The Diabolic Dicteé

Soyoung Yoon

First Friday. One hour before mass. Mass every First Friday. Dicteé first. Every Friday.

Carl Theodor Dreyer (dir.), film still from The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928.


Before mass. Dicteé before. Back in the study hall. It is time. Snaps once. One step right from the desk. Single file. Snaps twice. Follow single line. Move all the way to the right hand side of the wall. Single file. The sound instrument is made from two pieces of flat box-shaped wood, with a hinge at the center. It rests inside the palm and is snapped with a defined closing of the thumb …1


How to speak when to speak is to find yourself as if at a confessional, an interrogation booth, a court of law, or a border? How to speak when language is bound up by laws and rules and customs, the technicalities of which you are all too liable to—even destined to—trip over, as if the line of a sentence was a minefield, like the arbitrary line of the 38th parallel, become sacred, through war, through ideology, as the world’s most heavily fortified border? How to speak when it all must be learned—acquired, absorbed, mastered, perfected? How to speak when, as the saying goes, one is born with it?

Passions still run high, we are told, about the pedagogical necessity of the dicteé, where the student must write down literary passages that the teacher reads aloud—a daily spelling and grammar test that has been implemented in French elementary classrooms since the nineteenth century.2 The difficulty of the French dictation test—and its reputation as a thing of dread, not so much an exercise as a rite of initiation—is due in part to how much spelling and grammar are intertwined in the French language. Correct spelling of a word is contingent upon comprehending its meaning in the context of the selected passage. Reporting in the 1980s on the cultural phenomenon of the then-new national dicteé contests, the journalist Stanley Meisler, foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, notes how the particularities of the French language turns the dicteé into a puzzle, even a trap.3 He cites the scandal of Prosper Mérimée’s “diabolic dicteé” for the court of Napoleon III in 1868 (the emperor made forty-five mistakes), as well as the televised, national finals in 1986, watched by millions with both bated breath and pencil and paper in hand, where “contestants could not figure out how to spell one adjective pronoun in the first sentence until discovering six lines later that the person talked about was a woman.”4 And as much as the dicteé is a source of dread, it also produces shame: a singular and intense shame about the bad spelling of the mother tongue. Like the rite of confession suggested by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. The opening chapter of Cha’s book moves back and forth from the calls and responses of French language exercises to that of Catholic rites of mass, which seek to interpellate the body of the individual—shaping the mouth, the lips, the breath—into the subject who speaks:

A: God made me.
To conspire in God’s Tongue.5

The first dicteés were administered as tests for civil servants under Napoleon I. The dicteé would enter classrooms a few years later as a tool for shaping, standardizing, and nationalizing the French language, amid highly politicized attempts to modernize the French education system—the state battling with the Catholic church over the control and reach of public education. The dicteé, then, could be described as one of the cultural techniques that the media theorist Friedrich Kittler claimed as constituting the “discourse network” of the 1800s: changes in the practices of language acquisition, tied to bureaucratic reform, which were part and parcel of the changes in the formation of the family and the nation-state, the divisions of labor across private and public spheres, according to which women were inscribed within the private sphere of the family as the primary caregivers—and teachers—of children.6 Mothers would teach children how to speak, more importantly the desire to speak, recoding the noise of the child’s babble as that which could be interpreted as the nascent speech of an inner voice, a soul, or a spirit. Language would be perceived as deriving from the desire of—and for—an originary orality, the mother’s voice. “And when later in life children picked up a book,” Kittler adds, “they would not see letters but hear, with irrepressible longing, a voice between the lines.”7 “We are dealing with nothing less than the discursive construction,” Geoffrey Winthrop Young encapsulates, “of that particular type of intimate, eroticized motherhood which 100 years later will be excavated by [Sigmund] Freud and presented as a near-universal constant.”8 Through the dicteé, we would learn not only a language but also the “Mother Tongue.”

