mutter sprache — mother tongue

On Mother Tongue and Motherland

An Essay by Simone; May 2010


The Thra­cian Maidens have always been fasci­nated by crea­ting some­thing like their own MOTHERLAND. Would it be a land in geogra­phic terms? Unli­kely. But what then?

Having learned to always keep eyes and ears open in the quest for alter­na­tive ways of living, last year I coin­ci­den­tally came across an audio book titled MUTTER SPRACHE in a branch library of the Vienna Public Libra­ries. It turned out to be a collec­tion of poems by Rose Ausländer read by the poetess herself. Most curious I took this CD home and there I soon found myself listening spell­bound over and over to the CD’s titular poem Mutter Sprache (Mother Tongue):

Ich habe mich
in mich verwan­delt
von Augen­blick zu Augenblick

in Stücke zersplit­tert
auf dem Wortweg

Mutter Sprache
setzt mich zusammen


Admit­tedly, it took quite a while before I could answer why these verses fasci­nated me so much.

Mean­while, with some efforts I could find out some­thing about Rose’s life and poetry which would – as in so many other cases of these days – give many reasons to start the femi­nists’ well-known laments. To please also this kind of readers let me give just one example, before I move on to the more plea­sant issues:

Back in 1939, Rose’s first volume of poems, Der Regen­bogen (The Rainbow) was published, contai­ning a poem

Ins Leben

Nur aus der Trauer Mutte­rin­nig­keit
strömt mir das Vollmaß des Erle­bens ein.
Sie spiest mich eine lange, trübe Zeit
mit schwarzer Milch und schwerem Wermutwein


with the remar­kable expres­sion “schwarzer Milch”. Though it is hard to say whether Paul Celan simply copied this oxymoron “black milk” into his famous Death Fuge (1948), it remains a fact that she had created it almost 10 years before him and only seldom anyone takes notice of this fact.

Of course, we could go on crying over the loss of some of Rose’s essays due to to the WWII and so on and so forth, but, as promised, I do not want to join in the femi­nists’ laments but rather show what we could recall reading Rose’s poetry. Since Mother­land and Mother Tongue seem to be THE keywords in Rose Ausländer’s poetry, I will in the follo­wing concen­trate only on these two poems.

To start with Mutter Sprache, the perhaps most remar­kable things in the poem on the language level are the neolo­gisms “Wortweg” and “Menschmo­saik”. Wonde­ring how these and the poem as a whole would sound in English, I tried to trans­late it. Quite a chal­lenge were of course just the mentioned neologisms:

a) “Wortweg”

If “auf dem Heimweg” is to be trans­lated as “home­bound”
then “auf dem Wortweg” simply is to be trans­lated as “wordbound”

That was not that diffi­cult, but what about

b) “Menschmo­saik”?

“Mensch” may be trans­lated as “man” or “human”. While “man” espe­cially for a woman is mislea­ding, “human” doesn’t sound that nice in combi­na­tion with “mosaic”. So I decided to try it with “anthropos” stem­ming from the Greek, and I think the combi­na­tion “anthro­po­saic” works quite well. So, the poem finally reads like this:

Mother Tongue

I’ve trans­formed myself
into myself
From moment to moment

Broken into pieces

Mother Tongue
recom­poses me


Since one of the Thra­cian Maidens’ concerns is invol­ving all of the senses in their philo­sophy, we have prepared a small piece of audio/video artwork offe­ring the original poem along with my trans­la­tion. As mentioned, the original poem is read by Rose herself. It has been embedded into the acoustic arran­ge­ment of the Thra­cian Maidens’ philo­so­phical perfor­mance group called “The Creatrix”.



Hoping you have enjoyed our small perfor­mance, we may continue now:

As to “Mother­land”, I think it has become quite evident that all of the “father­lands” on our planet are mainly moti­vated by greed and conse­quently their basic skills are rape, robbery and murder. Now, accor­ding to Rose herself, one “could give herself away in deep distress, or she can alter­na­tively move to a diffe­rent reality” which she expressed in inge­nious verses:


Mein Vater­land ist tot
sie haben es begraben
im Feuer

Ich lebe in meinem Mutter­land


Now what is so fasci­na­ting about all these verses?

I think they do contain no less than an approach to factually and not just fictio­nally “move to a diffe­rent reality”!

While in “Mutter­land” she quite self-confidently states to have found her Mother­land in the word, contras­ting the vital Mother­land with the now dead father­land, thus sket­ching the favor­able final state, from “Mother Tongue” we may take that on the way there – Word­bound – we will often be broken into pieces. This only becomes bearable conside­ring the forma­tive and trans­for­ma­tive power of language in this never ending process.

As a result we sadly cannot simply “move to a diffe­rent reality”, but have to conti­nuously “trans­form ourselves into ourselves” which turns out to be quite hard work after all. But we may at least rely on Mother Tongue in this process. By the way, in the German language, Rose had to apply some magic to make the “mother” explicit, since “mother tongue” had been in use only as a compo­site word “Mutter­sprache” so far. This deco­m­po­sing trans­formed the former compo­site word having its stress on the inani­mate prin­cipal part “-sprache” into a vital mother named “Sprache”!

So we will have to become active if we really want to “move to a diffe­rent reality” and it will of course be of no use to hope for help from father­land. From this point of view we may perhaps apply Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Trac­tatus 5.6) to the current situa­tion of our world like this: As long as the fathers’ language is one of murde­rers, you cannot expect anything to happen but murder!

But what then is “Mother Tongue”?

First of all, it must be based on some other moti­va­tion than accu­mu­la­ting wealth. Perhaps it is just the oppo­site idea of SHARING which by the way is one of our mothers’ primary requi­re­ments in giving birth to and nurtu­ring her baby. Meta­pho­ri­cally, we of course also share thoughts which we do by means of languages.

Of course we should not repeat the same mistake as the femi­nists have done so far, since they have – using the same terms as the murde­rers – if anything, made women only parti­ci­pate in father­lands, as they have by no means broke open the limits of the fathers’ language.

Thus, I think “Mother Tongue” should – if we do not want to invent a total arti­fi­cial language – be quite close to the language we all learn in our mothers’ arms before we are forced into the abstract male world at school. Close to just the language men call primi­tive! Even if mother’s language veri­fiably apart from “words” contains bodily, rhythmic and melodic elements, while the “sophisti­cated” male language is made up of nothing but piles of bewil­de­ring terms bare of any bodily, rhythmic and melodic elements! In fact, the men’s language sounds just like an old mad angry dog barking.

There is even one more issue: Our mothers’ languages defi­ni­tely have a connec­tive power, while in the world of compe­ti­tive thin­king even language must be separating.

If we want a rich connec­tive “Mother Tongue” inclu­ding bodily, rhythmic and melodic elements rather than the mad angry dog barking, we will last but not least have to invent some new words to break open the limits of the men’s world, i. e. the chains of so called rationality.

Well, for now I hope I could show the huge philo­so­phical range hidden in Rose’s short and seemingly harm­less verses and I do hope that some of us become active, since we are still so very far away from Motherland!