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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture: Samuel Beckett and the Mother Tongue

9th February 2012, 19:30 to 20:30, Leech Hall, St John's College, Professor Ann Banfield (University of California, Berkeley)

Please note the time of this lecture has been changed from 5.30pm to 7.30pm.

Samuel Beckett's late "minimalist" style was the endpoint of a set of linguistic experiments meant to create a language that was no one's mother tongue.  Under James Joyce's urging, Beckett read Dante's De vulgaria eloquentia, which was perhaps the first text to address the concept of the mother tongue, a rather new notion, the term lingua materna, medieval innovation with no ancient counterpart, first appearing toward the end of the eleventh century. Dante gave to both Joyce and Beckett their conception of the mother tongue as a language-milk or language -breast. Joyce's Mother Ireland, the old crone/milkwoman who appears at the opening of Ulysses, carries "rich white milk, not hers", just as she possesses no Irish.  But if the mother tongue is the natural language, it is not defined against other natural languages, but against an artificial language: Latin, the non maternal language, like that of Adam, vir sine matre, vir sine lacte.  It is a language taught via grammar, i.e. via the explicit study of language, the product of letters and literacy, a learned and learnéd language.

The maternal language Dante pronounced inadequate to describe the depths of hell, yet Latin was too distant from his Florentine dialect to serve as the language for the Commedia.  De vulgaria eloquentia is not, however, the apology for writing in the vernacular.  Instead it proposes an "illustrious vernacular" formed like medieval Latin, a literary or, in Beckett's words, "synthetic" language "that could have been spoken by an ideal Italian who had assimilated what was best in all the dialects of his country, but which in fact was certainly not spoken".

Beckett sees such a synthetic language as Joyce's answer in Finnegans Wake to the Irish nationalist's revival of Gaelic.  Answering the objection "against this attractive parallel between Dante and Mr. Joyce in the question of language," that "no creature in heaven or earth ever spoke the language of Work in Progress," Beckett claims it "reasonable to admit that an international phenomenon might be capable of speaking it". In fact, Wakese is not the first Irish attempt to create a universal language that, unlike English, is no one's mother tongue. Like Dante, the Irish writers were students of language. George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion dramatizes the project of an ideal English above dialect differences and hence no one's mother tongue. The Gaelic League had criticized Synge, who studied the Celtic languages in Paris before going to Aran, for creating a "purely literary dialect . . . not spoken in any part of Ireland".  The style of Beckett's last works is one such literary language, not a compilation of many languages like the Wake, but a reduction to an ideal core of language, that "of one whose mother tongue as foreign as the others", as Beckett wrote in "The Voice."

Professor Ann Banfield is an IAS Fellow at St John's College during Epiphany Term 2012.

All welcome to attend.

Public Lecture Recording - mp3

Contact enquiries.ias@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.