r l f a d m e n o f l e t t e r s pat r i c k w i l c k e n
Vowels of Anguish aussure By John E Joseph (Oxford University Press 740pp £30)
Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who died at the age of fifty-five on the eve of the First World War, went on to have a profound impact on twentiethcentury thought. More cited than actually understood, he inspired a modernist turn in the humanities in the middle of the century, when variants of structuralism spread through anthropology, literary theory, psychoanalysis and beyond. Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics – the lecture series he gave towards the end of his life – became a touchstone in an era in which linguistic theory was exported into models of culture, the unconscious and literary discourse.
Variously portrayed as an austere Calvinist intellectual or a half-mad romantic, Saussure the man has remained an enigma. John E Joseph’s well-researched biography finally gives us the full picture; what emerges is a character of multiple contradictions, a profound thinker who struggled throughout his life to define both himself and his ideas.
The book situates Saussure in a famous aristocratic Genevese family, and traces his early successes as a precocious student at the University of Leipzig, his subsequent decade lecturing at the Ecole des hautes études in Paris, followed by his return to take up a chair at the University of Geneva. There is a certain pathos to Saussure’s life trajectory. Marked out for brilliance early on, he was hampered by an almost neurotic perfectionism, which meant that he published little of substance after his path-breaking book on the Proto-IndoEuropean vowel system and a doctoral thesis on Sanskrit, both completed in his early twenties.
It was not that he had writer’s block – quite the reverse. He wrote thousands of pages of reflections on every aspect of language, the source material for Joseph’s meticulous recreation of Saussure’s intellectual evolution. Even the smallest projects spiralled into mountains of notes. On one occasion Saussure set down 174 pages of his thoughts, all for a three-page review. From 1906 to 1909 he produced ninety-nine notebooks on anagrams in poetry, only to abandon what had been an intense period of research.
This accumulation of papers strewn about his study seemed to induce paralysis: ‘It would be absurd to begin a long research project for publication, when I have here so many unpublished works,’ he said on one occasion; ‘My thirty years of silence are truly frightening to sense behind me,’ he said on another. It is no coincidence that his defining work, the Course in General Linguistics, was published posthumously, compiled from notes taken by his students.
The unfinished nature of Saussure’s thought gave it an intense, searching quality. Joseph shows that many of the ideas that are associated with Saussure – such as the distinction between the synchronic (snapshot) view of language and the diachronic (historical) perspective, and the divisions between the langue (language as a social institution) and the parole (the individual’s use of language) – were simplifications of much more complex schemas that took years to tease out. But Saussure could also be intellectually audacious, questioning the very distinction between consonant and vowel, for instance, or arguing that Indo-European source languages had just one vowel – ‘a’.
In the end, his ideas came together not on paper, but on his feet in front of his students as he delivered the now-famous series of lectures in Geneva. It was during these talks that Saussure could think aloud about broad questions: the artificial nature of language, and its arbitrariness as the outcome of mere social convention; the idea that sounds had no intrinsic meaning, except that which was generated through differences from other sounds; and his belief that the nineteenth-
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