Language and Disturbances of Language

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Language is arguably omnipresent in psychoanalysis, if for no other reason than that it is the essential tool of analytic treatment.

Apart from Freud's early work On Aphasia (1891b), four passages in his writings may conveniently serve as vantage points from which to consider his approach to language. These are the beginning of chapter 6 of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), chapter 5 and chapter 8 of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b), and the last paragraph of "The Unconscious" (1915e). These passages point up the critical importance of taking language into account in connection with interpretation and with the way words are invested with meaning.

Chapter 6 of The Interpretation of Dreams begins with a brief introduction where Freud asks how the relationship between the manifest content of the dream and its latent content, which he also refers to as dream-thoughts, can best be represented. He envisions four possible models, the first three of which he rejects and the last of which he emphatically accepts. This relationship may thus be assimilated to that between two descriptions of the same facts in two different languages, or in terms of the translation of a text and its original, or again as analogous to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. None of these parallels satisfies Freud, although he does not clearly state why, and he eventually decides that the relationship is identical to that of the symbols of a rebus to its deeper meaning. The word "rebus," it is worth recalling, is a short form of the expression "scribere in rebus," that is, "to write with [representations of] things," in contrast to "scribere in litteris," "to write with letters."

The rebus, however, is not a pictogram or a story in pictures, but a succession of small figures with a meaning that can be deciphered, each figure functioning either semantically or phonetically, so that a picture of a cat, for example, can denote either the word cat (assuming the pertinent language is English) or the sounds of the consonants and vowel that constitute that word. There are two points to remember here: a rebus assumes a given language, and we never know whether the figure functions as meaning or as sound. So, if the rebus is the prototype of the interpretable, the interpretable presupposes a specific language and the possibility that an element can have either a phonetic or a semantic value. Interpretation, for Freud, is therefore tied in its essence to language.

The study of slips of the tongue also involves a linguistic phenomenon, but one of an entirely different nature: a word that, within the spoken sequence of words, is substituted for another that it resembles phonetically but not semantically; sometimes it may even have the opposite meaning. For example, "Geiz", meaning "greed," replacing "Geist,""cleverness"or"wit.""Sie haben alle Geiz" (They are all greedy) is said instead of Sie haben alle Geist" (They are all witty). The speaker may correct the first sentence with the second but it is the first that truly expresses her thought (Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901b, p. 64). The slip is facilitated when a close phonetic likeness is combined with a great semantic distance, allowing a censored opinion to reveal itself in part. Sometimes a neologism is needed.

Later in the Psychopathology, Freud uses a parapraxis of his own to illustrate the importance of language in the interpretation of bungled actions. He relates how one evening he went to the suburbs of Vienna to examine a patient who was suffering from the inability to use her legs in order to settle a differential diagnosis as between hysteria (curable) and myelitis (incurable). He did not enjoy this type of work, because some time earlier he had made a mistake in a similar case and rebuked himself for being an ass—or, in Hebrew, chamer. However, when he got to his staircase landing, he realized that he had put his reflex hammer in his pocket instead of his tuning fork. He then remembered that he had recently examined an imbecile child—"an ass"—who had grabbed this tuning fork and refused to let it go. The basis of his interpretation was the phonetic proximity between the German hammer and chamer. (pp. 165-66).

The interpretation of a parapraxis therefore assumes, once again, the use of language—and not language in general, but a specific language.

In his metapsychological paper on "The Unconscious" (1915e), Freud describes quite another role played by language. He notes that while, in the most advanced forms of schizophrenia, the subject no longer cathects anything but himself, adopting a fully narcissistic posture, during the early stages he can still cathect word-presentations and so avoid thoroughgoing autism.

The above distinctions between four aspects of the metapsychological relationship to language may be slightly artificial, but they all serve to underscore the fact that language always displays both a phonetic and a semantic aspect.


See also: Action-language; Aphasia; Brain and psychoanalysis, the; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Colloque sur l'inconscient; "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; Dementia; I; Ideational representation; Infans; Infantile psychosis; Innervation; Interpretation; Lacan, Jacques-MarieÉmile; Letter, the; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Literature and psychoanalysis; Metaphor; Metonymy; Multilingualism and psychoanalysis; Non-verbal communication; Organic psychosis; Preconscious; Psychanalyse, La; Thing-presentation; Signifier; Signifier/signified; Slips of the tongue; Subject's desire; Symbolic, the (Lacan); Symptom/sinthome; Technique with adults, psychoanalytic; Want of being/lack of being; Word association. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1891b). On aphasia: A critical study (E. Stengel, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press, 1953.
   * ——. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.
   * ——. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
   * ——. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.