LINGUIST List 5.518

Thu 05 May 1994

Review: Saussure

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Date: Mon, 2 May 94 11:10 CDT
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Book Review:

 de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1993. Saussure's third
course of lectures on general linguistics (1910-1911),
from the notebooks of Emile Constantin/Trosie`me cours de
linguistique ge'ne'rale (1910-1911) d'apre`s les cahiers
d'E'mile Constantin. Eisuke Komatsu and Roy Harris, ed.
and trans. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 173 pp. x 2. UK&49.00/
 Reviewed by Karen S. Chung (,
Dept. of Foreign Languages and Literatures, National Taiwan
University, Taipei.

 The academic community was surprised to find after
Mongin-Ferdinand de Saussure's death in 1913 that he
left no manuscript or even notes for the course in
general linguistics he taught for three years between
1907 and 1911 at the University of Geneva. Apparently
Saussure had destroyed his lecture notes after teaching
from them, greatly complicating the task of publishing
a posthumous work of his ideas. Many had encouraged him
to publish his course notes, but he felt that organizing
the material would have been too time-consuming. (Still,
he must have had such a project in mind when teaching the
course, since he structured his lectures into 'chapters',
e.g. p. 92: 'The second chapter could have as its
 Eventually this task fell to Saussure's colleagues,
Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (abbreviated B/S in
this review), who collected and organized the notes of
eight of Saussure's students into a coherent work. So
what acquaintance most of us have with the ideas of 'the
father of twentieth-century linguistics' is based on a
reconstruction, one that is not without its gaps and
 In 1958, another set of notes from Saussure's third
teaching of his course on general linguistics surfaced:
those of Emile Constantin. Constantin's notes proved
to be the most thorough of the four sets available for
the course. And assuming that the French text reprinted
in Komatsu and Harris' _Trosie`me cours_ is indeed a mere
transcription of Constantin's notes, with marginal notes
incorporated and minor corrections made, the text is
positively remarkable. Anyone who has ever been a student
or teacher would gasp in admiration at class notes this
detailed and complete. Constantin was obviously a gifted
and highly motivated student who took his professor's
instruction seriously, to an extent perhaps seldom seen
in academia--who writes down everything the lecturer says
in mostly grammatically complete sentences? So this book
is nearly as much a tribute to Constantin as to his mentor.
At the same time the reader becomes aware of just how much
restructuring and tidying up went into the B/S version.
 As Harris suggests, this less 'tidy' version is
perhaps more interesting, in that we can follow almost
firsthand how Saussure tries out and develops his ideas.
It's not so much the material itself that is new--most of
it will sound familiar to those who have read the B/S
version; the differences tend rather to be in arrangement,
presentation, highlighting and development of key points.
And for this reason, this review will concentrate more
on questions of form rather than of content.
 The original French and English translation are
presented on facing pages numbered 1, 1a, 2, 2a, etc. so
the book is actually twice as long as the page numbers
would lead you to believe. This aspect of the physical
format is a central feature of this new edition. The
original French is available for the reader to either
read directly or to refer to whenever the translation
seems to call for it. In this way, the reader is him/
herself responsible for the final interpretation, and
the English is more a reference than a translation the
reader must either take or leave.
 The English translation reads surprisingly smoothly.
In some places a glance over to the French will reveal
that a verb or other element has been added to make the
English into a complete sentence where the original is
more telegraphic, though in no case is the meaning
changed. There were maybe five or six places where a
confusing or unusual English idiom made me wonder what
the French was (e.g. ' omission must be made good'
is in French ' faut re'parer une omission' [p. 78];
or what was the French for 'lock, stock, and barrel'
[p. 96a]?--in each case the original cleared up my
question), one or two where there was a disparity in verb
tense I couldn't rationalize, and one 'translation' that
took a phone call to a French colleague to figure out
('The'a^tre franc,ais' is used in the French, 'Come'die
Franc,aise' in the English [p. 59]). My suggestion, at
least for The'a^tre/Come'die and similar puzzles:
footnotes. Other reader helps could include English
glosses for _all_ the French examples (missing, e.g., on
p. 121a), plus transliterations and English glosses for
the Greek examples, and glosses for the Latin ones. Not
everybody interested in Saussure is necessarily a
 The introductory material of the book, especially
the foreword and translator's preface, helps the reader
put together a mental picture of the development of
the _Cours_, and also the difficulties inherent in it.
In many cases, translation requires interpretation, taking
a stand, Harris points out, and a case in point is the
infamous set of contrasting terms 'parole', 'langage',
'langue'--and 'langues'. Harris rightly asks if the
categories in Saussure's mind represented by these words
were not partly or mainly attributable to the
peculiarities of Saussure's working language, French;
they certainly don't match up with handy English
equivalents. Saussure is aware of the issue himself (e.g.
on p. 70 the French terms are compared to the German
'Sprache' and 'Rede'), but evidently not to the point
where it made a difference in his theories.
 The figure drawings in the book are simple,
regularized and clear, with a number differing from the
B/S edition I have. There is a useful index of key French
linguistic terms, though a fuller index, including, e.g.
names of linguists mentioned in the text, might have been
a helpful addition. And there is no English index, though
the large number of French-English cognates makes that not
as serious a lack as it might otherwise be. I would also
have appreciated short bios on the editor and translator.
 This book is clearly for specialists, and probably
only specialists and libraries will be ready to fork out
almost US$80.00 for a short-to-medium-length volume like
this. Yet it is a rich and important resource, a 'must-
read' for anybody doing serious research on Saussure and
his work. The next task maybe should be a thorough
comparison of both editions--something beyond the limits
of this review--to discover exactly what is new in
Constantin's notes, and of this, what if anything needs
to be added or revised concerning current knowledge and
beliefs about Ferdinand de Saussure and his ideas. Or
maybe it's time for a new edition of Saussure's _Cours_
that incorporates all material from both B/S and
Constantin, perhaps keeping the basic B/S structure, and
inserting Constantin's notes, minus redundancies, where
they fit in. This should be quite feasible now that an
easily procurable edition of Constantin's notes is on
the market.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959. Course in general
 linguistics. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, ed.
 Wade Baskin, trans. New York: Philosophical Library.
 Repr. by Taipei: Bookman.

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1980. Schools of linguistics. Stanford:
 University Press.

P.S. The format looked great when I input it, but glitches
have appeared in the course of uploading.

 K. Chung
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