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The finest flower of comparative philology

Saussure - review.

John E Joseph
Oxford University Press, 800pp, £30

In 1906, the University of Geneva was faced, at very short notice, with the task of filling its chair of general linguistics. The incumbent, a man named Joseph Wertheimer, declared, just before the academic year began, that he was too ill to lecture.

Geneva was a city that had known class struggle between its venerable aristocracy and its middle class for centuries. The university became one of the focal points of this battle at the end of the 19th century. Ferdinand de Saussure was an eminent member of the Genevese aristocracy and, on his deathbed in 1913, he would be pilloried (with an emphasis on the aristocratic particle “de”) as a purveyor of the kind of useless knowledge – in this case, the teaching of Sanskrit – that the university stood for. In the end, the university decided not to fill the chair of general linguistics but to add it to Saussure’s existing duties – he was already professor of Sanskrit and comparative philology, as well as librarian for the faculty of arts.

Has there ever been a university adminis­trative decision with such profound intellectual consequences? Saussure did not want the chair because he did not believe that there was any basis for general linguistics. His entire academic life had been a failed search for such a basis – now he was going to have to lecture on a topic he didn’t believe in.

Saussure had, from a very early age, been fascinated with the problem of language and language change. Comparative philology was the great humanist intellectual endeavour of the 19th century. Germany was its intellectual centre, as maps of the Indo-European languages were drawn up. In the 1870s, as Saussure approached university age, the University of Leipzig became the leading university for comparative philology in the country. So our young aristocrat journeyed to Leipzig and, although he loathed the industrial city, he profited mightily from the work of the neo-grammarians there. They had introduced more formal rigour to the comparison of languages and stressed the primacy of sound change in the understanding of language development. Above all, they eschewed attempts to locate the understanding of language change in geography or race, false paths that were to lead to the wilder excesses of Nazi theory.

Saussure was so gifted that, at the age of only 21, he published a study on the vowel system of proto-Indo-European that became a classic. Although he published numerous articles and papers, Saussure was never again to publish a book and John E Joseph’s biography is littered with accounts of unfinished projects. Saussure’s problem was not his perfectionism but his acute grasp of scientific method. He was all too aware that in tracing the change of a vowel or a consonant, philologists were chasing a chimera. It is one of the extraordinary features of language that every one of the hundreds of millions who speak English, for example, pronounces the plosive “p” differently. If one tries to trace the development of this consonant, one is faced with the problem that there is no identity to study.

The solution to this difficulty, which forms the core of the courses on general linguistics that Saussure gave three times between his appointment and his death (and which were published posthumously from student notes), is as follows: the object of linguistics is difference, not identity. Every English speaker distinguishes between the voiceless “p” and the voiced plosive “b” and it is these systematic differences that constitute a language. Instead of units, the linguist studies values. Thus Saussure drew a distinction between langage, the general facts of language, langue, the systematic differences that made up a particular language, and parole, the individual uses of langue.

One of the many things that one learns from Joseph’s mammoth study is that Saussure developed many of his central insights early and that his teachers still relied on the pre- comparativist, “Port Royal” conceptions of language that encouraged the understanding of language as a system – conceptions Saussure never abandoned. The book is at its most fascinating as it traces Saussure’s engagement first with the neo-grammarians and then with the French school of linguistics, of which he became the unofficial doyen even after he abandoned teaching at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris for his beloved Geneva.

This book will be essential reading for any student of Saussure but it is not without its faults. Even for someone with an elementary grasp of phonetics and an understanding of the history of Indo-European languages, much of the book is very heavy going. One wishes there was more wood and fewer trees.

Joseph also gives far too much information about Saussure’s bloodline and far too little about his bank account. Saussure was an aristocrat so obsessed by his own lineage that his last serious piece of research was intended to prove wrong an English brother-in-law who had questioned the old Saussurean claim to a blood lineage with an English noble family, the Egertons. Saussure’s research proved that the original claim was indeed wrong but that the Saussures could claim descent from an English king: Henry VII. Yet the importance of Saussure’s family could easily have been allotted ten pages rather than 70. On the other hand, changes in the Saussure family’s fortunes are recounted with no financial detail whatsoever and Saussure’s obsessive gambling is referred to only in passing. Given the centrality of the concept of value to Saussure’s thought, this is an important omission.

More serious is Joseph’s glib assumption that Saussure’s much-discussed paragraph about linguistics forming part of the future science of semiology can be read as prophetic. It is true that almost every humanities student from 1970 to the turn of the century was expected to share his optimism – but from Lévi-Strauss’s heroic failure Mythologiques on, all attempts to provide a Saussurean analysis of systems of meaning have failed. It is impossible to map the totality of any complex meaning system in a way that would enable Saussurean difference to be applied. It works locally, as any successful advertising executive will testify, but scientifically it has been a complete failure. Our certainty that the hundreds of millions of English speakers share a common langue at the level of sound cannot be reduplicated at the level of meaning.

The stature of Saussure as a linguist is left in no doubt. Joseph reminds us of the fascinating, if fruitless, search for “paragrammes”, a system of hidden names in Latin poetry. But he also tells the story of Saussure’s linguistic analysis of a medium who claimed to speak Martian – a marvel of the perception of linguistic patterns. In the western tradition, Saussure must be ranked in the forefront of those who have grasped the intricate patterns of language: Varro, the great Latin grammarian, Dante the first comparative linguist and Erasmus, whose 1516 gospels can claim to be the first product of the philological method. Saussure is the finest flower of comparative philology.

Colin MacCabe is professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special