Are You My Mother Tongue?

On the generations of linguists who searched for Muttersprache’s origin story.

By Josh Cohen

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Blue Thread, by Will Barnet, 1984. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Frank K. Ribelin and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1996.

Percy Grainger had an intense relationship with his mother. In the years after her 1922 death, the celebrated composer, pianist, and arranger began assembling a series of sketches for a book he planned to call The Life of My Mother and Her Son. Topics ranged from Rose Grainger’s torment (“Mother’s Neuralgia in Australia”) and unwanted presence in her son’s music (“Thots of Mother While Scoring To a Nordic Princess”) to her love of superior people (“Mother a Nietzschean?”) and things she hated (“all white men who gesticulate”). At the same time Grainger began to write more fully about himself. This was even harder. Where the composer wrote about his mother in ordinary English, when he wrote about his own life he made himself use an English of his own ongoing invention, something he alternately called “Blue-Eyed English,” “Nordic English,” and “Rosy-Race-y-English.”

Grainger, who had been born in Australia and moved (with his mother) to White Plains, New York, when he was thirty-two, also had an intense relationship with his mother tongue. In a sense, he hated it. Modern English, Grainger told anybody who would listen, was sick. It was not itself. It was overrun with centuries of “dark-eyed” elements—Latinate and Greek sounds, words, and phrases above all—and it was urgent that those elements be cleansed. Across letters, lists, essays, and diary entries, Grainger modeled the path to purity, which turned on a kind of verbal self-punishment: whatever dark-eyed words most frequently came to mind had to be double-parenthesized alongside blue-eyed coinages. In the preface to his 1924 “The Love Life of Helen and Paris,” an updated take on the myth of the ancient couple centered on Grainger’s Swedish wife (“my Race Priestess”), the composer explains and exemplifies the method:

The English stretches of this story are written (as well as I can) in “Nordic English.” I have always believed in the wish-for-ableness ((desirability)) of building up a mainly Anglo-saxon-Scandinavian kind of English in which all but the most un-do-withoutable ((indispensable)) of the French-begotten, Latin-begotten & Greek-begotten words should be side-stepped ((avoided)) & in which the bulk of the put-together ((compound)) words should be willfully & owned-up-to-ly ((admittedly)) hot-home-grown out of Nordic word-seeds.

It was a transitional style. One day, Grainger constantly prophesied, Anglophonic man would arrive at his real mothertongue—he often wrote it as one word, the way the Swedes wrote modersmål—and know what it was to speak freely.

For all his paranoid etymologizing, there was at least one word the roots of which Grainger never seemed to have worried about: the compound mother tongue itself. Some words, maybe, were too holy to suspect. (In 1926 Grainger commissioned the Tasmanian linguist Robert Atkinson to produce a massive counterhistory of English to be titled Our Mothertongue.) But what if mother tongue turned out to be French- or Latin-begotten—the mere translation of langue maternelle or lingua materna? Could Grainger’s English do without it? While the composer combed his brain for dark-eyed words deep within a small mansion in upstate New York, in Germany, in a circle of devoutly German-loving linguists, the German equivalent of exactly this problem was arising. What if the ancient German term of endearment for German—die Muttersprache (“mother tongue,” more or less)—was not originally German?


In the 1920s the dream of purifying a language down to its Nordic word-seeds was not unique to Anglophones like Percy Grainger. In fact, the composer’s private war had long assumed more organized forms everywhere that German was a mother tongue. From the 1880s on a civic club known as the Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein (Universal German Language Association), which was mainly made up of concerned schoolteachers and midlevel bureaucrats, had tasked itself with regulating linguistic hygiene. Where Grainger aimed to cleanse his psyche’s vocabulary, the ADSV aimed to cleanse society’s. Dance cards, train timetables, soccer rulebooks, card games, and military drills had to be vetted for non-Germanic names and numbers; bars and inns put out jars for fines levied on drinkers caught swearing in French; restaurateurs were enlisted to rewrite French-feeling menus. (The word Menü itself was a problem.) Public coinage competitions were held, too. In 1898 the Berlin circus had solicited new words for Jongleur, Trick, and Gymnastiker, while a cigar factory in Düsseldorf had offered a cash prize for the best replacement for Zigarre.

Mother with Children Bathing, Mexican, twentieth century.

