welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


A Womb of Words

Do babies drink in language with their mothers’ milk? Peter Benson surveys the startling semiotics of Julia Kristeva.

Julia Kristeva was born in Bulgaria. She arrived in Paris on Christmas Eve 1965, as a young linguistics student on a scholarship, and has lived in France ever since. She quickly established a reputation for herself in the heady intellectual milieu of the late sixties. Her colleagues, teachers and friends included the brightest stars in the Parisian firmament. Today, she teaches as a professor of linguistics, and practises as a trained psychoanalyst. Her many books include novels, histories of literature, and psychoanalytic studies of love and depression. In 1974 she published her doctoral thesis, The Revolution of Poetic Language, which is a study of the French poets Mallarmé and Lautréamont. But in order to understand the nature of their remarkable innovations in poetry, Kristeva set out to develop a complete theory of the nature of language, drawing together insights from (among others) Freud, Husserl, Hegel and Marx, as well as linguists such as Benveniste and Hjelmslev.

Linguistics is, in some respects, a descriptive and empirical science. It examines a universal human phenomenon (language), discusses its historical development, and categorizes its contemporary diversity. But many linguists have been led, in the course of their researches, to make very general philosophical claims about the nature of language as one of the most distinctive features of human life. Chomsky and Saussure are obvious examples of this; their views are discussed by philosophers as often as by other linguists. At the same time, philosophy in the 20th Century became increasingly concerned with language. Some philosophers believed that eradicating linguistic confusions, and explaining why our language takes the particular form it does, could resolve long-standing philosophical problems. These included A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Kristeva’s contribution to these debates is of profound significance, not only for the light it throws on our linguistic capabilities, but for her understanding of the necessary limitations on any absolute clarity in our use of words. She takes to heart Freud’s recognition that we are always saying more than we intend, and these unconscious messages can never be eradicated, though they can (in part) be understood.

Philosophers have generally concerned themselves with the capacity of language to refer to the world and to articulate meanings. The German philosopher Frege called these two dimensions of language ‘reference’ and ‘sense’. But all language must also have a physical embodiment – either in the flow of ink onto paper (the curls of the pen as it glides and skips) or the similarly intermittent flow of air through our mouths. We speak with our mouths, using the same intricate and sensitive muscles with which we eat, drink, and kiss. The outward flow of noise from a baby’s mouth alternates with the inward flow of its mother’s milk. Our first words are formed within this intimate contact, and not as abstract tokens for a distant, detached and separate reality.

The baby’s babble is the beginning of language. The sounds out of which language will be formed appear first, already communicating with the encouraging gaze of the listening mother. In poetry, this babble of language (the baby’s “la, la, la…”) can be heard again, running under the race of sense in the tumpety-tum of rhythm. Poetry revives and emphasizes the rich sensuality of sounds. The best writers, of both poetry and prose, are always aware of this. So, for example, when Vladimir Nabokov introduces us to his most famous heroine, he writes: “Lolita: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” It is impossible to read that sentence without becoming aware of one’s own mouth, of the carnality of words, savouring the young girl’s name (before the book has even described her) like a taste on the tongue.

Kristeva calls the two dimensions of sense and reference (taken together) ‘the symbolic’, and this third dimension of language (its involvement with the body of the speaker) ‘the semiotic’. It should be emphasized that this is an idiosyncratic terminology of her own, used only by Kristeva and writers who are influenced by her. Usually, the word ‘semiotics’ refers to the general study of any systems of meaning.

How does babbling (the semiotic) become fused with meaning (the symbolic) to create language? Language only exists when both these aspects are combined. There can be no free-floating meaning without embodiment in something physical (whether it be the circuits of a computer, or the vibrations of our vocal chords). Human language originates in the voice, writing being a later phenomenon both historically and in the life of each child. Empirical research is still unclear about exactly how children learn to speak, and the extent to which the rules of language are ‘hard wired’ into our brains (this is one of the topics of Noam Chomsky’s speculations). But it is obvious that the child must be surrounded by the speech of others, in order to form its own sounds in accordance with theirs. It is by this means that we learn to speak English as opposed to Chinese, or vice-versa.

Meaningful words surround the child, who gradually incorporates them into the distinctive sounds of its own voice. Spoken by different people the same word sounds slightly different. Taking on the individuality of their voice it becomes “language lined with flesh” (to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes). In this way, the ethereal world of meaning is clothed in physicality.

