AUTHOR: de Saussure, Ferdinand
TRANSLATORS: Sanders, Carol; Pires, Matthew
TITLE: Writings in General Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Mareike Buss, Institute of Linguistics and Communication Studies (ISK), RWTH
Aachen University, Germany
Ferdinand de Saussure is widely considered to be the father of modern
linguistics, at least of its structuralist branch. His influence on modern
linguistics, however, is not based on his own writings but on the _Course in
General Linguistics_ (CGL), a posthumous publication of Saussurean ideas based
on students' notes. In fact, he never published any of his writings on general
linguistic issues. His published oeuvre is limited to two major publications,
the so-called 'mémoire' and his PhD thesis, and to a series of short articles
concerning questions of 19th century comparative grammar (Saussure 1922). The
_Writings in General Linguistics_ (WGL) is the first English publication of
Ferdinand de Saussure's own writings in general linguistics. WGL is a
translation of the French _Écrits de linguistique générale_ (ELG) (Saussure
2002) containing Saussurean texts edited and published in French since the 1950s
as well as recently discovered autographs. These autographs are generally
referred to as ''Orangery Manuscripts'' because they were found in the orangery of
the Saussures' family house in Geneva in 1996.
In this review, I will not primarily focus on the theoretical content of
Ferdinand de Saussure's writings and their divergences with regard to the CGL.
These issues have been extensively discussed elsewhere (see e.g. Harris 2001,
Sanders 2004). Instead, I will give some background information on the
publication of ELG/WGL and comment on the edition as well as on the translation.
BACKGROUND ON THE BOOK
As mentioned above, the CGL was not published by Ferdinand de Saussure himself.
It was edited and published posthumously by two Genevan colleagues, Charles
Bally and Albert Sechehaye. They considered Saussure's own writings too
fragmentary and not elaborate enough for serving as a textual basis for the
compilation of the CGL. Consequently, they mainly relied on the lecture notes
Saussure's students had taken during the three courses on general linguistics at
the University of Geneva from 1907-1911. The two editors, however, did not only
compile and redact the students' notes. In fact, they structured and ordered the
chapters of the CGL according to their own ideas, left out important Saussurean
formulations and explanations, added their own comments and theoretical ideas –
in short: they composed a text that diverged in many respects from the original
Saussurean teachings. It was only at the end of the 1950s, after Robert Godel
had ordered and classified the Saussurean estate at the public library of Geneva
(Godel 1957), that the scientific community began to recognize the massive
editorial interventions of Bally and Sechehaye.
From the end of the 1950s to the early 1980s, Saussurean studies mainly
concentrated on elucidating the relation between the CGL and Saussure's own
writings. Even though the question of the CGL's ''authenticity'' dominated the
scholarly discussions back then, these did not have an exclusively philological
focus. Many researchers were fascinated by the intellectual physiognomy that
Saussure's own writings revealed and that differed in so many respects from the
CGL. Saussure's writings showed a linguist ''in search of his object of study'',
often hesitating and doubting with regard to his theoretical postulates and
distinctions, but also adamant and harsh in the critique of certain linguistic
positions of his time. All the central theoretical achievements of the CGL, e.g.
the distinction of language system (langue) and language use (parole), synchrony
and diachrony, or signifier and signified, are developed and discussed in these
writings. However, these concepts are exposed and explained in a completely
different way. Whereas they are conceptualized as plain theoretical dichotomies
in the CGL, Saussure develops them in his own texts as dialectically structured
dualities in which both terms are inextricably intertwined. Hence, these
writings do not advocate a structural linguistics with an exclusive focus on the
language system but they rather propose a usage-based model for the study of
language. In fact, Saussure's epistemological and methodological claims often
remind one of positions developed in hermeneutics and ethnomethodology (Jaeger
CONTENT OF THE BOOK
Being the first English translation of Saussure's writings on general
linguistics, WGL not only presents an edition of the Orangery Manuscripts
discovered in Geneva in 1996, but it comprises all texts of thematic relevance
that have been published in French since the 1950s. WGL contains the ''Notes on
general linguistics'' published by Rudolf Engler (Saussure 1968, 1974) (ca. 155
pages), the Orangery Manuscripts (ca. 70 pages), and two shorter texts that were
edited by Jean Starobinski (1971) and Aldo Prosdocimi (1983) (2 pages). The
notes are organized in four sections: (1) ''On the Dual Essence of Language'' (pp.
3-60) includes only documents of the Orangery Manuscripts; these documents were
partially marked 'On the Dual Essence of Language', 'Dual Essence', etc. by
Saussure and found together in a large envelope; (2) ''Miscellany and Aphorisms''
(pp. 63-82) includes the so-called ''Notes item'' and aphoristic notes (Engler
edition and Orangery Manuscripts); (3) ''Further Reflections on General
Linguistics'' (pp. 85-197) includes the ''Notes on general linguistics'' from the
Engler edition, five new notes and the two texts edited by Starobinski and
Prosdocimi; (4) ''Notes for the Course in General Linguistics'' (pp. 201-240)
includes preparatory notes for some lessons of Saussure's three courses in
general linguistics (Engler edition and Orangery Manuscripts).
The translators of WGL have labeled the two major corpora, the Engler edition
and the Orangery Manuscripts, ''Early Notes'' and ''New Notes'', respectively. These
labels are somehow misleading because they suggest considerable chronological
and theoretical differences between the two corpora. All the manuscripts,
however, were written during the same period from the early 1890s to 1912/13 and
show clear theoretical parallels and convergences. It is only due to a mere
historical contingency that some of the Saussurean manuscripts were given to the
public library of Geneva, while others were forgotten in the orangery of the
family house of the Saussures' until their rediscovery in 1996.