French was the ADSV’s organizing enemy. Our Muttersprache remains a slave to the tongue of Napoleon, explained the ADSV’s co-founder Hermann Dunger, an elementary schoolteacher from Dresden. “We dress our language up just to look pretty,” he added, “like little girls playing with dolls.” The sentiment was not entirely new. Since at least the onset of the Romantic era, poets and philosophers had attacked fellow writers for being overly in love with foreign languages (“Ridiculous,” Goethe wrote of the older generation’s constant imitation of imperial Latin). But the ADSV was after ordinary speech, not poetry or philosophy. It was after the words that Germans drank, ate, played, and danced with.

What Grainger called “dark-eyed” words the ADSV called Fremdwörter (alien words). The word Fremdwort itself had been coined by a physical-education teacher and veteran named Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (today often remembered as the father of modern fitness). In 1814, with Napoleon freshly defeated, Jahn published Die Deutsche Turnkunst zur Einrichtung der Turnplätze (On the German art of gymnastics and the establishment of gymnastic clubs), an instantly best-selling workout manual that doubled as a kind of road map to remasculating the nation. Napoleon may be gone, Jahn explained in his preface, but the dirty words and bon mots of his armies lingered like aftertastes. Clusters of alien (Fremd) vocabulary remained embedded in the linguistic diets of German civilians. Fremdwörter were “sterile mongrels,” Jahn wrote, angrily mixing metaphors. “They will never enter our blood, no matter if they are naturalized as citizens one thousand times over.”

Jahn was a preacher’s son. Bodily discipline was holy war. And godly fitness, he argued, demanded clean tongues. After damning the French (and the Jews, and women, and womanly men), Jahn held a special hate for the German aristocracy, who continued to love French long after liberation. Multilingualism was a cesspool of sin (Vielspracherei ist der Sündenpfuhl), he warned. The future was being “starved of its mother tongue (Muttersprache), forced to feed on a foreign-language wet nurse (fremde Sprachamme).” Boys raised on alien words would never become the Germans God intended them to be.


Wilhelm von Humboldt did not think that multilingualism was a cesspool of sin. The philosopher and linguist was a diplomat, an educator—founder of Humboldt University, he is considered by some to be the father of the modern university—and a profound humanist. But in On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, published in 1836, a year after he died, Humboldt seemed to suggest that no matter how many second languages a man acquired, his soul remained forever monolingual.

Every language imposed a unique worldview on its born speakers, Humboldt argued. German made the world look German to a German, and in ways acutely distinct from how the world was made to look to a person raised in (or on) French. The difference was organic. If eyes were for seeing and tongues for tasting, national languages were for thinking. And just as you could not taste without a tongue, so, too, could you not think outside your mother tongue. “By the same act whereby man spins language out of himself, he spins himself into it,” Humboldt wrote in what would become the most cited passage of his treatise. “And every language draws around the people that possesses it a circle, whence it is possible to exit only by jumping over into the circle of another one.” He added, “And yet, because we always carry over, more or less, our own worldview…this outcome is not purely and completely experienced.” Even the man who had lived abroad in another tongue for decades would find that the mere sound of his first language struck his ears with “sudden magic.”

You could not think outside of your mother tongue, in other words, because your mother tongue was completely inside of you. The key was the spirit—the Geist, to use Humboldt’s very German word—of an historical people. A people’s language did not “just sit there,” Humboldt explained, like some machine. It was alive—to the point of undying. Geist gave languages an eternal motherliness. German eternally gave birth to itself in Germans, while French eternally gave birth to itself in the French, and Italian eternally gave birth to itself in Italians. You did not learn your first language by rotely echoing the words surrounding you so much as your first language sprang from the deepest depths of your soul.

The difference between German and French had a kind of divinity. “The distinguishing Geist hovers over every utterance,” Humboldt concluded, “like a silent breath.” Like the wind of God upon the face of the waters in the first lines of Genesis, Geist hovered over the words and sounds of a language, brooding. It was not mappable, or testable, and yet its presence was everywhere felt and unmistakable. A century later the primordial breeze of Geist coming off the word Muttersprache—you had to say it out loud to really feel the spirit of German breathing on you—would be proof of the word’s true origins.

The Mother’s Tomb, by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, c. 1763.

The Germans and the French had been gaining and regaining (or stealing and restealing) from each other for centuries. Not unlike Jahn, Humboldt seemed to suggest that a person’s real homeland was not the ground he stood on but the language he lived in. Still, Humboldt must have hated Jahn. Languages did not need militias, fences, or cleansings. Humboldt wanted you to cross over into other mother tongues, even as the self-translation never totally worked. And where Jahn was a devout nationalist, Humboldt was radically invested in humankind. At the same time as the linguist insisted that every people possessed their own language (he sometimes insisted that every person possessed his own language), he also tended to insist that we were all lingually bound. Underlying the globe’s endlessly diverse sea of tongues, Humboldt explained, “The human race speaks only one language.”