Searching for an appropriate way to describe this, Kristeva found a relevant passage in one of Plato’s dialogues: the Timaeus. Among professional philosophers, this is not the most widely read of Plato’s books. It is most well known because it contains references to the lost civilization of Atlantis, and is often taken to provide historical evidence that such a place might really have existed. However, it is not clear whether any of the descriptions in the Timaeus are intended to be literally true. Many of Plato’s works contain, in addition to passages of rigorous logical argument, beautiful myths or parables (such as the account of a soul’s journey after death at the end of the Republic). In the Timaeus we are treated to nothing less than an account of the creation of the universe. Since Plato doesn’t pretend to have been personally present at this event, he is not writing an eye-witness report, but a speculation about how the universe might possibly have come into being.

The world around us reveals, in both its smallest details and its grandest scope, astonishing mathematical regularities and recurring patterns. If it did not, no science would be possible. Yet Plato had always been struck by the difference between abstract ideas which we can understand through our intellect alone (e.g. theorems in geometry) and physical objects which we experience through our senses. Though there are many round objects in the world, our clearest way to understand the qualities of roundness is through thinking about the geometric properties of circles, rather than measuring the varied shapes of numerous apples. If the physical universe nevertheless shows such striking mathematical regularities, its creator must have copied these timeless patterns, taking them as a model when forming the varied shapes of the visible world. So Plato concludes that the universe is a copy of these original and necessary regularities, which themselves can be apprehended by the intellect alone. A copy, however, must be separate and distinct from its original. It must be in a different place from that original. And what is this ‘place’ in which God makes copies of the patterns of intellectual truth? It must surely have been there even before the creation took place.

Unlike the God of the Old Testament, who created the universe out of nothing, Plato’s God brings order and organisation to a place which existed previously but was completely formless and disordered. This place provides the underlying substance for the intelligible order of the universe. But it precedes this order and hence is itself beyond any clear intelligibility. Plato says that it can be apprehended only by “a kind of spurious reason….as in a dream”. It existed before creation and persists as its necessary basis. Plato calls it a ‘receptacle’ because it can receive any of the various shapes into which it is moulded. This space somewhat resembles a womb, in which the whole of reality comes into being. Medical science in ancient Greece didn’t realize that women have tiny eggs inside them, but did understand that male sperm needs a female womb in which to grow into a child. Plato specifically compares the original space (for which the Greek word is Chora) to a mother, and God the creator to a father. Both are necessary for the physical world to exist. Again this differs from the Old Testament vision of a paternal God making everything out of nothing with no female help.

All this is mythology, but Kristeva was impressed by the basic structure of Plato’s myth, the two components (ideas and Chora) which he believed were necessary for the world to exist. The creation of the world, as described by Plato, seemed to her to resemble the embodiment of intellectual ideas in the physical forms of expression provided by language. The ideas we have can only be clearly expressed, and hence communicated to others, through words. But words have their origin in our breathing body. Communication begins with gasps, cries, and sighs: it starts with emotions moving and stirring our flesh. This resembles the description given by Plato of the Chora, which he imagines as alternately hot and moist, constantly in agitated movement this way and that.

Kristeva’s Chora is closer to home: it is those features of our biological existence which enable the sounds we make to be formed into speech. This happens through our interactions with our parents and other people. As a Freudian psychoanalyst, it is in Freud’s theories, particularly those in his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), that Kristeva finds the basis for her idea of the human Chora, where intelligible speech first finds expression.

When Freud uses the word ‘sexuality’ he means something much wider than our usual sense of the term. It refers to the whole multiplicity of our biological drives. Every human baby, he argues, is animated by numerous drives which are, initially, in a chaotic state, none having precedence over any other. (Note the similarity of this to the chaos imagined by Plato before God’s creation.) Each drive is felt as a state of tension which is only relaxed, in a feeling of pleasure, when the drive is satisfied. These tensions build over time. It might be the short time before it is necessary to suck in another breath of air, or the longer time before it is necessary to suck in satisfying milk. The whole body is a scintillating mass of these drives: itches that need to be scratched, skin that needs to be touched. These rhythms of tension and relaxation rule the baby’s life. The need to hear sounds, and to make sounds, are part of this chaos of drives. Slowly, with growing discrimination, the baby begins to seek particular sounds which will be the elements, the phonemes, of language.

