Women, lalangue, and the serpent: a trio of origin

It’s a practice. It’s a practice that will last for as long as it lasts. It’s a chattering practice (pratique de bavardage). No chatter is without risk. Already the word “chatter” implies something. What it implies is sufficiently said by the word “chatter”, which means that not only sentences, namely, what we call propositions, but words too imply consequences. “Chatter” puts speech on a par with drooling (baver) or spluttering. This practice reduces speech to the kind of spattering that results from it. There you have it.

– Jacques Lacan, The Moment of Concluding

In a peerless article on the origin of language, the linguist François Rastier reminds us that this topic has been censored for a long time: “It is around 1870 that this refusal took an institutional turn. The Société de Linguistique de Paris, founded in 1866, owes part of its renown to Article II of its primary statutes, which states, ‘The society does not allow any communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language.’”i

The debate has been reprised since then, in particular with the opposition of Chomsky’s mentalism to Skinner’s behaviorist theses. In his 1957 work, Syntactic Structures, Chomsky posits that language is above all a syntax of biological and innate origin. For him, grammar takes precedence over the study of structure, of form, independently of meaning. He illustrates this with a famous example, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” discussed by Lacan in his Seminar XII.

Later, in Seminar XXIII, Lacan proposes that the idea of the signifier is supported essentially, in lalangue by syntax. He further states that “What remains of this is nothing less than what characterizes any lalangue among all the others, namely, the equivoques that are possible in it, as I have illustrated with the equivocation between ‘two’ (deux) and ‘of them’ (d’eux). If something can be supposed in history, it is indeed that it is the set of women that engendered what I have called lalangue, faced with a language that was decomposing, Latin in this case, since that is what is involved at the origin of our languages. One can wonder about what could have guided one sex out of the two towards what I will call the prosthesis of the equivoque, and what led a set of women to engender lalangue in each case.”ii

May we not suppose that the equivoque serves as prosthesis here for the syntax that is on its way to dissolution, when the latter is seen as the kernel and architecture of meaning production? Antoine Meillet, in his Esquisse d’une histoire de la langue latine (Outline of a History of the Latin Language), notes that at the end of the Roman Empire “the stratum of cultivated people practicing the Latin language was slim.”iii It is through the culture of the elites (typically male!) that the complex grammatical forms inherited from the Indo-European were nevertheless maintained. The elites sought to maintain a stable meaning in a language essential to the administration of the Empire, and thus served, probably, to proscribe equivocation through the effects of grammar. The less cultivated classes opposed this with the life and power of speech, that of the streets, the source of equivoques suited to thwarting power by means of language games. Meillet adds that as a result, as time went by, “the common Romance sentence no longer possessed the articulation, at once delicate and firm, of the Old Latin sentence; Vulgar Latin became something that the most varied and the least cultivated men could use, a convenient tool, good for all hands.”iv

Thus came to be born the Romance languages which were enriched by other languages. Modern observers, especially sociologists, have been able to confirm that common spoken language has a particularly feminine status, often characterized as chatter or gossip (bavardage). The men are here constitutive of the norm of the discourse, and “in conflict with this norm,” as one of these specialists on the social use of the speech notes, “the feminine way of speaking is inscribed as defect, as negative and as less. And there transpires in these presentations of the feminine way of speaking a representation that the common man, without prevarication, calls chattering.”v

This observation confirms the common prejudice which holds that women are often the living source of chattering, and which for that matter associates them also with babbling and lallation. This fact is sometimes held to be connected to their power of being the bearers of the mother tongue. This feminine chatter that is often used to discriminate against women is also sometimes assumed by them; see, for example, the “talkers, woman to woman” (parleuses) of Marguerite Duras.vi This can also lead women to the more radical idea of creating discussion groups without men, so as to find again a more feminine saying! These facts of chatter contrast with the feminist concern of restricting oneself to influencing language by handling only gender inflections differently.

What is the link then between phallic meaning and the scant-meaning (peu-de-sens) of women’s chatter that sometimes flirts, without touching it, with the non-meaning/step-of-meaning (pas-de-sens) of the real, even with the foot they keep in this real that escapes men? In what way does it then resonate with a jouissance outside of meaning that would be their own? But not without meaning (sens)! In passing through the semblants, chattering in the feminine mode reinvents language and re-finds its origin in the real of the non-rapport by making it ex-sist between the lines. This non-rapport can indeed be perceived as the effect of language (and chatter), and it can even be the secret cause of language! – which situates it as beyond the phallus. In his “Geneva Lecture on the Symptom,” Lacan declares: “Asfor me, I would be inclined to believe that, contrary to what shocks a lot of people, it’s rather women who invented language. Moreover, this is what Genesis gives to understand. Women speak with the serpent – that is, with the phallus. They speak all the more with the phallus, given that it is hetero for them. […] Contrary to what is believed, phallocentrism is Woman’s best guarantee. […] The Virgin Mary with her foot on the head of the serpent means that she supports herself upon it.”vii

Adam indeed speaks the language of Eve. Lacan is not mistaken: Adam did not invent it and nor did the serpent. This serpent speaks, it walks and it is “more subtle than any beast of the field” (Genesis 3:1). It is the one who asks Eve, “Has God said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). So the serpent resembles a phallic man! In other words, the phallus can be taken on the woman side as that which loves women (hetero!) but also as what serves as support for their saying, as a kind of escabeau for their speech! The phallus has to be there as signifier par excellence so that a woman may ex-sist to it, by putting her foot on it, even if it were to be through her offspring. So that she may then follow through with her action in a chattering that maintains only the “faunétic” function of the phallus – its function of making meaning and de-meaning (sens et désens) is not useful, only the sound is retained – and from this she makes the equivoques that make lalangue

In a remarkable article in L’Hebdo-blog no.188 that oriented me, Françoise Tartavel, quoting Antoni Vicens,viii remarks: “Antoni Vicens had made the hypothesis that a language that is decomposing has the effect of feminizing human relations and of producing a community of jouissance, necessarily outside the law, since this ‘outside-the-law’ is the condition of creation. He maintains that Lacan ‘considers women, more precisely feminine jouissance, to be at the origin of the unity of languages.’”ix

It remains to be seen as to what decomposes first: the Empire or the language? And what can be reborn from this decomposition…

Translation by Samya Seth

i Rastier F., “De l’origine du langage à l’émergence du milieu sémiotique,” Marge linguistique, no. 11, May 2006. Available online: www.revue-texto.net/1996-2007/Inedits/Rastier/Rastier_Origine.pdf

ii Lacan J., Le Séminaire, livre XXIII, Le sinthome , ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris, Seuil, 2005, p. 117.

iii Meillet A., l’Esquisse d’une histoire de la langue latine, Paris, Klincksieck, 2004.

iv Ibid., p. 273.

v Aebischer V., Les femmes et le langage, Paris, PUF, 1985, p. 54.

vi Duras M. and Gauthier X., Les parleuses, Paris, Minuit, 1974; published in English as Woman to Woman, tr. Katharine A. Jensen, Lincoln NE, U of Nebraska P, 1987.

vii Lacan J., “Geneva Lecture on the Symptom,” tr. Russell Grigg, Analysis, no. 1, 1989, p. 26.

viii Vicens A., “Guerre, dictature et régime de jouissance dans le franquisme,” in La psychanalyse à l’épreuve de la guerre, ed. Marie-Helene Brousse, Paris, Berg, 2015, pp. 176-177.

ix Tartavel F., “Lacan, les femmes et lalangue,” L’Hebdo-Blog, no. 188, 15th December 2019. Available online: www.hebdo-blog.fr/lacan-femmes-lalangue/