Histoire culturelle de l'Europe

Louise Sampagnay

Multilingualism as a religion? Beyond Babel, or negotiating the concept of Sprachverwirrung from Luther to Ferenczi



Cet article réévalue l’imaginaire religieux de la multiplicité des langues par-delà le mythe biblique de Babel. Parallèlement à la progression de l’athéisme en Europe depuis les années 1970 en particulier, des voix littéraires, linguistiques et philosophiques louant le plurilinguisme semblent converger vers une attitude de déférence envers une “loi secrète” mystique régissant les langues, telle qu’elle est évoquée par Derrida dans le Monolinguisme de l’autre (1996) : c’est notamment le cas de George Steiner dans Après Babel (1975), de Claude Hagège dans Le Souffle de la langue (1993) ou de Yasemin Yildiz dans Beyond the Mother Tongue : The Postmonolingual Condition (2012). Est-ce à dire que la langue pourrait se substituer au « sentiment religieux » déclinant (Scheve, Berg, Haken, Ural 2021), et procurer aux cultures européennes une identité commune forgée autour des langues comme objets sacrés ? Sont étudiées à titre d’exemple d’ambiguïté plurilingue les occurrences de la confusion volontaire des langues à travers l’histoire de l’aire germanophone, du terme de Sprachverwirrung dans la Bible de Luther jusqu’à l’oubli auquel a longtemps été condamné Sándor Ferenczi par Sigmund Freud et par Ernest Jones pour son emploi du terme dans Confusion de langue entre les adultes et l’enfant (1932). La récente redécouverte de Ferenczi invite à envisager les adultes comme de potentiels dieux tout-puissants imposant des dogmes linguistico-religieux aux générations suivantes. Un cas particulier est mobilisé dans l’article afin d’illustrer le propos : celui de l’autobiographie d’Elias Canetti, dont « l’histoire d’une vie » (Lebensgeschichte, 1977, 1980, 1985) nous semble cristalliser à elle seule un imaginaire plurilingue à travers l’histoire récente des cultures européennes.


This article reassesses the religious dimension within the representations of language multiplicity beyond the biblical myth of Babel. Parallel to the growth of atheism in Europe since the 1970s, scholars in the fields of linguistics, philosophy or literary studies have been praising multilingualism. Authors such as George Steiner (After Babel, 1975), Claude Hagège (Le Souffle de la langue, 1993) or Yasemin Yildiz (Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition, 2012) seem to converge towards an attitude of deference towards a mystical "secret law" governing languages, as mentioned by Derrida in The Monolingualism of the Other (1996). Could language replace declining “religious feelings” (Scheve, Berg, Haken, Ural 2021) and provide European cultures with a common identity, built around languages as sacred objects? As an example of multilingual ambiguity, I examine occurrences of the Sprachverwirrung throughout the history of the German-speaking world, from Luther's Bible to psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, who was long condemned to oblivion by Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones for his use of the term in Confusion of the Tongues between the Adults the Child (1932). The recent rediscovery of Ferenczi’s findings invites one to consider adults as potential all-powerful gods imposing linguistic-religious dogmas on subsequent generations. This article focuses on the particular case of Elias Canetti's autobiography, whose "life story" (Lebensgeschichte, 1977, 1980, 1985) alone functions, I argue, as a paradigm for a multilingual imagination throughout the recent history of European culture.

Texte intégral

1For researchers within the field of multilingual studies, the myth of Babel is ubiquitous, far beyond the Bible. Whether it is perceived as a burden or as a gift, translation studies keep referring to the biblical myth, as if « the open wound of Babel », as Umberto Eco once stated in the context of his philological search for the perfect language1, should be healed, or at least heeded, when one seeks to put translation studies on a solid heuristic foundation. The myth of Babel seems to function as a religious requirement – at least culturally speaking – for anyone claiming to articulate some thoughts about language multiplicity as a fact, especially its presence in literature in the form of what Rainer Grutman and Myriam Suchet call heterolingualism2. One need only think of the many pictures representing the Tower of Babel used by academics and writers alike so as to illustrate academic conferences, edited volumes, monographies or even fictions about and/or displaying multilingual dimensions, even if the word Babel itself does not appear in the title of the event or book. This Babelian reflex is best illustrated by George Steiner’s After Babel (1975)3, whose front cover pictures Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s infamous 1563 canvas The Tower of Babel.

2Whether consciously or not, academics show a widespread tendency to use the trope of language multiplicity in a symbolic or even religious sense, especially within the field of translation studies. Subjected to a punishment from God for having built a tower tall enough to reach heaven, men are henceforth divided by the Eternal, and so are the very interpretations of the Babelian biblical myth. Following multilingual scholar George Steiner, French-German author and translator Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt, who writes in French and has translated works of literature from German into French and vice versa, gathers, analyses and summarises these interpretations in his 2017 essay À l’insu de Babel – whose title, which could translate to Unbeknownst to Babel, refers wittingly to Steiner’s After Babel while significantly adding a mystical dimension to it4. Of course, the purpose and meanings attached to the human building as a complex symbol and a seminal origins myth in the Book of Genesis (Gen 11: 1–9) remains unclear: have men been punished by God on account of their hubris, having attempted to reach or even equal God by building the highest tower? The divine punishment, however, is easier to identify, within hermeneutics and beyond: men are stricken by the multiplicity of languages, i.e. by a state of language confusion – or Sprachverwirrung in Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) Early New High German.