Birth is like the Big Bang at the start of our personal cosmos. Some months later, the first elementary particles of language begin to bubble on the baby’s lips. But the adults who care for the child are a necessary part of this process. The baby and its mother, between them, shape the Chora where the seeds of words begin to grow.

In her essay Place Names (first published in 1976, and translated into English in her collection of essays Desire In Language) Kristeva describes the series of stages through which a child must pass before it acquires the apparently simple ability to use a word to name a thing. This is one of the simplest forms of language: using a noun to designate an object. It establishes the referential aspect of the symbolic. But the roots of this process lie within the semiotic domain: in the powerful drives through which the child experiences its dependence on the world around it.

Kristeva’s account of the child’s first formation of a noun exactly parallels the original formation of a physical object in Plato’s myth of creation. First, there must be a receptive space, a Chora, in which object or noun can come into existence. In the confused chaos of the infant’s early experience, separate objects only slowly become distinguished. The child’s own vocalizations will be an aid to this process of differentiation. Objects are first encountered, not in neutral contemplation of the world, but as satisfying or frustrating the child’s own needs and cravings. The desire for food is satisfied by the mother’s breast; the desire for sound by her voice; and the desire for visual stimulation by the changing expression of her face. These various different objects come and go in the child’s experience. At an early point in development (which Kristeva locates at about 21/2 months old) the return of any of these satisfying features is greeted with laughter. This laughter has nothing to do with a sense of humour, with finding something ‘funny’. Rather, it is a joyous sound which, when associated with the mother’s breast, for example, becomes a precursor of the first ‘place name’.

The child becomes aware of the external space around it; of a particular place within that space; and of a specific object located at that place. The initial discovery of space causes laughter, the explosive release of tensely held breath in a rippling and varied sound. Laughter will be the undifferentiated substance out of which the child’s earliest words will be shaped, in the same way that the surrounding space itself divides into separate objects.

The first nouns and names act as markers in the expanding vastness of this newly discovered space. These are words that refer to objects, before the child has any capacity for describing these objects (which would involve categorizing their various qualities in generalized terms). In the chronology of the child’s development, therefore, the capacity for reference precedes that for sense. Kristeva notes that, among logicians, this precedence of reference over sense corresponds to the views of John Stuart Mill, and contradicts those of Bertrand Russell (who sought to reduce purely referential proper names to descriptions). Hence an enquiry into the childhood origins of language can help us to choose between conflicting theories of logic.

By studying empirical research into the ages at which children learn to use different parts of speech, Kristeva found that words for places and things become familiar before any words referring to the child’s own self. She concludes that the development of language parallels the slow growth in the child’s awareness of its separateness from its mother.

At about the same time that words referring to the self begin to be used, so do negative statements (“it isn’t”, “not that”, “I won’t”). The child’s new separateness has a dimension of aggressive self-assertion. Before becoming a bland logical term, negation is at first an aggressive pushing away and refusal. This aggressiveness will become ossified into the harsh explosiveness of words like “not” and “no” (compared with the breathy sigh of “yes”). The anxieties and delights of the child’s slowly progressing independence become knotted into the syntax and sounds of language. Fears and hesitations become embedded in subordinate clauses; confident assurance in active verbs; and querulous uncertainty in the reversed syntax of questions (“is it?” rather than “it is”). The structures of language are formed out of the child’s earliest emotions. Throughout life, echoes of early experience will continue to echo through our words, however objective we try to be. For ‘objects’ themselves were first found, within the space of experience, by the grasping hand of a laughing child.

As Kristeva emphasizes, “it is within our ‘adult’ discourse that these potential meanings and topological latencies are at work.” The semiotic Chora never ceases to underpin our capacity for speech even if, in our search for clarity, we are apt to forget the rootedness of language in our infant cravings. Far from this being a limitation, poetic writers are able to tap into this semiotic dimension, enabling them to communicate with their readers more vibrantly. Kristeva herself frequently writes in a dazzling, breathtaking prose style, her complex sentences weaving diverse themes into unexpected shapes. It is this, as much as the originality of her ideas, which has captivated her many readers and ensured her continuing influence, both on literary studies and on philosophy.

© Peter Benson 2001

Peter Benson is a writer interested in philosophy and film. He lives in London.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X