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Languages Other than Mine

Michel Zink
p. 34

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Source: La lettre, no. 34, July 2012

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1This symposium was held as part of Professor Michel Zink’s seminar, under the research programme funded by his 2007 Balzan Prize, and as part of the activities of the Institute of Literary Studies of the Collège de France.

2It focused on writers who, by choice or necessity, write in a language other than their mother tongue.

3After stressing that this symposium resonated with the one that had preceded it in the same programme, after explaining the reference of his title to Emmanuel Carrère’s novel, D’autres vies que la mienne (Lives Other Than My Own), and after showing how the papers that were about to be delivered covered the various aspects of the question, Michel Zink, in his opening statement, drew on Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia to emphasize the meaning of the freedom that medieval writers enjoyed in choosing their language.

4Both Pascale Bourgain (École nationale des chartes) and Karlheinz Stierle (University of Konstanz) further reflected on medieval multilingualism. The former highlighted the fact that in the Middle Ages, Latin, without being someone’s language, was not a foreign language, while the latter showed why the title Rerum vulgarium fragmenta was better suited than Canzoniere to Petrarch’s vernacular poetry collection.

5Several papers explored the still difficult and tragic situation, after the Holocaust, of German-speaking Jews with regard to German, and even their sense of being stripped of all languages: Jacques Le Rider (EPHE) concerning Mauthner, Kafka and Canetti; Claudine Haroche (CNRS) concerning Aharon Appelfeld, before considering totalitarian newspeaks (Klemperer, Orwell); John E. Jackson (University of Bern) concerning Paul Celan.

6Other speakers commented on their personal experience or used it as a starting point. Michael Edwards (Collège de France) read one of his poems which mixes English with French, and explained the use of each language based on their respective rhythmic and lexical resources. The reflection of Luciano Rossi’s (University of Zurich) on the future of European culture was rooted in his own journey as a multilingual philologist, an Italian by birth and a Romanist by pro­fession whose career essentially took place in German-speaking Switzerland, mixing political philosophy, derived from his father’s example, with philology, drawing on Brunetto Latini’s Book of Treasures. Antoine Compagnon (Collège de France), after pointing out the role that English had played in his training, due to family circumstances and his mother’s tastes, stressed the importance of the lingo used by siblings and families, with analyses based on passages from Proust.

7Jean-Noël Robert (Collège de France and Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres) talked about the situation of Japanese literates who did not speak Chinese but read and wrote ideograms, and could thus hold a “paintbrush dialogue” in this language with foreigners. He commented on a moving conversation held in this way in Chinese, around 1600 CE, between a Japanese man and a Korean prisoner of war in Japan, neither of whom knew the other’s language.

8Wondering whether mathematics could be considered as a non-mother tongue appropriated by mathematicians, Michel Zink had invited one of them, Jean-Paul Allouche (CNRS), who addressed and delved into many questions: mathematics as a foreign language, even a sacred language; the words of mathe­matics; the question of knowing in what real language mathe­matics are written, and what influence the language used has on them; the relationship between mathematical language and poetry; the mathematics of language and attempts at generative linguistics.

9At the end of the first day, Marc Fumaroli (Collège de France, Académie française, and Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres) analysed the rivalry between French and Latin in France during the classical era. He showed that certain minds steeped in classical culture preferred the direct and naïve imitation of nature – which is precisely what the Ancients themselves had done – rather than the imitation of the authors or artists of Antiquity.

10At the end of the second day, Yves Bonnefoy (Collège de France) reminded us that, apart from the relationship between languages, there is a fundamental language which, by bypassing­ artificial concepts, coincides with the truth of the world through a re-appropriation of words, to all of which it gives the status of a “proper noun”: poetry.

• Symposium held on 10 and 11 May 2012

• Programme and videos available online at

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Michel Zink, « Languages Other than Mine », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 7 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 novembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2017. URL :

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Michel Zink

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