55. Languages and Linguistics: Scientific Paradigms and Hidden Devotions

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Joan A. Argenter
UNESCO Chair on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
Institut d’Estudis Catalans


In memory of Ferdinand de Saussure on the centenary of the Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916)[1]
C’est, en dernière analyse, seulement le côté pittoresque d’une langue, celui qui fait qu’elle diffère de toutes autres comme appartenant à certain peuple ayant certains origines, c’est ce côté presque ethnographique, qui conserve pour moi un intérêt.[2]
Ferdinand de Saussure

(Letter from F. De Saussure to A. Meillet, 4 January 1894. [É. Benveniste (ed.) “Lettres de Ferdinand de Saussure à Antoine Meillet publiées par Emile Benveniste”, Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 21: 89-135 (1964) – p. 95]


Historical-comparative linguistics aims to study the evolution of languages. This was the predominant current of linguistic science in the 19th century. The Swiss Indo-Europeanist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) put himself at the heart of it. Everything he published in his lifetime was the product of that intellectual interest. He moved with ease in this area. Saussure’s genius became apparent long before the appearance of the Cours. At the age of 21, he published Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879), a major contribution to Indo-European linguistics that shaped how this field evolved. In the field of comparative linguistic reconstruction, Saussure postulated that there was a need for there to exist in Proto-Indo-European an element that, although undocumented in any known language of the Indo-European family, allowed greater generalization in describing the Indo-European vowel system and made it possible to account for that system’s evolution in Indo-European languages. He called this element “sonant coefficients.” Unfortunately, Saussure would not witness the empirical confirmation of his hypothesis, which came about with the discovery and deciphering of Hittite, an Anatolian language that was probably the oldest among the Indo-European languages. From 1927, another great linguist, the Pole Jerzy Kuryɫowicz (1895-1978), developed his theory of “laryngeals”—the hypothetical “sonant coefficients” predicted by Saussure—based on Saussure’s theoretical and empirical foundations.

However, Saussure’s brilliant theoretical contribution to Indo-European and historical-comparative linguistics is often ignored owing to the spectacular shift he brought about in the discipline a hundred years ago when he taught courses on what he called “general linguistics,” an area in which, in contrast to his free movement within historical-comparative linguistics, he proceeded with great caution. Like many scientific questions, what Saussure asked was seemingly quite simple: What is a Language?

Until then—he thought— linguists had considered how our object of study evolves, and we have made progress in understanding the mechanisms of this evolution (phonetic laws). However, we did not ask questions about what the very nature of our object of study is. Answering this simple question entailed abandoning the historical-evolutionary perspective and approaching language from a perspective that decouples the state of a language at a given moment from its previous state—and its later one, where applicable. This is a “synchronic” perspective. “Synchronic” elements coexist in the minds of individuals of a generation or generations who live alongside one another. Consider, for example, the opposition between the sounds represented in Catalan by l and ll (alveolar lateral approximant [l] and palatal lateral approximant [ʎ]): col / coll ‘cabbage’ / ‘neck’ or fila / filla ‘line’ / ’daughter’. Synchronic elements stand in contrast to “diachronic” elements, which have existed in the minds of individuals of different and often distant generations. In the case of Catalan, consider, for example, libre [de les dones] (‘Book [of Women]’; Francesc Eiximenis) / llibre [de les dones] (today), or latí (‘Latin’; Ramon Llull) / llatí (today). The initial Latin sound l became ll in Catalan, unlike in Spanish: Cat. llei / Sp. ley ‘law’; Cat. lluna / Sp. luna ‘moon’; Cat. llac / Sp. lago ‘lake´. In Catalan the sound l from Latin changed to ll in word initial position. Nothing was lost: the l / ll opposition is typical of the synchronic sound structure of today’s Catalan. The two sounds differentiate words, as is shown by the aforementioned col / coll or fila / filla, and therefore both sounds are functional entities of the language’s sound structure. When the aforementioned change was no longer active, learned words borrowed from Latin were introduced, and this has led to the coexistence of synchronic pairs such as llengua ‘language’ / lingüística ‘linguistics’, llei ‘law’ / legal ‘legal’ and llac ‘lake’ / lacustre ‘lacustrine’.

The answer to Saussure’s question is well known: every language is a “system”, an autonomous and autotelic whole formed by a set of elements that are defined by their relationships and oppositions within the “whole.” It’s a “system of differences”: the elements are not defined “by what they are” but “by what they are not”—by the capacity for distinction and reciprocal relations, such as the l / ll opposition within Catalan’s phonetic system. They do not work or evolve separately from each other. All this marked a paradigm shift, and that is why Saussure is considered the initiator of “modern linguistics.” Since then there has been other paradigm shifts in linguistics, but at bottom these are all still indebted to Saussure’s.

One way of looking at things would be the assertion that throughout its development linguistics had its Darwin before its Linnaeus.