In Cha’s Dictee, there is a deconstruction of this fantasy of the mother tongue, especially by foregrounding the technicity of its learning. In particular, there is an excessive deployment of punctuation through which the line of a sentence starts and stops, starts and stops, over and over again, like the abruptness of the snaps, which beat out time, beat out directives for when and how to move, how to kneel, how to believe: “Back in the study hall. It is time. Snaps once. One step right from the desk. Single file. Snaps twice. Follow single line.”9

For the reader, the force of Cha’s Dictee, I’d argue, lies in part in the emphatic prose which mimics the grip of the mother tongue over the body—and over the body politic. Later in Dictee, in a chapter that begins with an illustrated map of the two Koreas, the sharp cracking sounds of the aforementioned snaps find a deadly resonance in the sudden breaks of silence amid the roar of a crowd in revolt—and the repeated violence which will be deemed necessary to fortify the arbitrary line of the 38th parallel as a sovereign border, a border as sacred and inviolable as the laws and rules and customs that seek to guard the mother tongue against its othering:


I feel the tightening of the crowd body to body now the voices rising thicker I hear the break the single motion tearing the break left of me right of me the silence of the other direction advance before […]. They are breaking now, their sounds, not new, you have heard them, so familiar to you now could you ever forget them not in your dreams, the consequences of the sound the breaking. The air is made visible with smoke it grows spreads without control we are hidden inside the whiteness the greyness reduced to parts, reduced to separation. Inside an arm lifts above the head in deliberate gesture and disappears into the thick white from which slowly the legs of another bent at the knee hit the ground the entire body on its left side. The stinging, it slices the air it enters thus I lose direction the sky is a haze running the streets emptied I fell no one saw me I walk. Anywhere. In tears the air stagnant continues to sting I am crying the sky remnant the gas smoke absorbed the sky I am crying. The streets covered with chipped bricks and debris. Because. I see the frequent pairs of shoes thrown sometimes a single pair among the rocks they had carried. Because. I cry wail torn shirt lying I step among them. No trace of them. Except for the blood. Because. Step among them the blood that will not erase with the rain on the pavement that was walked upon like the stones where they fell had fallen. Because. Remain dark the stains not wash away. Because. I follow the crying crowd their voices among them their singing their voices unceasing the empty street.10


The 38th parallel is materialized as two movements of bodies—the movement of the people and that of the state, the movement of the student protestors in uniform and that of the soldiers also in uniform, the movement of brother-martyr and that of soldier-brother—and their movement toward and against each other, each become the destination of the other, as if destined for each other. And it is through the repetition of “Because,” its relentlessness—amid the breaking up of bodies, the breaking down of sentences, the tear gas, the gun shots, the tears, the blood—that Cha underscores the tragedy of how that arbitrary line has been held, continues to hold.

The scene of the demonstration is included in a letter that is addressed to “Mother,” from Seoul, Korea, on April 19, but “eighteen years later.” Dates such as April 19 are significant, the numbers 4-1-9 become a proper name (“Sa-Il-Gu”), in the history and collective memory of modern Korea, for revolution—for the student protests that brought down the authoritarian and corrupt government of the First Republic in the Spring of 1960, on the eve of the Global Sixties, and for the image of the student protestor-as-martyr, a high school student, still a child, whose body was fished out of icy cold waters, a month after his disappearance, with a tear gas grenade lodged in his right eye. And yet, as the narrator of Dictee repeats, “Nothing has changed, we are at a standstill.”11

Despite the fact that decades have passed, nothing has changed. The year is 1980, and the narrator moves from the demonstrations against the 1961 military coup to the demonstrations against the 1979 coup, which would culminate in the Gwangju Uprising: “I am in the same crowd, the same coup, the same revolt, nothing has changed.”12 Despite the fact that the narrator has returned from afar, now speaking another tongue, a second tongue—“This is how distant I am. From then. From that time”—nothing has changed: “They take me back they have taken me back so precisely now exact to the hour to the day to the season in the smoke mist drizzle I turn the corner and there is no one. No one facing me. The street is rubble. I put my palm on my eyes to rub them, then I let them cry freely.”13