3This article strives to address the question it identifies at its core: what are the nature and meaning of this seemingly linguistic confusion? One of the most famous, historically pivotal uses of the Sprachverwirrung in German is the one used by psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi in his grounding paper « Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind » (« language confusion between the adults and the child »)5. Significantly however, the article was condemned to oblivion by Sigmund Freund and Ernest Jones, from its hectic emergence in the 1930s at an International Psycho-Analytic Congress in Wiesbaden up until the late 1980s when it was rediscovered in the context of the Freud Wars waged by former director of the Freud Archives Jeffrey Masson’s essay6. Both infamous uses of the German term will be explored throughout this article.

4I argue that multilingualism, when it comes to a language confusion within family structures – regarded as microscopic structures of power dynamics and social domination within human societies and organised religions7, following Michel Foucault’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s historical and sociological works and heuristic heritage –, is both associated with a religious sentiment and with transgenerational dynamics. We understand the concept of religious sentiment as recently analysed and developed by Scheve, Berg, Haken, Ural in their 2020’s edited volume Affect and Emotion in Multi-Religious Secular Societies8.

5To illustrate the thesis according to which the multiplicity of idioms is not pertaining to a Babelian confusion, but to an arguably more semantically charged, even aporetic Ferenczian one, I shall be looking at both uses of the word Sprachverwirrung in the German language. This « language confusion » or rather « confusion of languages » is a key concept around which the argument is articulated. Furthermore, this article reconsiders German-writing, multilingual and Jewish author Elias Canetti’s works and life through the prism of the Sprachverwirrung. This literary analysis is to be construed as a specific example to further ground this article’s pivotal thesis.

6Finally, it should be noted that autobiographical writings by multilingual authors have only been recently explored by researchers like Alain Ausoni or Claire Kramsch9. However, the corpus itself remains vastly unexplored. This article therefore hopes to contribute to the research fields focusing on translingualism, as well as « language memoirs » and « linguistic autobiographies » as a whole. In fact, they may be considered a uniquely seminal way to look at a specifically European cultural history, as will be shown throughout this article.

Believing in an ambiguous Babel: beyond the many interpretations of Biblical multilingualism

The Lutheran “Sprachverwirrung” (language confusion) as a confusing gift

7In their recently published, comprehensive textbook Literatur und Mehrsprachigkeit, Till Dembeck and Rolf Parr use the biblical myth as a central argument in their introduction. They summarise the various aspects of Babel and point out why language is an essential cultural object to understand the cultural history of a Judeo-Christian Europe:

The most important supporting narratives of the Jewish tradition, and of the Christian tradition later on, are questions of language difference. The miracle myths of Babel and Pentecost identify language both as a sign and as an instrument of culture. Thus, the erection of the Tower of Babel aims to secure mankind social cohesion (Gen. 11) – thereby, men oppose the divine will. God clearly intended the scattering of human languages through the colonization of Earth by mankind (Gen 1.26 - 28) indeed. Conversely, the promise of the miracle of Pentecost is also one that signals the abolition of all language differences within and through the Christian faith10.

8One can already notice a singular idea in this introduction by Dembeck and Parr: the multiplicity of languages itself does not seem to easily detach itself, in an academic perspective, from the question of morality. Is this morality still religious in nature in the sociological context of largely secularised European societies? This in particular still needs to be determined. At any rate, I will heed this idea throughout my article. Later in the textbook, Arvi Sepp develops this point when looking at the ethics of plurilingualism ("Ethik der Mehsprachigkeit"). He considers that the academic use of the Babel myth is itself due to a religious, and more generally moral imaginary:

In the Old Testament, the myth of the Tower of Babel is widely used to ground the theological significance of translation and its importance in the possibility of overcoming language confusion11.

9Drawing on many scholarly comments such as those of Giulia Radaelli12, Walter Lesch13 or Walter Benjamin14, Arvi Sepp argues that the confusion of languages after God's intervention in the Babelian myth leads to the idea of any idiom being incommensurable. In fact, there cannot be a one-to-one relationship in translation any longer. Through Babel, the possibility of understanding each other is abolished. Consequently to the loss of a heavenly innocence, that of a straightforward communication, men have to translate constantly. According to Benjamin, it is precisely the « translator's task » to « redeem in one's own pure language that has been banished into another's, to liberate in translation that which is imprisoned in the work. »

10This idea actually goes back to Martin Luther's German. It should be remembered that the history of Protestantism and its repercussions on the constitution of the German language represent a fundamental aspect of the imaginary of the German language. The language is seen as a cultural object that can be traced back to a religious, and more specifically Lutheran, imaginary. This trope of German cultural history had already been identified by the poet Heinrich Heine. Heine was a leading figure in the construction of a unified German culture, particularly in literature and language, and was committed to this political ideal. Despite the successive failures of liberalisation and revolutions since the beginning of the Vormärz, Heine called for the drafting of a German constitution and the establishment of a parliament, modelled on other European democracies and neighbouring nation states. In Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland ('On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany'), an essay written in 1833-1834 while in exile in Paris because of his political commitments, the poet writes :

Wie Luther zu der Sprache gelangt ist, in der er seine Bibel übersetzte, ist mir bis auf diese Stunde unbegreiflich. Diese Schriftsprache gibt unserem politisch und religiös zerstückelten Deutschland eine literarische Einheit15.

