LINGUIST List 6.1270

Tue Sep 19 1995

Sum: Einstein and Saussure

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  1. , sum: Einstein and Saussure

Message 1: sum: Einstein and Saussure

Date: Mon, 18 Sep 1995 12:13:23 sum: Einstein and Saussure
From: <>
Subject: sum: Einstein and Saussure

Dear Friends, a few days ago I posted a query concerning Einstein and
Saussure. Other than notes from those also interested in the question, I
received two substantial responses which I would like to share with you. I
will provide full references and some additional notes for those who would
like to go further. Let me offer a sincere thank you to my two respondents
cited below. Contrary to what you might have thought, the information you
provided was exactly what I was looking for. Thanks
- ----------
Dear Linguists, not long ago a friend asked me whether I had heard or seen
anything linking Albert Einstein's theory of Relativity with his
ruminations on Saussure while strolling through a museum in Paris, I
believe. It sounded vaguely familiar at the time, but I have been unable
to find any leads running down where we might have gotten this idea.
Perhaps we were dreaming. Perhaps not. Can anyone help with a citation
linking Einstein and Saussure in any way? Thanks for your help.
Douglas Oliver
Dept. of Anthropology
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521
- ----------

 This is not quite what you are looking for, but around 20 years ago, in
an issue of Scientific American, there was an article by Jakobson about
Einstein, which said that Einstein, when a student in Switzerland, had
lived in a house with Jost Winteler, a Swiss linguist who believed in
linguistic relativity and whose thesis concerned the dialect of his own
canton. Jakobson suggested that Winteler's interest in linguistic
relativity may have contributed to Einstein's theory of physical
- -----------

 I don't have a direct link between Einstein and Saussure, but you might
be interested in an indirect link. At the 1952 International Symposium on
Anthropology, Roman Jakobson opened his remarks with comments on the
concept of relativity in two books published in 1916, one by Einstein
[General Theory of Relativity, D. Oliver] and the other Saussure's _Cours_.
He continued with a discussion of Saussure's "differential elements" as the
"elementary quanta" of phonemes. The paper first appeared as 'Pattern in
Linguistics', pp. 310-314 in _An Appraisal of Anthropology Today_, ed. by
Sol Tax, et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953; it is
reprinted in Jakobson's _Selected Writings_ Vol. II, 1971, pp. 223-228.
- -----------
**Actually, I've found from the leads above that Jakobson discussed
Einstein in several articles and presentations. Jost Winteler comes into
most of them.
 According to Jakobson, Winteler was a brilliant linguist who fell into
obscurity when his early works were not happily received by the linguistic
community of the time. Jakobson cites Trubetzkoy on this point: "In a
letter of January, 1931, Trubetzkoy extolled the remarkable foresight of
Winteler, whose unprecedented vistas and methods had met with a
disappointing lack of comprehension and had doomed him to the lot of a mere
schoolteacher (Jakobson 1972:75)." But this does not tell us about the
ideas that had so taken Einstein. To do this, I will give a somewhat more
lengthy quote from Jakobson:

 "Winteler remained true to the principle of 'configurational
 relativity' (Relativit der Verltnisse) that had been disclosed in
 his dissertation with special reference to the sound pattern of
 language. In particular his theory required a consistent distinction
 between the relational invariants and variables within language,
 respectively termed 'essential' and 'accidental' properties. According
 to Winteler's insight, speech sounds cannot be evaluated in isolation
 but only in their relation to all other sound units of the given
 language and to the linguistic functions assigned to them in such a
 manifold." 1972:75

 Till the last of his days, Einstein remembered Winteler fondly and
acknowledged him as a primary source for some of his own insights. I will
not continue further but will provide a short reference list for those
interested. I feel that these references are all interesting and well
worth reading for anyone interested in Einstein and linguistics. --Douglas

Holton, Gerald. 1971-72. "On trying to Understand Scientific Genius."
American Scholar 1971-72 (winter): 95-110. (This article talks of
Einstein's time spent in Switzerland, among other things.)

Jakobson, Roman. 1971. "Pattern in Linguistics: (Contribution to debates
with anthropologists). In Roman Jakobson: Selected Writings, vol. 2, pp.
223-228. The Hague: Mouton. (See Julia S. Falk's note above.)

- ---. 1972. "Verbal Communication." Scientific American 227, 3:72-80.
(Reprinted in Jakobson 1985, 81-92.)

- ---. 1985. "Einstein and the Science of Language." In Roman Jakobson:
Selected Writings, vol. 2, pp. 254-264. The Hague: Mouton. (Presented at
the Einstein Centennial Symposium in Jerusalem, March 16, 1979, and
published in Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives, ed. G.
Holton and Y. Elkana (Princeton, 1982).)

Winteler, Jost. 1876. Die Kerenzer Mundart des Kantons Glarus, in ihren
Grundzgen dargestellt. Leipzig and Heidelberg. (I don't read German very
well, so if someone knows where I might find an English translation of this
work, I would love to know. My grandfather was from Enge in Glarus.)

P.S. I have found a number of sources in which Einstein and Saussure are
mentioned in the same breath, so to speak, but never directly linking them.
Perhaps this is what led me to the wrong conclusion that there was some
stronger association between the two.
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