A Tongue of its Own. Language and Gender
Concept of the Symposium
written by Prof. Christina von Braun
Men and women talk to each other. And yet, they have their own languages and forms of communication. Even more: language itself shapes gender roles. This is true for all cultures. However, it applies in a specific way to the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – all three of which are based on or have created an alphabetical writing system. The Semitic alphabet was fully developed around 1000 BC and preceded the rise of the first form of monotheism. The Greek alphabet was created only 200 years later and later became, together with the Latin language the main vehicle of the Christian religion. With Islam religion preceded the alphabet: The Arabic alphabet was fully developed about 200 years after Mohammed.
In general, phonetic writing systems imply a division between the body and language. But the effect was not quite the same for the three alphabets which differ in one respect: two of them – the Semitic and Arabian alphabet – originally only wrote the consonants, while the Greek alphabet also comprised the vowels. Consonant-alphabets imply that texts written in this script can only be read by those who actually speak the language. This resulted in the preservation of oral traditions in Judaism and in Islam. In both cultural traditions textual and oral language were considered two distinct and yet interrelated forms of communication. In all three religions the written word was equated with masculinity while orality was ‘feminized’. The scholars of the middle ages accordingly called the written language Vatersprache (“father language”) while they named the oral language Muttersprache (“mother tongue”). But the differences between the three alphabets led to different forms of symbolic gender roles. While femininity as the “incarnation of the spoken language” in the Greek and Christian tradition ultimately led to a speechless ‘feminity’—oral qualities being increasingly equated with the language of superstition and credulity—it gained a completely different meaning in the consonant-alphabet’s system of writing. Here, the female body, which stands for the vowels, the unwritten signs, refers to the “blank spaces” of the Semitic alphabet, to the “resonating body,” without which the signs can not come to life. The female body is not the signifier of revelation—that is ascribed to the Holy Text, which in its turn ascribed to the male body via circumcision—but the female body is the signifier of the revelation’s “enunciation,” for the “spoken,” “oral Torah.” The male body as the signifier of the sign and the female body as an “enunciation” of the sign depended upon one another: Sounds without the signs are insignificant, and conversely, signs can only come to life via enunciation.
The symposium will on one side discuss the different relations of language and scripture within the three “Religions of the Book”; and it will try to show on the other hand how these differences produced specific symbolic gender roles. Gender roles may be based in religious thinking, but they maintain a strong influence on secular culture.
Participants of the symposium:
Prof. Dr. Christina von Braun, expert in cultural sciences and filmmaker, Humboldt-Universität Berlin
Narges Hashempour, actress and theater director, lives in Berlin
Mimi Lévy-Lipis, architect and expert in cultural sciences
Guest: Shirley Schroeder
// January 2008