11German linguist and medievalist Peter Polenz recently summarised the role played by Martin Luther in a more academic perspective but with the same enthusiasm. He speaks of the written German as possessing a « normative force on several linguistic levels » :

Dieser Stand der schreibsprachlich initiierten Spracheinigung ist dann auch der Ausgangspunkt für Martin Luther, dessen Bibelübersetzung auf mehreren sprachlichen Ebenen normative Kraft erhält16.

12Polenz also states that Luther is at the origin of the first occurrence in German of the term Sprachverwirrung in his translation of the Genesis into German, by which he refers to the confusion of languages in Genesis, following the construction of the Tower of Babel17. But let us not forget the problem that Meir Sternberg identified perfectly forty years ago :

Translators and theorists of translation naturally recall with gratitude the incident of the Tower of Babel - as the felix culpa responsible for the crisscross of interlingual chasms which they are constantly urged to survey and as far as possible to bridge. The attitude of writers to this sociolinguistic turning-point is, however, less uniform and certainly more ambivalent18.

13How can we understand the gap between the literary reception (by the authors) and the (overly dense) academic multiple uses of the Babel incident that led, in Lutheran terms, to the Sprachverwirrung? We do not want to contribute here to a theoretical debate that has already been widely considered in translation studies, but rather to open new perspectives on the consideration of languages as sacred objects in literature.

Elias Canetti, the multilingual Jewish orphan with no God but the German language

14In a translingual perspective19, one can explore the autobiographical figure of an infamous orphan writer and its relationship to the German language: Elias Canetti (1905-1994). One could argue that language itself turns to a sacred object after being a possible parental figure. But as events soon unfold, the religious sentiment linked to language has little to do with German, the language which Elias Canetti chose to write his entire work, but with English, the language in which his soon departed father (he died when Elias was seven years of age and living with the rest of his family in Manchester, a city they had emigrated from Bulgarian-speaking Rutschuk a year before) taught him to read and write before dying.

15As a German-writing author, Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1981. Interestingly, he chose this language amongst all available to him to write his entire works, even though he stems from a multilingual background. Why does he turn the German language into a proper character at the heart of his three-volume autobiography20? The multilingual and cosmopolitan childhood of Elias Canetti is marked by the brutal death of his father when Elias was seven years of age. The boy’s wealthy, ladino-speaking Sefardic family had shortly emigrated to England.

16In the first volume of his autobiography The Tongue Set Free (1977), Canetti recalls the loss of his adored father, who had recently taught him the love of the English language and literature. As Canetti describes throughout his autobiography, written in the 1970s and 1980s, when he had been living in London for many years following his exile from Austria, there was an abundance of languages in his native Ruse (former Austro-Hungarian Empire, currently located in Bulgaria). His past autobiographical self soon mastered many of them – as the adult autobiographer does at the time of the writing. This Babelian « madness » (, as described by French psychiatrist and literary critic Roger Gentis21, was soon overcome by Canetti when the boy was finally allowed to learn the desired German after his mother emigrated to Lausanne in Switzerland.

17Yet critics and scholars alike have largely underplayed the traumatic impact of Canetti’s father death and him subsequently being prevented from attending the funeral. In fact, readings of Canetti’s autobiography are focused on finding out whether or not his quasi-incestuous relationship to his mother was a way for the anti-Freudian writer to mock the Oedipus complex or to reveal it. Thereby the anger and grief of the orphaned boy is set aside – critics viewing young Elias as a jealous teenage boy trying to come between his mother and her new companions. I argue that when his mother forced the German language into the orphan Elias by humiliating and teasing him relentlessly, she was actively « incestual », as French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul-Claude Racamier coined it in the 1990s22, sparking a strong controversy within orthodox Freudian circles in France, long after the beginning of what has then been called the Freud wars, which had been waged in a number of other countries. Thus I argue that a deeper, closer reading of Canetti’s autobiography from a non-Freudian perspective enables one to acknowledge the possibility of the following hypothesis: i.e. that Elias’ remaining parent, his mother Mathilde, was consciously manipulating the « language confusion between the adults and the child » (« Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind ») as Sándor Ferenczi23 coined it in the 1930s, to her advantage.

18I should turn here back to the very subject of the article: it is precisely the concept of language confusion (Sprachverwirrung) which was used by psychoanalyst Ferenczi to question the limits of Freud’s theory of the universal incestuous and parricides pulses that supposedly exist within every child. In fact, I would argue that Mathilde Canetti was looking for a new husband in her young son, which impacts the linguistic family novel – as Yasemin Yildiz rereads this Freudian concept in the context of a postmonolingual condition24. German used to be the language of intimacy between Canetti’s mother and her late husband, who had both studied in Vienna. Thus one can read Canetti’s entire autobiography as an uplifting literary way to discreetly acknowledge the mourning of the autobiographer’s father by gaining access to new metalinguistic horizons, deployed around the German language.

19What is particularly ambivalent and seminal is the very method by which Canetti inscribes his longing for a father figure in his autobiographical writing. In the second volume of his autobiography, The Torch in my Ear (1980), Canetti recalls finding himself two surrogate fathers (without referring to them as such): an adored, later detested one (the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus), and a positive, liberating one, Dr Sonne. One could argue that it is actually the language itself (in his case, German) that may replace a lost parent. Hence language, in literature and beyond, can be both a seminal source of affection and authority for a young writer, while providing much-needed bearings for the past autobiographical orphan. In other words, language itself is a sacred artefact – by which I mean: inherently good and divinely as perfect as a God – for a young child who loves his parental figures with no consideration for their faults.