By the second half of the nineteenth century Humboldt’s universal mother tongue was forgotten. Language nations became islands, and islands had to be kept pristine. Words became plots of national soul. Especially after 1871, once the German Empire had congealed, ordinary Germans reclaimed a very Jahnian passion for lingual cleanness. The newly appointed general postmaster immediately purged 760 terms from his service’s official vocabulary, including Adresse. Pianists turned Piano into Starkschwachfingerschlagtonkasten.

In 1883 a museum curator named Herman Riegel self-published Ein Hauptstück von unserer Muttersprache (A major part of our mother tongue), in which the “major part” was the sick hunk of Fremdwörter still embedded in the people’s verbal diet. In addition to the old enemies (Gallicisms), Riegel explained, new enemies (Anglicisms) were invading. Jahn’s scattered domestic cesspools of sin had morphed into a flood of alien words (Fremdwortflut). Riegel’s rant impressed Hermann Dunger, and in 1885 the two men cofounded the Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein.

The war on alien words lost its ties to physical education (neither Riegel nor Dunger did gymnastics), but the linguistic self-cleansing remained athletic. Dunger published ten volumes of “Germanization” dictionaries. In 1925 the ADSV changed the name of its house journal from the Zeitschrift des Allgemeiner Deutscher Sprachverein (Journal of the Universal German Language Association)—Riegel and Dunger liked to call things by their names—to something more succinctly patriotic: Muttersprache. And where the ADSV had operated outside the halls of academia, the newly named journal appealed to a younger generation of linguists, philologists, and folklorists who loved German passionately.

In the years after World War I a movement bent on resurrecting the spirit of Wilhelm von Humboldt—the Neohumboldtians—dominated German linguistics. The Neohumboldtians ruled well into the 1960s (until the Chomskyites arrived, in fact), but historians and linguists today tend to have a hard taking them seriously: the movement is “depressing,” “disturbing,” and “embarrassing,” to cite just three recent studies, a pseudo-academic blip on modern German thought. In part, the problem is how intense (some scholars say fascist) the Neohumboldtians were about their love for German: “No people feels so deeply, so tightly, bound to its mother tongue (Muttersprache) as the Germans do,” explained Leo Weisgerber, a Celticist born in German Lorraine and the most powerful member of the movement. German was endlessly pregnant with the secret of Germanness, the most mystical Neohumboldtians would insist, more a mother to Germans than their actual mothers ever could be.

But in part, too, historians and linguists today have a hard time taking seriously the extreme nature of the movement’s linguistic relativism. The classic example of this is the factoid you heard as a kid: that the Eskimos, just to use our wrong name, possess an extraordinary vocabulary for snow. (An American linguist named Benjamin Lee Whorf popularized the claim in 1940.) Thus, the Neohumboldtian would argue, the Eskimos possess an experience of snow—whiter, cleaner, colder—entirely inaccessible to the rest of us. Weisgerber liked to write about color. In Modern German, he would note, as in most modern European languages, color is expressed adjectivally and luster verbally: the stars are statically silver (Silber), for example, but actively twinkle (funkeln). But then, certain colors did twinkle for Germans. Modern German, Weisgerber would point out, includes a trio of exceptions: the skies blue (blauen) for us, the plants green (grünen) for us, and the days gray (grauen) for us.

Mother and Child, by Max Weber, c. 1919.

Mother tongues, for the Neohumboldtian, were inborn. In 1929 Weisgerber published a massive study titled Muttersprache und Geistesbildung (Muttersprache and the formation of the spirit), in which he doubled down on the conviction that your first language exercised a magic on your flesh. The instant that a German was conceived, Weisgerber explained, a millennium’s worth of linguistic worldview stamped itself on his little soul, wholly binding him to his ancestors and his unborn descendants. Your Muttersprache gave you life, and you would “never escape Her spell.” (Babies raised bilingual, Weisgerber elsewhere explained, were split between two masters and so tended to come out “cripples.”) Humboldt’s circles turned into cages. What had been a basic description—you cannot think outside your mother tongue—morphed into a kind of curse.

