chomsky, who in his Syntactic Structures of 1957 stated that grammatical sentences have to be 'acceptable to a native speaker'. (2) With the two most influential American linguists of the twentieth century (one considered the main representative of structural linguistics, the other the founder of generative linguistics) using the native speaker as a basis on which the whole of linguistic theory rests, one might be justified in expecting the notion to have been clearly defined and analysed in great detail, and its previous history to have been satisfactorily traced.

However, this is far from being the case. Several volumes have been devoted to the native speaker during the last two decades, (3) but the notion remains elusive and hazy, and its history difficult to ascertain. The OED does not record it either under 'native' or under 'speaker'; the CD-ROM of the second edition (1989) provides seventeen hits, under different entries, dated between 1942 and 1982, and irrelevant for our purposes. Together with Helena Sanson, a colleague in the Italian department at UCL, I have done some work on the history of expressions 'native speaker' and 'mother tongue'. (4) We were struck by a concentration of examples of 'native speaker' in the first years of the twentieth century, in the debates concerning the revival of Irish. The expressions 'Irish speaker', and 'native (Irish) speaker' seem to be more or less interchangeable, in the context of these discussions. (5)

If the OED is not very helpful for tracing the history of the phrase 'native speaker', (6) bilingual dictionaries are obviously useless for this purpose, apart from confirming the peculiarity of the English designation by either offering translations which are clearly calqued on English (such as the French locuteur natif, the Spanish hablante nativo, the Italian parlante nativo), or have recourse to different expressions involving the mother tongue (see the German Muttersprachler(in), or the Italian il/la madrelingua for persons who speak or teach their mother tongue). This needs to be examined more closely.

Mother Tongues

The expressions 'mother tongue' and 'mother language' are recorded in the OED with two separate senses. The first is 'one's native language'. Both for 'mother tongue' and for 'mother language' the earliest attestation is in Wyclif (1380). With the second sense ('an original language from which others spring') the earliest quotation for 'mother tongue' is from 1645, and for 'mother language' from 1680.

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