20The question remains: how does this relate to the cultural history of Europe as a whole, and the very connection the populations have with the religious sentiment?

Languages as sacred artefacts of a secular religion for Europe?

21The link between multilingualism and religions in Europe covers philological and even philosophical aspects, two pillars of cultural history according to Jean-François Rioux and Jean-Pierre Sirinelli25. Two articles look at the religious imagination inherent in the languages of Europe itself, in a century which, as we remember, was either religious or not. The hybrid representations of culture and religious imaginaries in European languages and their transmission are studied. It is often recalled that religion has, etymologically at least, the ambition to link people together26. « It takes at least two languages to know that one speaks one », as Barbara Cassin put it27: in other words, understanding what one is, thinking about one's culture, believing in a collective narrative... can only be done by taking into account multiple otherness, what Michel Serres calls « the multiplied range of languages28 ». It is to the idea of a faith in language, understood as an idiom rather than a language, that the articles in this issue ultimately lead. Plurilingualism is either seen as a potential burden of new linguistic dogmas that would be secular but almost religious, or as an asset in the encounter with a language of Christian Europe, still impregnated with religious phrasemes. These two alternatives have repercussions on cultural representations, within an imaginary that is both religious and linguistic. The intersecting study of the representations of the love of God and the love of languages, or even of the love of language as a god, is reminiscent of Jacques Derrida, who in Monolinguism of the Other evoked a « secret law » governing languages.

22The latter would themselves be marked by a quasi-religious hermeticism. If multilingualism is seen as a religion, then language can replace religion and provide European cultures with a shared sense of belonging. Since the collapse of the great collective narratives, nothing seems to bind people together - the etymology of the Latin religare contains the idea of binding people together. From then on, it becomes possible to reassess the religious imaginary of the multiplicity of languages beyond the biblical myth of Babel. In this perspective, Elias Canetti's autobiography and his « history of a life » (Lebensgeschichte, the three volumes being published in 1977, 1980, 1985) seem to us to crystallize a multilingual imaginary through the recent history of European cultures. Indeed, the Canetti's lived in several European linguistic and religious areas, while maintaining a Sephardic Jewish identity of little liturgical and sacred importance.

23Seeking to think about the cultural history of Europe with regard to the multiplicity of the continent's languages and religions also means laying the heuristic foundations for a reflexivity as to what the European identity could be in the future, the very existence of which is called into question by the fragility of the feeling of belonging to Europe in the 21st century29. Is the common elaboration of a shared cultural history the condition of possibility for a reiteration of a true living-together beyond a multiculturalism that has been noted but is far from the imaginary creolisation described by Édouard Glissant30? The very idea of living together seems almost ironic today, so many times has the term been used in overused conceptions of a multicultural Europe. Could the refocusing of cultural history around languages and religions, themselves fragile pillars of collective identities, prevent politicians from deliberately confusing multilingualism with multiculturalism? In any case, this is what Pieter M. Judson has been able to do by studying the multilingual European area par excellence, the Habsburg empire31: a common collective project could constitute a multilingual secular religion, on condition that the multiplicity of languages is envisaged as a transcendent object capable of founding the common imaginary of the inhabitants of Europe beyond the sole national cultural areas inherited from the nation-states, the various religions and the languages dividing people into communities that do not meet, avoid each other or clash.

24Is a secular and linguistic religion then able to replace the great collective narratives that religions proposed to link people and nations together? The idea that Canetti's autobiography, life and thought seem to convey rather echoes, I argue, a certain philosophy of language, developed in France under the aegis of philosopher and member of the French Academy Barbara Cassin. The forthcoming publication of a new part of the dictionary of untranslatables, prepared under the direction of Barbara Cassin32 more than fifteen years ago, and translated into ten languages, is thus planned. How to negotiate the articulation between language and religion for the multi-religious and multilingual European cultural identity33? Marc Fumaroli, member of the Académie française, literary critic and art and literature historian, mocked the French « cultural state » in 1991 for being enthralled with its own modern religion34. Is the same true for a Europe of multilingualism? We must now turn to these potential pitfalls of multilingualism as an ideal European religion.

A confusion, which confusion? Heeding the pitfalls of multilingualism as a cult

Negotiating Canetti’s interpretations in the context of Ferenczi’s psychoanalytical misfortunes

25Let us go back to the question this article intends to address: what are the nature and meaning of this seemingly linguistic confusion35? One of the most famous, historically pivotal uses of the Sprachverwirrung in German is that of psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi’s grounding paper « Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind » (« language confusion between the adults and the child »)36. Significantly however, the article was condemned to oblivion by Sigmund Freund and his disciple Ernest Jones from the beginning. In 1932, during the International Psycho-Analytic Congress in Wiesbaden, Ferenczi presented Freud, his friend, colleague and mentor, with his findings about sexual abuse within the family being real, as opposed to the idea Freud had abandoned in 1895-1896, namely the seduction theory, and replaced it by the Oedipus complex and the drives instead. Ferenczi’s findings did not reemerge up until the 1980s, in the context of the Freud Wars waged by former director of the Freud Archives Jeffrey Masson’s essay37. Ferenczi died in 1933 and his paper « Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind » was not published until 1949.