Smoothing out Humboldt’s hedging (“We always carry over, more or less, our own worldview”), the Neohumboldtians tended to insist on the impossibility of translation, especially wherever universal experience seemed obvious: Vater was not père, Mutter was not mère. When a German in church in France said Dieu, he was really praying to Gott. The word Muttersprache—the new name of the ADSV’s journal, the name of the German people’s one true mother, the name of the holy territory that needed ritual defending against so many Fremdwörter—was the most untranslatable of them all. The German term of endearment for German, Weisgerber would soon argue, contains an unmatched sense for the motherliness of language. Just as skies, plants, and days blued, greened, and grayed uniquely for Germans, so, too, did German mother Germans in ways no other people on Earth could understand.


The ADSV was hopeful about the rise of National Socialism. “We are the Brownshirts of the Muttersprache,” the editors of Muttersprache declared in 1923. But racial purity did not perfectly line up with its linguistic counterpart. Real Germanness, the ADSV seemed to insist, the kind that lasts, flowed from blue-eyed words. The organization’s members quickly found that many of National Socialism’s keywords—Konzentrationslager, Euthanasie, Sterilisation, Propaganda, Emanzipation, Nationalsozialismus itself (a doubly Latinate Fremdwort)—were not really German.

Inevitably the etymologizing turned on itself. Most members of the ADSV were too preoccupied with the renewed flood of FremdwörterYacht, Vacuum, Shampoo—to suspect words whose unclean roots had been layered over with centuries of use. But the organization’s newly recruited linguists had time, deep libraries, and manuscripts, and they homed in on the very word holding the entire crusade together: Muttersprache.

In 1929, the same year that Leo Weisgerber published his magnum opus, a linguist named Otto Behaghel published a short note in the Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur, a journal normally written for and by Germanophone scholars of French and French literature. The words Lingua materna were printed in bold at the top of the page. And the phrase was lifted from medieval Latin. But Behaghel was really thinking about modern German. “Everything relevant has been discovered about our word Muttersprache,” he began, “except from whence it originally sprung.” (“Mother tongue,” Behaghel’s peers would insist, was not the right translation of Muttersprache. The English used tongue, but the German word did not use Zunge; “mother language” made more sense.) Behaghel’s note would settle the word’s heritage once and for all. He had found the first moment in history in which a man combined a word for “language” (or tongue), lingua, with a word related to mothers, materna.

The manuscript was dated 1119. Behaghel, who was more of a scientist than a reader, held his prize text up like a specimen.

And once the bishop of Ostia had explained the matter at hand in Latin, the pope commanded the bishop of Châlons to repeat the same thing, but in the lingua materna of certain other people present.

The subject of Muttersprache’s medieval beginnings had been broached before. In 1867 the philologist and second-wave Humboldtian Heymann Steinthal had published an essay titled “Von der Liebe zur Muttersprache” (On the love of a mother tongue). “Our modern German word Muttersprache is shrouded in a magic air,” Steinthal had begun, adopting a Humboldtian tone, like he was describing Geist’s godly breeze. But Steinthal was being sarcastic. Even if the air shrouding the word felt like magic, he explained, it was not. It had something called “history.” Steinthal held up the 1189 report of a church inauguration in northeastern Italy in which the scribe reports that “the Patriarch of Aquileia preached litteraliter” (literally, i.e., in Latin), after which “a local bishop translated the sermon maternaliter” (maternally, i.e., into Venetian). The phrase lingua materna may not be present, Steinthal argued, but the concept was. He did not need to pinpoint an exact moment. “The Italians,” the philologist happily concluded several paragraphs down, “are the creators of Muttersprache.”

The year 1189 is not as random as it might sound. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the ancient Romans had a word like Muttersprache. The Greeks had no need, Steinthal argued, because the very concept of a mother tongue depended on a second, unloved tongue. The Greeks, everybody knows, were happily monolingual; Greek was just language to them. Roman poets and orators, on the other hand, had been forced to learn Greek as boys and tended to be insecure about it. And so writers like Cicero took to holding Latin up as their sermo patrius, father speech, or the speech of the fathers. Which was almost, but not quite, lingua materna.

