LINGUIST List 14.1954

Thu Jul 17 2003

Sum: Origin of 'un syst�me o� tout se tient'

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Laurie Bauer, "ou tout se tient"

Message 1: "ou tout se tient"

Date: Fri, 18 Jul 2003 13:35:14 +1200
From: Laurie Bauer <>
Subject: "ou tout se tient"

In Linguist 14.1913 I asked the following question:

	I've been looking for the origin of the famous structuralist
dictum that a language is 'un syst�me o� tout se tient'. A search of
the net finds it variously attributed to de Saussure or to Meillet (I
believe the latter is correct), but NO reference! Can anyone supply
the reference? Thank you!

I had no idea that I was opening up a can of worms. Thank you to all 
those who responded with their various answers.

1. Antoine Meillet, in his 'Introduction � l'�tude comparative des
langues indo-europ�ennes' (1903: p. 407) wrote "que chaque langue
forme un syst�me o� tout se tient". My local library only has the
seventh edition (1934), where there is no such comment on p. 407, so I
cannot confirm this. Someone else gave me a version from the 1915
edition, p. 463, namely "Chaque langue forme un syst�me o� tout se
tient, et a un plan g�n�ral d'une merveilleuse rigueur", but again I
cannot confirm this from the 1934 edition. Although I cannot confirm
these page numbers personally, each came to me from more than one
source, so they are probably right. However, I can confirm that on
p. ix of my edition of the book (and back as far as 1915 at least,
according to my informants), there is a comment that "Comme pour toute
autre language, les diff�rentes parties du syst�me linguistique
indo-europ�en forme un ensemble o� tout se tient et dont il importe
avant tout de comprendre le rigoureux encha�nement." The phrase recurs
in Meillet's "Linguistique historique et linguistique g�n�rale" (1921:
16): "une langue constitue un syst�me complexe de moyen d'expression,
syst�me o� tout se tient...". We find it again in "La m�thode
comparative en linguistique historique". I have the 1954 edition,
though there was a 1925 edition. On the first page of chapter 2 (p. 12
in the edition I have), we find "chaque fait linguistique fait partie
d'un ensemble o� tout se tient."

2. Ferdinand de Saussure, in his 'Cours de linguistique g�n�rale'.
Unfortunately the people who referred me to this were unable to give
precise references for the phrase. However, there is something very
similar in part I, chap. 3, sec. 3, p. 124 of 5th ed. [1960]: "La
langue est un syst�me dont toutes les parties peuvent et doivent �tre
consid�r�es dans leur solidarit� synchronique." (The edition I have is
dated 1969, but the pagination holds.)

3. Hans Georg von der Gabelentz [1840-1893]. In Die Sprachwissenschaft
(1901 [1891]:481), we have [translated from the German] "Every
language is a system, all parts of which organically cohere and
interact. As one can imagine, no component can be absent or even
different, without transforming the whole." My local library does not
hold this, so I haven't been able to check.

4. Koerner, Ernst F. K., 1999: Linguistic Historiography. Projects and
Prospects. Amsterdam (Studies in the History of the Language Sciences
92), p. 183-202 cannot find the origin of the phrase. I would not
expect to be able to do better! It probably has to remain one of those
mysteries of linguistics.

5. Meillet, but from Saussure. There is a suggestion that while the
phrase does not appear in Saussure's work, Meillet got it from
Saussure's lectures. This is made in Peeters, Bert, 1990. Encore une
fois 'o� tout se tient'. Historiographia Linguistica 17 427-463. In
this paper, though, Peeters decides that all the evidence points to
Meillet as the author of the slogan, which he apparently used 10 years
before the 1903 version which most people know. Perhaps the citation
from von der Gabelentz throws doubt even on that!

In sum, a confused story, but the best bet - for the wording, if not
necessarily for the idea - is Antoine Meillet.

Laurie Bauer
Professor of Linguistics
School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Victoria University of Wellington
PO Box 600
New Zealand
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