26Significantly, Jones and Freud branded Ferenczi a psychotic (which proved to be a lie, Ferenczi merely suffered from anemia at the end of his life). This slander followed the « unforgivable discovery », as Jay Frankel put it38, that Freud's abandonment of the theory of seduction in favour of the drives and Oedipus was unjustified, and that it was always the adult who seduced the child, and not the other way round. Ferenczi thus speaks of a « confusion of languages » that exists between the language of children (tenderness) and that of adults' (passion). Freud violently rejected him, forbade him to publish this text and refused to shake hands with his friend and former favourite disciple from the 1932 Wiesbaden Congress and the public reading by Ferenczi (having defied Freud) of « Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind ».

27Régine Robin reads the incipit of The Tongue Set Free at face value as « a threat of castration, a deferred threat, a perpetually reactivated threat39 ». She is no doubt unaware of Canetti's erudite aversion to psychoanalysis, which leads us to say with Christine Meyer that « Canetti seems to be happy to accumulate clues likely to support such a [phallico-oedipal] interpretation40 » of the language-organ of the incipit as a linguistic phallus (the intimate German of the parents) at the heart of the father-mother-child oedipal triangulation. Where traditional psychoanalysis sees in the desire directed towards art, writing or literature sublimations of the erotic passions experienced by the child at the Oedipal stage, the meaning given by Augustin41 to the libido is that of a fundamental desire, that of concupiscence, which is declined in several modes of enjoyment of the things of the Earth and goes far beyond the sole field of sexual desire. That the young Elias ardently seeks access to writing in the company of loved ones – according to the full range of love types in Plato’s typology42 – or to reading throughout his childhood (with men as well as women: Jacques Canetti, his grandfather, then Karl Kraus as well as his mother, his cousin, Veza) are much more complex for the child, a subject already autonomous in his thirst for knowledge, and not overdetermined by the sole sublimated expression of the hatreds and infantile passions of the Oedipal stage.

28Elements of the Freudian doctrine are particularly well-anchored and widely used within the reception of Canetti's autobiography. This is a Sprachverwirrung that is not post-Babelian and linked to an intense multilingualism (Elias spoke Judeo-Spanish, Bulgarian, English, French and finally German between his birth and the age of 8), but eminently Ferenczian. Not in the sense of sexual abuse, but physical and psychological, which is not envisaged by Sándor Ferenczi. Indeed, in addition to the incestual relationship set up by Mathilde Canetti - which makes her eldest son an object of desire, of enjoyment - there is a link between all types of abuse, sexual and physical or psychological, the last two being very present in our corpus. All abuse signals the physical and psychological domination of the adult over the child and constitutes in itself an elementary form of violence, almost universal and completely accepted, even in societies where other forms of physical violence emanating from other forms of authority are now abolished or condemned. However, as far as we know, none of the readings that use the psychoanalytical grid for literary plurilingualism take into account the educational violence of adults towards children in the context of the (non-)transmission or prohibitions linked to languages. At best, the psychological or physical violence of adults is mentioned, but never analysed.

29Despite the late acquisition of German, this language is not only the language of choice for Canetti to write his work, but also the language in which the memories of the first languages will be rewritten, a priori more charged with affect because they are older. According to the widespread psychoanalytical doctrine – in literature as well, and in the field of plurilingual studies – because it is supposedly intuitive, there would be an emotional superiority of the first languages in that they are fantasized by psychoanalysis and the subject not freed from the monolingual paradigm as « maternal ». They would be these languages of the origins that the child, by nature incestuous in a Freudian perspective, would thus desire to possess carnally. For Canetti, this would mean the first languages, Judeo-Spanish and Bulgarian, which are emotionally, imaginatively and fantastically superior (still according to the idea of a univocal infantile sexuality with universal contours fixed by psychoanalysis) to the languages acquired later on. For Canetti, English – in which he learned to read and write, the language adored by his father – and French would therefore be inferior, more intellectualised and less densely symbolic because they were second in the order of exposure and learning.

A deliberate confusion for the benefit of adults as (linguistic) Gods?

30What should one be wary of when thinking of multilingualism as a non-problematic, secular religion for Europe? One should look at the question this article has been identifying at the core of the issue since the introduction. Let us ask again: what are the nature and meaning of this seemingly linguistic confusion within multilingualism, be it perceived as a burden or as a gift? As it has been demonstrated throughout this paper, one of the most famous uses of the Sprachverwirrung in German is that of psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi’s grounding work, although it was long condemned to oblivion by Sigmund Freund and Ernest Jones from its emergence on in the 1930s, up until the late 1980s. Both infamous uses of the German term has been explored throughout this article. One could argue that the multiplicity of languages, being both associated with a religious sentiment and with transgenerational issues, pertains to a language confusion within the very family structures that make up the structure of larger societies. It possesses a deeply aporetic dimension due to the two different sorts of language adults and children use, which Ferenczi identifies and differentiate. The first one is the « language of passion » ; the second one being that of tenderness, both used and required in a child’s development. It does not correspond to a sublimation of some sorts (using Freudian terms) of the first infant sexuality, whose universality Freud poses, and which is still commonly applied in literary studies.

31Regarding religious sentiment within a historically multilingual Europe, what is the implication of such a semantic change that occurs, I argue, within the concept of confusion? The answer is straightforward but needs to be clearly stated in multilingual studies and cultural studies as a whole: languages themselves become religious artefacts and adults aim to be perceived as (linguistic) Gods by children. As stated above using the example of Canetti’s autobiography and multilingual family structure, language itself is a sacred artefact, insofar as it is perceived by children as inherently good, and as perfect as a deity.