By the twelfth century, Steinthal went on, the speech of the fathers was “dead.” Latin had split. There was the high Roman kind, used almost exclusively for writing, masses, and church events, and then there was the vernacular, itself scattered into dozens of raw, increasingly mutually incomprehensible varieties—Old French, for example. On top of that, across the Christian West, there were other, entirely un-Latin vernaculars—Low German, Old English—that medieval people thought, felt, and loved in. These were linguae maternae. They were “alive.” They were not forced on you by male teachers the way Latin was but absorbed through the songs, caresses, and coos of mothers. And they had their own kind of poetry. Church bureaucrats might have been the first to call the vernaculars “motherly,” Steinthal insisted, but Dante (who coined parlar materno in the Purgatorio) was “the first man to really feel the force of the difference between the dead speech of fathers and the living tongues of mothers.”

Steinthal had insisted that modern Germans owed their idea of their Muttersprache to a medieval Venetian bureaucrat. And in his 1929 note Behaghel seemed to confirm the conclusion. The word Muttersprache had un-magical, non-German roots in the phrase lingua materna: it was an offshoot of cold, churchy Latin. Behaghel’s own proof text was lifted from the report of a synod held in Reims, a city in southeastern France close to Germany. (A nasty fight had been raging between the church and the Holy Roman Empire, then incarnate in the king of Germany, over who, popes or kings, God had endowed with the right to invest priests with bishophood.) According to the report’s scribe, who calls himself Hesso scholasticus Argentinensis—a schoolteacher from Strasbourg—the synod was massive. Fifteen archbishops, two hundred bishops, two hundred abbots, and accompanying posses of knights had undertaken long journeys to be there. Local laymen had also shown up; these were the “certain other people present.” And while it would have been unheard-of for anything but Latin to be used at a synod, the presiding pope, it seems, felt compelled to make room for the mother tongue—here, Old French—of the unlettered. In turn, the schoolteacher was forced to coin the phrase lingua materna.

Voilà. “There can therefore no longer be an underlying doubt that the Romance-speaking lands created our word,” Behaghel concluded, generalizing credit to the verbal soils of southern Europe.

He immediately backtracked.

But is medieval Latin really our word’s homeland? In truth, that breath of softness that hovers over the word Muttersprache is so much more likely to have originated in the living voice of a people than in a scribe’s little room.

He paused, then added:

Wherever that final push came from that led sermo patrius to be ousted by lingua materna—one will likely never get to the bottom of it.

That breath of softness—the “whiff of suppleness,” as one German scholar nicely translates it—is Wilhelm von Humboldt’s silent breath. It’s Geist. Evidence alone, Behaghel suddenly suggested, pricked by linguistic territorialism, even hard evidence, was not everything. German would only have named Herself in Herself. The word Muttersprache was too warm, too vital—too motherly, in short—to have sprung from rotting, academic Latin. An undying air of Germanness hovered over the word as it always had, as it always would, as it appeared before Behaghel, before you, on the page. But you had to feel it, because the air escaped history.

Consciously or not, Behaghel reclaimed the very magic that Heymann Steinthal had mocked six decades earlier. As with most ancient discoveries, staking territory in the present was the point. Coinages planted irremovable flags. The analogy is shaky, but you can imagine an American worrying not over what the Founding Fathers had said but over whether the phrase Founding Father had been uttered first in American English, and if not—if the phrase were a borrowing of Gründervater, or padre fundador—whether that meant that Americans’ vision of their nation’s founding was not, in fact, theirs. It was unthinkable that Muttersprache had anything but German roots—otherwise the uniquely German love of German would have been Latinate the entire time.


By 1929 Otto Behaghel was old. He was the last of the Neogrammarians, a school of linguists bound by the belief that sound changes—shifts in pronunciation that happened unperceived, like a wrinkle forming or a flower blooming—could be retroactively organized according to physics-like laws. The /p/ in classical Latin’s pater, pes, and piscis provided a much cited example. Given that that /p/ had morphed into an /f/ in German and English (Vater, fuss, fisch; father, foot, fish), while it had stayed a /p/ in French and Italian (pére, pied, poisson; padre, piede, pesce), linguists like Behaghel would work to establish that Germanic tongues exceptionlessly turned plosives fricative. Etymologizing, since it risked being fanciful, was not very Neogrammarian.

Behaghel was not one of the up-and-coming Neohumboldtians, but he was under their sway. The phrase “the living voice of a people” is the younger generation’s, not his. The dogmatic magic comes from them, too. At the end of the 1920s the resistance to a certain kind of science was a response not only to previous generations of German thinkers but also to contemporary linguistics: from 1916 or so on the field had come to revolve around the French-speaking Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure. The Saussureans, who insisted that linguistic evolution was random, sucked the Geist out of language entirely. (Some Neohumboldtians argued that such a deadening outlook was possible only in French.) But languages were more than mere forces of nature, the Neohumboldtians countered; they were forces of national destiny. Every part of a mother tongue pulsed with the whole. Even—especially—a difference as small as the one between the gently forced /v/ in Vater and the muted /p/ in père was revelatory of the gulf between the Geist of German and the Geist of French.