The opening to Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Echolalias returns us to the noise of the child’s babble. If the babble appears to anticipate the sounds of all the languages to come, Heller-Roazen also insists on the fundamental difference of babble from language. He references the linguist Roman Jakobson and his observations on the infant’s limitless phonic capacity, a capacity to articulate any and all sounds, far exceeding that of the most gifted of polyglots: “A child, during his babbling period, can accumulate articulations which are never found within a single language or even a group of languages—consonants of any place of articulation, palatalized and rounded consonants, sibilants, affricates, clicks, complex vowels, diphthongs, etc.”14 There is a gap, however, between the infant’s babble and the child’s first words, a specific loss of memory, a “phonic amnesia,” which precedes the first acquisition of language.15 Why would such a loss of capacity, of memory, be necessary for the child to learn to speak? For Jakobson, children learn to speak as they learn the value of speaking, more precisely, the value of communication; children learn to speak as they desire to communicate with others, and such desire comes at a cost, a “deflation.”16 Maybe the price, Heller-Roazen continues, is one of citizenship: “Perhaps the loss of a limitless phonetic arsenal is the price a child must pay for the papers that grant him citizenship in the community of a single tongue.”17

What are the stakes of trying to remember the babble? Heller-Roazen underscores the years of war from 1939 to 1941 and the condition of exile in which Jakobson found himself drawn to the richness of the babble before acquisition of the mother tongue. From the space of exile, then, of being expelled from not only one’s native country but one’s mother tongue, we question the very grounds upon which such claims of nativity are placed, for to speak any language at all is to be in exile from that babble. And Heller-Roazen proposes the possibility of hearing the echo of the infant’s babble, across the chasm, in the languages of adults: “an echo, of another speech and of something other than speech: an echolalia, which guarded the memory of that indistinct and immemorial babble that, in being lost, allowed all languages to be.”18

Perhaps we can also propose, via Cha, not the forgetting of the mother tongue (or the learning of another tongue, a second tongue) but a different relation to it and to Mother:

I write. I write you. Daily. From here. If I am not writing, I am thinking about writing. I am composing. Recording movements. You are here I raise the voice. Particles bits of sound and noise gathered pick up lint, dust. They might scatter and become invisible. Speech morsels. Broken chips of stones. Not hollow not empty. They think that you are one and the same direction addressed. The vast ambiant sound hiss between the invisible line distance that this line connects the void and space surrounding entering and exiting.
They have not questioned. It is all the same to them. It follows directions. Not yet. They have not yet learned the route of instruction. To surpass overtake the hidden even beyond destination. Destination.19

And then, we may find what is “beyond destination.” We write.


Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (dir.), video still from Mouth to Mouth, 1975.


Soyoung Yoon is Assistant Professor of Art History & Visual Studies at The New School. Yoon is also a Visiting Faculty at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program (ISP). Her research focuses on politics of mobility and rhetorics of testimony, witnessing, and storytelling in the moving image; she attends to questions of “the apparatus” in relation to the moving image, the body-in-motion, and the authorial voice.  Yoon is currently at work on two book projects: Walkie Talkie and TV Buddhas.



1 Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, Berkeley, CA, 2001/1982, p. 18.1

2 See, for example, Ann Beer, et al., “The Dictée in Multilingual Contexts: Exploring Literacy Memories Across Cultures,” Sociolinguistic Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (2007), pp. 157–61.2

3 Stanley Meisler, “Dreaded Dictee: French Test Puts Accent on Perfection,” the Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1987.

4 Ibid.4

5 Cha, Dictee, p. 17.5

6Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens, Stanford, CA, 1990/1985.6

7 Ibid., p. 34.7

8 Geoffrey Winthrop Young, Kittler and the Media, Cambridge, 2011, p. 33.8

9 Cha, Dictee, p. 18.9

10 Ibid., p. 82.10

11 Ibid., p. 80.11

12 Ibid., p. 81.12

13 Ibid., p. 85.13

14 Roman Jakobson, Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals, trans. Allan R. Keiler, the Hague, 1968, p. 21.14

15 Daniel Heller-Roazen, Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Languages, New York, 2005, p. 11.15

16 “In place of the phonetic abundance of babbling, the phonemic poverty of the first linguistic stages appears, a kind of deflation which transforms the so-called ‘wild sounds’ of the babbling period into entities of linguistic value.” Jakobson, Child Language, p. 25.16

17 Heller-Roazen, Echolalia, p. 11.17

18 Ibid., p. 12.18

19 Cha, Dictee, p. 56.19

May 13th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 04