L’amour en général passe par l’amour de la langue, qui n’est ni nationaliste ni conservateur, mais qui exige des preuves. Et des épreuves. On ne fait pas n’importe quoi avec la langue, elle nous préexiste, elle nous survit. Si l’on affecte la langue de quelque chose, il faut le faire de façon raffinée, en respectant dans l’irrespect sa loi secrète43.

32Under Derrida's pen, a relationship to languages as objects that are more religious than cultural, made of a transcendence that perhaps borders on the metaphysical, takes shape. Let us recall Umberto Eco's sentence: « The language of Europe is translation44». This sheer assessment seems to justify the idea that languages could equal religious sentiment and replaced organised religions, therefore providing men with a feeling of belonging.

33Europeans, like the rest of the world (it is estimated that more than one in two people speak at least two languages every day) is multilingual. The choice of a specific language, the change of language that an individual makes are also the expression of « the passage and translation between cultures45 », i.e. cultural transfers between different areas, communities and linguistic, religious and cultural traditions. The movement back and forth between languages in individual and collective trajectories is a mirror of political developments and the circulation of ideas.

34Negotiating the bond between languages and religions within the cultural history of Europe also requires one to further consider the future of the continent, as well as the political ethos of the European Union. Even if there is no question of placing the question of European identity in a strict alternative between religious affiliation and linguistic affiliation, we remember the report on multilingualism submitted to the European Commission in 2008. Entitled « A Rewarding Challenge. How the Multiplicity of Languages Could Strengthen Europe », its drafting committee was headed by Amin Maalouf, a French-Lebanese author living in Paris. A Christian from Lebanon, A. Maalouf comes from a complex glossopolitical background (Arabic, French, English) and lived through the Lebanese war in a context of heightened religious and identity-related tensions.

Excessive assertion of identity often stems from a feeling of guilt in relation to one's culture of origin, a guilt which is sometimes expressed by exacerbated religion-based reactions. To describe it differently, the immigrant or a person whose origins lie in immigration and is able to speak his mother tongue and would be able to teach it to his children, knowing that his language and culture of origin are respected in the host society, would have less need to assuage his thirst for identity in another way46 .

35Even though one should remain wary of falling into the « plurilingual doxa » criticised by Hervé Adami and Virginie André47, the 2008 report by the European Commission quoted above is optimistic about the choice of a plurilingual identity as a means of inscribing the allophone subject and his or her descendants in the host country. The question of religious feeling and the possible resulting conflicts would therefore find a positive and fruitful linguistic resolution on a cultural, individual and collective level.


1 Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, p. 334.

2 Rainier Grutman, Des langues qui résonnent. L’hétérolinguisme au XIXe siècle québécois, Québec, Fides-CÉTUQ, 1997. Myriam Suchet, L’Imaginaire hétérolingue. Ce que nous apprennent les textes à la croisée des langues, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2014.

3 George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1975.

4 George-Arthur Goldschmidt, A l’insu de Babel, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2017, pp. 23-26.

5 Sándor Ferenczi, « Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind » in Schriften zur Psychoanalyse, Francfort, 1949, pp. 303-313.

6 Jeffrey Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, New York, Ballantine Books, 2003 [1984].

7 See the historical overview offered by Arland Thornton and Heidi Hartmann who both compare European and American family structures in a comparatist and sociological synthetic view. Arland Thornton, « The Developmental Paradigm, Reading History Sideways, and Family Change », Demography, vol. 38, no. 4, pp. 448-466. Heidi Hartmann, « The Family as the Locus of Gender, Class, and Political Struggle: The Example of Housework », Signs, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 365-394, 1981.

8 Christian Scheve, Anna L. Berg, Meike Haken, and Nur Y. Ural, Affect and Emotion in Multi-Religious Secular Societies, Abingdon, Oxon, New York, Routledge, 2020.

9 Alain Ausoni, Mémoires d’outre-langue. L’écriture translingue de soi, Geneva, Slatkine, 2018. Claire Kramsch, The Multilingual Subject, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

10 My translation. « Auch die wichtigsten Belegerzählungen der jüdischen und dann der christlichen Tradition für Fragen der Sprachdifferenz, die Babel- und die Pfingstwundererzählung, weisen Sprache als Anzeichen oder Instrument von Kultur aus. So hat der Bau des Turms zu Babel das Ziel, den Zusammenhalt der Menschheit zu sichern (Gen 11) – widerspricht damit aber dem göttlichen Willen, der mit der Besiedlung der Erde durch die Menschen offenbar auch die Zerstreuung ihrer Sprachen vorgesehen hat (Gen 1.26 – 28). Umgekehrt ist die Verheißung des Pfingstwunders auch eine der Aufhebung aller Sprachdifferenzen im und durch den christlichen Glauben. » Till Dembeck, Rolf Parr (ed.), Literatur und Mehrsprachigkeit. Ein Handbuch, Tübingen, Narr Francke Attempto Verlag, 2017, p. 18.

11 My translation. « Die alttestamentliche Erzählung des Turmbaus zu Babel wird regelmäßig herangezogen, um die theologische Bedeutsamkeit der Übersetzung als Überwindung der Sprachverwirrung vor Augen zu führen. » Till Dembeck, Rolf Parr (ed.). Literatur und Mehrsprachigkeit, op.cit., p. 53.

12 Giulia Radaelli, Literarische Mehrsprachigkeit. Sprachwechsel bei Elias Canetti und Ingeborg Bachmann, Berlin, De Gruyter, 2011, p. 15, quoted by Arvi Sepp, « Ethik der Mehrsprachigkeit » in Till Dembeck, Rolf Parr (ed.), Literatur und Mehrsprachigkeit, op.cit., pp. 53-65, here p. 56.

