Louis Wolfson’s Languages.

Dr Tony Shaw provides a fascinating psycho-linguistic tidbit in this post from 2012:

Louis Wolfson’s second book, the highly alliterative Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu du mois de mai mille977 au mouroir Memorial à Manhattan, which concerns his mother’s death from ovarian cancer, has just been re-published in France after its first publication in 1984, and was re-edited by the author in 2010 with a very slightly different title.

Wolfson was born in New York in 1931 and has written two books, both in French, which is not his maternal language: a schizophrenic, after horrific youthful spells in psychiatric hospitals which included EST (ECT in British English), he came to detest English to such an extent that his existential survival depended on avoiding the language at all costs. Teaching himself Hebrew, German and Russian, but particularly French, he tried all possible means to shut out English words, notably those of his domineering mother, and for years strove to create an internal language that automatically bypassed received English words to create alternative foreign forms. ‘Where’, to give a straightforward example, is changed to the German ‘woher‘, but other transformations involve highly elaborate linguistic convolutions via similar meanings and phonemes held in common, etc, sometimes through a series of different languages.

Has anybody read either of Wolfson’s books? (Thanks go to Trevor for the link.)


  1. Yes, I read both of Wolfson’s books years ago, and just unpacked them from a box and put them on my new shelves. They’re fascinating, although definitely harrowing. “Le schizo et les langues,” in particular, goes into the details of how he had to process English to ease his suffering. They’re not only vivid memoirs of schizophrenia (up there with the accounts of Richard Shaver and Barbara O’Brien), but disturbing additions to the peculiar French literature fixated on homonyms: Allais’s holorimes, Roussel’s process, Brisset’s punning frogs, the bird language of Fulcanelli and Canseliet. Damn! Now I have to reread them!

  2. Thanks, it’s good to get a firsthand account!

  3. Ma mère, musicienne, est morte de maladie maligne à minuit, mardi à mercredi, au milieu du mois de mai mille977 au mouroir Memorial à Manhattan

    This alliterative sentence is quite standard except for the use of the two words maligne and mouroir.

    The adjective maligne (a feminine derivative of le mal ‘something bad, evil’) is not usually used with the general word la maladie ‘disease, illness’ but with la tumeur ‘tumour’. Une tumeur maligne is a cancerous tumour. So morte de maladie maligne implies ‘dead of cancer’.

    As for le mouroir, a derivative of the verb mourir ‘to die’, it does refer to a nursing home or hospice but with a definitely derogatory connotation: a place where people are left to die, probably with minimal care.

  4. This must be bitter irony, since Memorial Hospital in Manhattan (known since 1980 as Memorial Sloan Kettering) is one of the top three treatment facilities for cancer in the U.S. Still, people do die even in the best hospitals.

    It’s interesting how much of the alliteration is preserved even in English, a testimonial to the comparative immunity of PIE /m/ to sound-change as well as extensive French-to-English borrowing: “My mother, a musician, died of a malignant malady at midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday in the middle of May in nineteen seventy-seven in Memorial —- in Manhattan.” I can’t think of a word with the same force as mouroir.

  5. You could dial the grimness factor up to eleven with mortuary.

Speak Your Mind