Mother with Child, by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, 1915.

The halting about-face at the end of Behaghel’s 1929 note was not enough for the Neohumboldtians. In a 1938 article titled “Ist Muttersprache eine Germanische oder eine Romanische Wortprägung?” (Is Muttersprache a Germanic or a Romance coinage?), published in an important journal of German language and literature, Leo Weisgerber returned to Muttersprache’s uncertain origins in order to make the word’s birth even more bottomlessly mysterious.

The question in Weisgerber’s title was rhetorical. “In no way, shape, or form is Muttersprache a loan translation from lingua materna,” Weisgerber began, sounding annoyed at having to argue something so obvious. The case was entirely the other way around: the 1119 Latin phrase and its scattered Romance descendants—langue maternelle (French), lengua materna (Spanish), língua materna (Portuguese)—drew life from the eternal German original. You had to be a born Germanophone to fully understand him. The Germans, Weisgerber explained, were endowed with a kind of sixth sense for the overwhelming motherliness of the world. He offered a sampling from German’s army of mother coinages as proof: Mutterboden (mother soil), Muttererde (mother earth), Muttergrund (mother ground), Muttervolk (mother people), Mutterland (motherland), Mutterstadt (mother state), Mutterhimmel (mother sky), Mutterluft (mother air), and Mutterlicht (mother light). Humboldt’s silent breath, Behaghel’s whiff of suppleness, morphed into a roaring cloud of Germanic mother goddesses.

Such words are the linguistic forms chosen to be assumed by life’s most life-giving and life-sustaining forces, words which, in their self-evident omnipresence, their bottomless abundance, and their destiny-ridden generativity prove to be timelessly ruling powers in the life of all human beings.

Muttersprache (mother language) could only have sprung from such a verbal breeding ground. The 1119 appearance of lingua materna was a blip, a random growth in the otherwise sterile fields of medieval Latin. Weisgerber appealed to a God’s-eye view of linguistic evolution. Were the historian of language to consider the Western Middle Ages as a whole, he wrote, it would be clear that Mother Language preferred to name herself in the thriving tongues of northern Europe: first in Old Icelandic (móðurmál, 1350), then in Middle English (modyr tonge, 1380), Old Swedish (modhor male, 1385), Low German (modersprake, 1424), and ultimately—in the vernacular of Martin Luther—High German itself (muter sprach, 1522). Dante’s coinage of parlar materno in the Purgatorio, Weisgerber noted in a nod to the Italian-tracking Steinthal, was also a blip. He informed his German readers that the Romance incarnations of Muttersprache only began to gain currency with their Renaissance.

Geist manifested in massive waves, not isolated growths. The 1119 text that Behaghel had unearthed did not provide the proof that he imagined. The scribe behind the synodal report calls himself Argentinensis, or Strasbourgeois. Strasbourg would have been under German rule since the Treaty of Mersen in 870, so the schoolteacher would have been born on the German side of the border between Thuringia and Franconia. Old Low German, Weisgerber affirmed in a burst of detective work, not Old French, would have been the schoolteacher’s vernacular. Such a man might have first used lingua materna, in Latin, on paper. But the real word, Weisgerber insisted, Muttersprache, would have been coined inside of him the instant that the sound of Mother German, in the earthly form of his mother’s German, had struck his untouched ears.


“Ridiculous,” responded Leo Spitzer, an Austrian-born philologist. “In the face of such sublime, pre-syntactic pristinity, one dare not ask grammatical questions.” Yet he had a hard time containing himself. In a 1944 essay titled “Muttersprache und Muttererziehung” (On mother language and mother education, roughly), published in the Monatshefte für Deutschen Unterricht, the official journal of the German section of the MLA, Spitzer returned to Weisgerber’s etymology of six years earlier. Behaghel’s note had been barely three pages, and Weisgerber’s article was a little over nine; Spitzer wrote fifty slow pages, buoyed by flights of sarcasm, savaging the “religious belief” that the modern German word Muttersprache had miraculously birthed the 1119 Latin of lingua materna.

Mother and Sleeping Baby, by Alice Pike Barney, 1911.