13 Walter Lesch, Übersetzungen. Grenzgänge zwischen philosophischer und theologischer Ethik. Studien zur theologischen Ethik, Freiburg, Herder, 2013, p. 19, quoted by Arvi Sepp, « Ethik der Mehrsprachigkeit », art.cit., p. 56.

14 Walter Benjamin, « Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers », in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. IV.1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Verlag, 1972, pp. 9-21, here p. 19, quoted by Arvi Sepp, « Ethik der Mehrsprachigkeit », art.cit., p. 56.

15 « Unto this hour, I still cannot comprehend how Luther arrived at the language in which he translated his Bible. This written language gives our politically and religiously fragmented Germany a literary unity. » My translation. Heinrich Heine, « Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland », Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 3, ed. Klaus Briegleb. Munich, Carl Hanser, 1997, pp. 505-641, here p. 546.

16 « This unicity of language initiated by a written language is also the starting point for Martin Luther, whose translation of the Bible acquires a normative force on several linguistic levels. » My translation. Peter Polenz, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2019, p. 72.

17 Ibid., p. xii.

18 Meir Sternberg, « Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis », Poetics Today, vol. 2, no. 4, « Translation Theory and Intercultural Relations », 1981), pp. 221-239, here p. 221.

19 We understand translingualism after the concept forged by Kellmann in 2000 and in its recent used by Alain Ausoni, who looked at language memoirs. Alain Ausoni, Mémoires d’outre-langue. op.cit. Steven G. Kellman, The Translingual Imagination. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

20 For more information about language memoirs and linguistic autobiographies, see Claire Kramsch. Claire Kramsch, The Multilingual Subject, op.cit., pp. 38-71.

21 Roger Gentis, La Folie Canetti, Paris, Dunod, 1998.

22 Paul-Claude Racamier, L’inceste et l’incestuel, Paris, Dunod, 1995.

23 Sándor Ferenczi, « Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind », art.cit..

24 Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue, The Postmonolingual Condition, New York, Fordham University Press, 2012.

25 Jean-Pierre Rioux, Jean-François Sirinelli (dir.), Histoire culturelle de la France, Paris, Seuil, 2004.

26 See, for example, Michel Serres' demonstration in his latest, posthumous work entitled Relire le relié. Michel Serres, Relire le relié, Paris, Le Pommier, 2019, pp. 14-31.

27 Fabienne Durand-Bogaert, « Barbara Cassin – ‘Il faut au moins deux langues pour savoir qu’on en parle une’ », Genesis, n°38, 2014, pp. 129-137

28 Michel Serres, Music, Paris, Le Pommier, 2011, p. 109.

29 Sophie Duchesne, André-Paul Frognier, National and European identifications: A dual relationship. Comparative European Politics, 2008, vol. 6, n°2, pp. 143-168.

30 See Édouard Glissant, Introduction à une poétique du divers, Paris, Gallimard, 1996, pp. 27-51 and Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la relation (Poétique III), Paris, Gallimard, 1990, pp. 113-129.

31 Pieter M. Judson, « Do multiple languages mean a multicultural society: nationalist 'frontiers' in rural Austria, 1880-1918 », in Johannes Feichtinger, Gary B. Cohen (eds.), Understanding multiculturalism: the Habsburg Central European experience, New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2014, pp. 61-82.

32 This monumental work is known by its subtitle, in any language: Barbara Cassin (ed.), Vocabulaire européen des philosophies. Dictionnaire des intraduisibles, Paris, Le Robert/Seuil, 2005.

33 Barbara Cassin, Souleymane Bachir Diagne (eds.), Dictionnaire des intraduisibles dans les trois monothéismes [Dictionary of Untranstlatables within the Three Monotheistic Religions], Paris, Fayard, to be published in 2023.

34 « "Le Conseil régional dynamise les Arts plastiques." Vous chercherez en vain un pays où l'on pourrait voir l'équivalent d'une telle affiche officielle, qui ne surprend pas en France, ni à Paris, ni "en région". À qui s'adresse un tel message […] qui suggère soit un sex-shop, soit un arsenal ? Si les "régions" ont été souhaitées et inventées pour rapprocher les responsables et leurs mandants, n'est-il pas singulier qu'elles cherchent à se rendre familières dans un langage aussi abstrus et abscons […] ? De deux choses l'une : ou bien la Provence-Côte d'Azur est embrasée d'une telle passion des arts qu'elle attendait, même sous cette forme indécente, que son Conseil régional lui promît une renaissance méridionale ; ou bien ce genre de "communication sociale" renvoie à un mythe bureaucratique hexagonal, qui se fait fête à lui-même dans son propre langage, sans se soucier le moins du monde ni de la Provence, ni de son attente, ni de ses aspirations plus modestes ». « ‘The Region Council boosts the plastic arts.’ You will look in vain for a country performing the equivalent this kind of official statement on a public poster, but it is not a rare sight in France, neither in Paris, nor ‘in the Province’. To whom is such a message addressed [...] which reminds one either of a sex shop or of an arsenal? If the regions of the French Province, as opposed to Paris, had been invented to bring officials and their constituents closer together, isn't it odd that they should seek to make themselves familiar in such abstruse language [...]? Either the Region Provence-Côte d'Azur is so passionate about the arts that, through this obscene wording, it expected its Region Council to promise it a kind of southern Renaissance; or this kind of 'social communication' refers to a hexagonal bureaucratic myth, which celebrates itself in its own language, without the slightest concern for Provence, its expectations, or its more modest aspirations. » My translation. Marc Fumaroli, L'État culturel. Essai sur une religion moderne, Paris, édition de Fallois, 1991, p. 11-12, quoted by Emmanuelle Loyer, Une brève histoire culturelle de l’Europe, Paris, Flammarion, 2017, p. 244-245.