But we all have hidden vocations; views of an object that are different from what we convey because it is “scientifically plausible,” “academically sound” or “politically correct”; vague intuitions; inclinations; and hidden intellectual affections. At one moment or another, everyone has likely wanted to do or see things or approach facts in a different way.

Such a moment came about as a personal, chance manifestation in Saussure’s case. Saussure wrote the lines that begin this article in a letter to his disciple Antoine Meillet. Despite his scientific approach to the study of language—this was already emerging in his Indo-European work (in fact, the letter predates the lectures of the Cours)—Saussure was fascinated by what makes one language different from another; by what links it to a land and a people, to particular origins and to a history; by its ethnographic dimension. All these things are far removed from an extremely formalist conception—one that he himself had promoted and which others would carry on—centred on a formal “structure” that is independent from speakers, their environment and their sociolinguistic history.

Saussure added:
et précisément je n’ai plus le plaisir de pouvoir me livrer à cette étude sans arrière-pensée, et de jouir du fait particulier tenant à un milieu particulier. ”[3]

His profession kept him from the joy and pleasure of studying or considering language from an ecological point of view, taking into account the habitat, its organisms and its interactions—that is, its people and its uniqueness. And, in my opinion, he could still have turned everything on its head: a language unfolds in an environment, in particular social surroundings, but it is also an environment in which the activities and thoughts of those who speak it unfold.

As with any scientific discipline, the aim of linguistics is to discover the invariant elements of its object of study. The tension between invariance and variation is innate in language and linguistic research, as is the universality and diversity of language in its empirical manifestation. And so is the tension between the reduction of language to a formal object or to a very specific cognitive structure of the human mind and the recognition of its public dimension. The lack of such recognition in linguistic study can only be sustained not only if previously that reduction has served operationally to delimit and to define the object of study but also if that object of study has been identified exhaustively as “language”—a strategy explicitly followed by authors whose works have not been around for a century.

Interestingly, in a certain sense and to some extent, this contrast between the invention of a new linguistic paradigm and a divergent personal inclination within the Swiss scholar is the opposite of the relationship that has often been attributed to Pompeu Fabra, with or without basis. It has been stated that if Fabra had not set himself the overriding goal of bringing about the codification of modern Catalan and social and institutional acceptance of this language—“the straightening of the language”—he could have had a brilliant career as a linguist. That is, he might have been a scholar of language with no prescriptive aim. We do not know whether this could have been so: the truth is that he completely gave himself over to that task until he absolutely achieved it. We know that Fabra was familiar with the works of his contemporaries Ferdinand de Saussure and Otto Jespersen, as well as with the works of the historical-comparative Romanists who first inspired him. Ferdinand de Saussure laid the foundations of what would later be called “structuralism”; Otto Jespersen reformulated the foundations and analytical practice of “traditional grammar.” But Fabra also did linguistics in a modern sense. Establishing the normative image of a language is to set out a certain model of language, namely “a totality,” with more or less precise or more or less blurred margins; to define its elements; to exclude outside elements from it; to bring out its functioning and internal regularities; to discover its “system”; and—this is where the divergence comes about—to intervene in it, prescribing its legitimate form and reorienting its evolution. All this is to be done according to scientific criteria, though not with the primary intention of advancing a discipline or shaping the description of a language as a “linguistic system,” but instead with that of abiding by the “dimension that makes it different from all others in that it belongs to a particular people with particular origins” and endowing this people with a common linguistic reference point.

Saussure uses the term “ethnographic” with a hint of condescension: the use and expansion of ethnographic method and theory were soon to emerge (Bronislaw Malinowski received his doctorate in London in the year when the Cours appeared). In any case, from a perspective that does not forget the public dimension of language, what is of interest are the things that make one language different from another, that root it in a people and a space, that give it a historical validity, that make it inseparable not only from what its speakers say but also from what they do. What is of interest is the role that language plays in its speakers’ communicative and cultural practices, in the value of its uses and its silences, in the interaction between the way in which people speak and how the social and natural world is represented, in how through language a category of person is culturally constructed and a social order is reproduced or challenged, in the verbal resources that the members of a community engage with, in the solidarity and the social cleavages created by the use of these resources, in their maintenance or replacement, in their vitality or decay—in short, in their expansion or potential extinction. When he wrote to Meillet, Saussure likely did not think a great deal about all this. But it all leads to “find[ing] joy in a particular fact attached to a particular milieu”—or in understanding it.

[1] This text was drafted in 2016 but had never been published. After conquering some academic qualms, I decided to let it see the light of day.

[2] “In the final analysis, it is only the picturesque dimension of a language—an almost ethnographic dimension that makes it different from all others in that it belongs to a particular people with particular origins—that retains my interest”.

[3] “I no longer have the pleasure of being able to engage in such study at face value, or to find joy in a particular fact attached to a particular milieu.”