Spitzer was several things that both Behaghel and Weisgerber were not: a Hispanist and a Romanist, Jewish, forced into exile (first in Istanbul, then in Baltimore). He is also more beloved. In recent years the literary theorist Emily Apter has resurrected Spitzer as a kind of early exemplar of what she calls “global translatio” (the Latin word for “translation” here also conveys the sense of basic movement), a philology that doubles as a way of life, thrives on messy multilingual gatherings, and has everybody involved a little linguistically unsure of themselves. In Spitzer’s interim universe, Apter suggests, the point was to move in and out of whatever languages were on the table without ever investing any one of them with the power of the default; you translated exactly where it was impossible.

Where the Neohumboldtians were devout about the untranslatability of one’s own Muttersprache, Spitzer was devout about the untranslatability of other people’s mother tongues. But he took the fact of untranslatability as an invitation, not a stop sign. In a sense, he was more Humboldtian than the Neohumboldtians were. Spitzer did not believe that a single inborn language underlay the world’s infinite diversity of tongues, but he did believe that humanness cut across linguistic chasms. Toward the end of a 1934 essay about learning Turkish at the age of forty-seven (it was like “an old man desperate to learn how to ski”), he insists that any person should be able to compare his way into any language, because “every language is human prior to being national.” Turkish, French, and German belonged first to humanity and second to the Turkish, French, and German peoples. “Tutti gli uomini sono fratelli,” Spitzer adds, attributing the ancient humanistic cliché “All men are brothers” to a fringe Italian linguist named Alfredo Trombetti. In a footnote, the Hispanist happily mistranslates: “All languages are brothers.”


In his 1944 essay Spitzer returns to that moment at the end of Behaghel’s 1929 note. For Spitzer, Behaghel’s original cover-up only underlined the question it was meant to make German speakers forget.

Why Muttersprache, again? Why mother tongue? Why not father tongue? Why not brother tongue or sister tongue or wet-nurse tongue? Something, Spitzer argued, had to have been happening in the beginning of the Middle Ages that made the link between lingua and materna—between langue and maternelle, between lengua and materna, between Sprache and Mutter—sound natural. Mothers had to be doing something (or something had to have been being done to them) that made them the carriers of language.

The Neohumboldtians, Spitzer points out, take the Mutter- in Muttersprache—like the Mutter- in Mutterboden and Muttererde and Mutterluft and Muttergrund and Mutterstadt—to be self-evident. Life’s most life-giving and life-sustaining forces are just obviously motherly. In turn, the prefix only ever points to the same eternal Mother, a vague deity having next to nothing to do with actual flesh-and-blood women.

But all life is shaped by language, mediated through speech forms, and tamed by grammar (even sounds are subject to grammar), and these grammatical patterns vary per locorum temporomque distantias [across space and time], as Dante says, since, after the Fall, Adam forfeited that unchanging language of his innocence in which he spoke to God. In our post-Adamic, time-and-space-addled world, there can be no “timeless” timeless powers.

Spitzer’s allusion is not to the Purgatorio but to Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence), an unfinished work of literary theory started sometime between 1302 and 1305. In the first lines of his treatise, Dante claimed to be the first man ever to seriously consider the thing newly called the “vernacular.” Even women and children have one, the poet explained. As infants, he went on, each of us acquire ours “the instant that we start to make sounds,” not via centuries-old rules, let alone in school, but “by imitating our wet nurses.” (Mothers like Dante’s would not have breastfed.) The special status of firstness, though, can be deceptive. Several lines down Dante observed that, much like the fool who takes his birthplace to be the most beautiful place on Earth, so, too, does a certain kind of man tend to believe that his own motherly way of speaking—Dante coined the phrase locutio materna—is superior to everybody else’s. He thought Florentine, for example, was God’s gift. Such a man worshipped his locutio materna, forever mistaking it for the language, the motherless tongue that Adam, the Man Who Never Had a Mother and Never Drank Her Milk (vir sine matre, vir sine lacte), used in the Garden of Eden.

