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Greenson, R.R. (1950). The Mother Tongue and the Mother. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 31:18-23.

(1950). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 31:18-23

The Mother Tongue and the Mother

Ralph R. Greenson, M.D.


The acquisition of speech marks a turning-point in the psychological development of the human being. The use of words for purposes of communication signals the end of infancy and the beginning of childhood. Language is the organized system of verbal productions which has been established and perpetuated by the culture and which is now available to the individual. This paper is an attempt to investigate those factors which decisively influence the conscious and unconscious attitudes toward language and speech. The clinical material is based largely on the following case:

A thirty-five-year-old intelligent and attractive woman sought psycho-analytic treatment because of a sleep disturbance. Ever since the birth of her first child, she was unable to sleep in the same room with anyone and was terrified of resorting to sedatives. She feared the drug might not help her and that she might eventually become an addict. The patient was married to a man much older than herself and had three children. She was Austrian by birth and had lived in Austria until the age of 18, when she came to America.

The first year of her analysis proceeded relatively smoothly and seemed to follow the course one would expect in an hysteric. The fear of not falling asleep was revealed to cover a still stronger fear of falling asleep in the presence of someone. Falling asleep meant losing control, and losing control meant becoming sexual. Sexuality had become repressed and was linked up with a strong Oedipal attachment to the father associated with guilt feelings and enormous hostility to the mother.

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