35 This paragraph draws on a recent biography by Benoît Peeters, Sándor Ferenczi, l'enfant terrible de la psychanalyse, Paris, Flammarion, 2020, see pp. 9-13 and pp. 277-313 in particular.

36 Sándor Ferenczi, « Sprachverwirrung zwischen den Erwachsenen und dem Kind », art.cit.

37 Jeffrey Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, op.cit..

38 Jay Frankel, « Exploring Ferenczi’s concept of identification with the aggressor: Its role in trauma, everyday life, and the therapeutic relationship », Psychoanalytic Dialogues, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 101-139, here p. 107.

39 Original quote: « Menace de castration, menace différée, menace perpétuellement réactivée ». My translation. Régine Robin, Le Deuil de l’origine. Une langue en trop, la langue en moins, Paris, Kimé, « Détours littéraires », 2003, p. 106.

40 Original quote: « Canetti semble accumuler à plaisir les indices susceptibles d’étayer une telle interprétation ». My translation. Christine Meyer, Canetti lecteur de Stendhal. Construction d'une lecture autobiographique, Rouen, Presses Universitaires de Rouen, 2004, p. 177. One can think in particular of the almost parodically Oedipal scene where Elias experiences the « triumph » of taking his father's place by imitating his voice, calling his mother by her German nickname.

41 We consider the libido only in terms of its object and not in its Christian, moral, sinful sense.

42 The different types of love in Plato’s thought are not limited to sheer variations around the ἔρως, as a sexual desire, a search for pleasure for pleasure’s sake, a seduction made of false illusions: the ἔρως stands out, but can be superimposed on the friendly, harmonious and sociable φιλία, in an almost contractual reciprocity; on the στοργή, tender and deep love for a cherished child or parent; finally on the disinterested, divine, charitable, universal ἀγάπη.

43 « Love in general involves love of language, which is neither nationalistic nor conservative, but which requires proof. And tests. You can't do just anything with language, it pre-exists you, it outlives you. If we affect the language of something, we must do so in a refined way, respecting its secret law in a disrespectful way ». My translation. Jacques Derrida, Le Monolinguisme de l’autre ou la prothèse d’origine. Paris, Galilée, 1996, p. 121.

44 This sentence cannot be found in Umberto Eco's writings, therefore its origin is difficult to trace. According to Barbara Cassin, relying on Françoise Wuilmart, it dates from Eco's conference at the Assises de la traduction littéraire d'Arles (autumn of 1993) or from Eco's inaugural lesson at the Collège de France a year earlier. Barbara Cassin, « The Language of Europe?  », Po&sie, vol. 160-161, no. 2-3, 2017, pp. 154-159, here p. 154.

45 Delphine Bechtel, La Renaissance culturelle juive. Central and Eastern Europe, 1897 - 1930, Paris, Belin, 2001, p. 27.

46 European Commission, « A Rewarding Challenge. How the Multiplicity of Languages Could Strengthen Europe: Proposals from the Group of Intellectuals for Intercultural Dialogue Set up at the Initiative of the European Commission.  » (Report), Luxembourg, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2008, p. 20, quoted in David Gramling, The Invention of Monolingualism, New York, Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 84-85.

47 Hervé Adami, Virginie André (eds.), De l'idéologie monolingue à la doxa plurilingue : regards pluridisciplinaires, Bern, Peter Lang, 2015.

Pour citer ce document

Louise Sampagnay, «Multilingualism as a religion? Beyond Babel, or negotiating the concept of Sprachverwirrung from Luther to Ferenczi», Histoire culturelle de l'Europe [En ligne], Revue d'histoire culturelle de l'Europe, Langues et religions en Europe du Moyen Âge à nos jours, Du fait religieux dans les langues de l’Europe au plurilinguisme comme religion de l’Europe ? (XXe-XXIe siècles),mis à jour le : 10/05/2022,URL : http://www.unicaen.fr/mrsh/hce/index.php?id=2404

Quelques mots à propos de : Louise Sampagnay

Après des études de littérature comparée au Trinity College de Dublin, Louise Sampagnay, ancienne élève de l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon et agrégée d’allemand, prépare depuis 2019 une thèse de doctorat sous la direction d’Éric Leroy du Cardonnoy à l’Université de Caen Normandie. Ses recherches portent sur le récit de soi entre les langues et sur la langue allemande comme objet littéraire dans les œuvres d’autobiographes plurilingues. Elle a notamment organisé une journée d’étude internationale sur la figure de l’enfant plurilingue en littérature (2021), publié un article sur la conscience métalinguistique, le récit d’enfance et l’intertexte dickensien dans La Langue sauvée d’Elias Canetti (Loxias, 2021) et un article intitulé « l’Allemagne dans l’Irlande de Hugo Hamilton, ou la mise en film sur le papier d’une Vergangenheitsbewältigung maternelle » (Symposium Culture@Kultur, 2022). https://www.unicaen.fr/recherche/mrsh/pagePerso/4088833?id=biographie