Spitzer thought that Weisgerber was such a fool. In an effort to write flesh-and-blood women and milk back into the history of the birth of the word Muttersprache, Spitzer offers his own take on Dante’s picture of suckling language. Across the Christian Middle Ages, Spitzer argues, reviving Heymann Steinthal’s 1867 argument, cold men wielded Latin over scared schoolchildren. But the woman who breastfed you was your “first language teacher.” The vernaculars were not passed whole from father to father to father, or stamped on your soul at conception, but absorbed piecemeal in the very real world of your first messy years on Earth through suckling, caresses, and songs. (For all the insistence on real women, Spitzer, like Steinthal, does not give them much more to do other than suckle, caress, and coo.) This is the mother education (Mutterererziehung) alluded to in the title of Spitzer’s essay, which he meant as a corrective to Weisgerber’s militarized soul-stamping.

Still, elite ancient Romans had mothers and wet nurses, too. The difference—the source of language so obscured by the Neohumboldtian cloud of Geist—was God. Spitzer finds his decisive moment in arguably the most canonical book of Western Christian literature, written centuries before 1119.

Somewhere in Augustine [in the Confessions], there is a sentence about the education that he owes to his mother—a deeply Christian woman—which clearly brings to mind the word “Muttersprache.” Unfortunately I cannot cite its exact location from memory, but it goes like this: “hoc nomen salvatorisin ipso adhuc lacte matris tenerum cor meum biberat et alte retinebat.” [I suckled the name of the Savior in my mother’s milk, and I hold it etched onto my heart.]

Such a packed sentence, Spitzer writes, contains the seeds of our modern word: this is the scene that Muttersprache springs from. This is the scene that langue maternelle, lengua materna, língua materna, and mother tongue spring from, too. And it is even more condensed than the mythical moment of first language acquisition: Saint Augustine is describing not the suckling of his first language (Latin) but of his first word (“Jesus”).

Enthroned Virgin and Child, French, c. 1140.

And yet, for all his attachment to his mother (and to the words that came out of his mouth), Augustine never combined the words lingua and materna to make a phrase. By the twelfth century, Spitzer goes on, ordinary Christians had another source of language—not their own mothers (or whoever breastfed them) but everybody’s mother, the Virgin Mary. Cults of the Virgin—above all, cults surrounding her bottomlessly abundant milk—consumed the West, including everywhere that German was used. God’s mother, Spitzer writes, paraphrasing the Cistercian mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, was everywhere felt to be “the aqueduct through which all good things arrive to us.” Local mothers, in turn, were the aqueduct’s aqueducts, charged with doing the Virgin’s work. Languages were God’s gift, suckled. When you were breastfed your first language—a very good thing—did not arrive from the past but from heaven. An infant’s verbal diet was Christian, not German, French, or Italian. Here Spitzer, too, returns to Steinthal’s 1867 narrative: when Latin began to die, it split, and the Romance vernaculars scattered. But that split could not account for the Virgin’s hold on the other, non-Latin vernaculars (Low German, Old English). The greater split was not internal to Latin, Spitzer argues, but to the church: sermo patrius was the stale, male talk of mass, where your mother tongue was what you knew God in daily.

The argument echoes the one that Spitzer had made ten years earlier, about the rights to modern languages, except with Christianity in place of humanity. Every medieval language was Christian prior to being national, he suggests in 1944; German, French, and Italian belonged first to the Virgin Mary (and through her to her son) and second to the Germans, the French, and the Italians. The question in the title of Leo Weisgerber’s 1938 article (“Is Muttersprache a Germanic or a Romance Coinage?”) was supposed to be too obvious to be answered, but Spitzer responds anyway: neither. The word Muttersprache was not blue-eyed or dark-eyed, to put it in Percy Grainger’s terms, but had eyes the color of God’s.


Not a lot of women managed to write in the Middle Ages. But among the ones who did, none seemed to have called their tongues “mother.” The thirteenth-century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg claimed that the Middle Low German she wrote in was superior to all other vernaculars for talking about life’s most serious matters—but she called it her “unlearned tongue.” And her aim was precisely not to transcend the unlearnedness of her first language but to inhabit it.

Men, on the other hand, seem to have felt eternally oppressed by the motherliness of their first languages. Even as he mocked those fools who mistook their vernacular for the most beautiful language on Earth, Dante strove to carve a kind of courtly Florentine out of his parlar materno, which would approach the pristineness of Adam’s motherless, unsuckled tongue; Marx, who had been a student of Humboldt’s, insisted that the proletariat needed to shed his mother tongue to be free; Thoreau was convinced he needed to rebirth himself into something he called a “father tongue” to begin to think freely; poor Percy Grainger turned himself inside out trying to carve his mothertongue out of his mother tongue. Would we even have words like Muttersprache, or phrases like “mother tongue,” if the namers of language had not been so many tortured sons?