Where structuralism comes from

John Sturrock

  • Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure, translated by Roy Harris
    Duckworth, 236 pp, £24.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 7156 1738 9
  • Semiotic Perspectives by Sandor Hervey
    Allen and Unwin, 273 pp, £15.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 04 400026 X

With Chomsky seemingly off the stage – exit left, the script reads, brooding on the sins of American foreign policy – it is now or never for Ferdinand de Saussure to take his place. One theorist of language at a time is probably all the popular awareness has room for, and over the past twenty years Chomsky has been it, investing grammar with a new, deep-seated charm, and bringing us to see language as a mysterious acquisition which does our species, and our brains, much credit. But as a linguist at least Chomsky has gone quiet, and even before that so much of his work had turned into a kind of algebra it could no longer make sense to the world at large. This is a fine moment, therefore, to exchange Chomsky for a theorist who saw language whole and in terms accessible to all: for Saussure, dead these seventy years, yet still, how wrongly, under a cloud in the English-speaking world.

He had to wait 43 years to get into English in the first place: it was 1959 before an English translation was provided of the epochal Cours de Linguistique Générale, which had itself been published three years after Saussure’s death in 1913. The view of language which this remarkable book puts forward was new and radical then, and will strike many coming to it as new and radical today. A work so disruptive of orthodox ideas about language and its workings was bound to travel slowly and erratically. By 1939 it had been translated only three times: into Japanese, in which language it flourished, into German, and into Russian – an edition of 1933 which once made was not heard of again, having, one can suppose, run foul of that opinionated, jealous and vindictive theorist of language, Joseph Stalin.

In this country, whatever future lay open for Saussure early on was blighted by the remarks made about him by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards in The Meaning of Meaning, where he is dead and buried by page six, charged with having ‘concocted’ the chief object of his inquiry, la langue, and of being at one with A.N. Whitehead in naively falling for the ‘Method of Intensive Distraction’. Saussure’s definition of language (langue) as an abstract system of which actual languages were the living evidence was too platonic to be stomached by the behaviouristic Ogden and Richards. And throughout the Twenties and Thirties, Saussure’s forthright ‘mentalism’ put him quite out of court for those linguistic thinkers, the influential Leonard Bloomfield foremost among them, who had set a taboo on Distraction, intensive or otherwise, and saw language as the sum total of real or potential verbal utterances. Where Saussure worked by abstraction, to the hypothesis of linguistic structure, the Bloomfieldians worked by addition, towards an inventory of everything that could be said or written.

By the time that the Cours was finally translated into English, at the end of the Fifties, Behaviourism, now in its even more fanatically empiricist Skinnerian guise, was on the run before the brilliant new mentalism of Chomsky. Saussurian ideas began to get more of a look in, though there were few British or American linguists to call themselves Saussurians. Chomsky referred to Saussure, generously at first, a little carpingly later, as a precursor. In fact, Chomsky’s own cardinal, much seized-on distinction between our ‘competence’ as users of language and our ‘performance’ is the selfsame distinction as that made much earlier by Saussure between langue and parole, or between the abstraction which he believed was the proper object of a linguist’s study and actual manifestations of language in speech or writing. Like Chomsky, Saussure wanted to get away from what he took to be the superficiality of mere databanks of linguistic facts: instead he wished to fix the rules, valid for all languages everywhere, without which there could be no language. His structuralism is psychological, as Chomsky’s is, and oppositional, or differential. It is from the Cours de Linguistique Générale that structuralism comes, in all its various applications (and from Jacques Derrida’s relentlessly acute interrogation of certain inconsistencies and biases in Saussure that post-structuralism comes).

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