The volume opens with the French editors' preface (pp. xi-xvii) followed by an
introduction by the English translator Carol Sanders (pp. xviii-xxx). While the
preface situates the publication of WGL in the context of Saussurean studies,
Sanders gives an overview of the discovery and publication of the new notes and
outlines Saussure's linguistic ideas in contrast to the CGL. The book also
contains a substantial bibliography of works about Saussure from 1970 to 2004
(pp. 241-325), of Saussure's own writings (pp. 325-326), of English translations
of these writings (p. 327), and, finally, a comprehensive index nominum and
rerum (pp. 329-336).
The French editors as well as the English translators claim that the newly found
Orangery manuscripts constitute ''the substantial outline of a book on general
linguistics'' (Bouquet/Engler 2006, xvi) or ''a draft for the book on the nature
of language, or the 'philosophy' of language, to which Saussure had referred.''
(Sanders 2006, xix). These statements suggest, in other words, that we are
dealing with a book on general linguistics, maybe not totally completed and
revised, but still a book. Yet, this is not the case, neither for the ''New
Notes'' of the Orangery Manuscripts nor for the ''Early Notes''. It is true that
many of the Saussurean manuscripts contain metacommunicative comments referring
to the reader, pointing to other chapters or paragraphs and even to parts of a
book. However, these markers are nothing but clues to a project that Saussure
apparently failed to accomplish during his lifetime and that we only find traces
and fragments of. So WGL is not the publication of a 'book on general
linguistics'. It is a collection of notes, of briefer and longer texts, even of
scraps and snippets, all dealing with the same questions of linguistic theory
and methodology. Every potential reader should keep this in mind in order to
avoid being disappointed by this extraordinary collection of texts.
In contrast to the German and Italian translations of ELG (Saussure 2003, 2005),
WGL faithfully reproduces the French edition. The French editors aimed primarily
at enhancing the readability of the widely fragmentary manuscripts and decided
to use only a minimum of critical apparatus. On the one hand, this decision may
certainly be helpful for many readers as it somehow lowers the first barrier of
approaching these texts. On the other hand, the polished surface of the texts
may suggest that this is a 'normal text' – which is misleading.
Furthermore, WGL reproduces all editorial errors present in the French edition.
To mention just some examples: many of Saussure's metacommunicative comments
have been omitted, e.g. p. 6, p. 44, p. 48, p. 50, p. 55; on p. 53 the original
order of the paragraphs and the logic of the argumentation in the manuscript
have been changed; on p. 86 the manuscript is faultily transcribed, in that a
whole phrase is omitted: ''starting from philology, that is the study of
literature, of texts, and secondarily of languages, [but absolutely not of
language (langue) > omitted], …''; at the end of the first paragraph on p. 201
WGL reads ''frontispiece'' while the Saussurean manuscripts read ''frontière'' (=
border). These errors could have been easily emended, if the translators had
compared the text of ELG with the online diplomatic transcription of the
original manuscripts by Rudolf Engler (Saussure 2004) or with the original
Finally, two texts are erroneously classified as belonging to the Orangery
Manuscripts, the ''Note on discourse'' and ''Unde exoriar'' (p. 197). Whereas the
former was first published by J. Starobinski (1971, p.14), the latter was first
edited by A. Prosdocimi (1983, pp. 69-71).
As far as I can tell (being a non-native speaker), the English translation reads
very smoothly while still preserving the tone of the French original. Sanders
explains the most important terminological choices of the translation in her
introduction (pp. xxvi-xxviii), e.g. the rendering of Saussure's 'langage',
'langue', and 'parole'. Further explanations regarding the translation of
certain terms or expressions can be found in footnotes that have been added to
the translated text. Still, the translation is not always accurate.
The most salient inaccuracy is the translation of the ''Notes Item'' as
''Miscellaneous Notes''. The ''Notes Item'' are a small set of notes exclusively
dedicated to semiology and the semiological foundation of linguistics. They show
a peculiar formal feature: All notes begin with the Latin word 'item' (=
likewise, moreover). The translation of ''Notes Item'' as ''Miscellaneous Notes''
and of the initial ''Item'' as ''Misc.'' is a very unhappy choice because in the
context of Saussurean studies these notes are normally referred to as ''Notes
Item''. The title of these notes being less a title than a proper name, it would
have been much better to preserve the internationally well-known ''Notes Item''.
Minor inaccuracies regarding the translation of Saussurean idiosyncrasies or
neologisms such as ''intégration ou postméditation-réflexion'' which has been
translated as ''integration or retrospective reflection'' (p. 60). Even though the
English translation may well convey the sense of the Saussurean neologism, it is
impossible for the English reader to relate this term to other passages or texts
where Saussure discusses similar phenomena. More annoying is the loose
translation of other phrases or passages, for instance the translation of
''trésor mental de la langue'' as ''inner mental store of langue'' (p. 64): Here,
the well-known Saussurean metaphor of the langue as an ''inner treasure'' is
unrecognizable in the English translation.
All in all, the translation is very readable and may well be used in
undergraduate or graduate courses on semiotics or the history of linguistics.
The scholarly reader, however, who wishes to do in-depth research, can only use
WGL to get a preliminary idea of the Saussurean texts and then absolutely has to
fall back on Engler's critical editions (Saussure 1968, 1974, 2004) or on the
WGL IS the first book that renders accessible Ferdinand de Saussure's writings
in general linguistics to a broader audience in the English speaking world.
Therefore, it was a very good decision to translate all the writings and not
only the Orangery Manuscripts. Thanks to the economical use of critical
apparatus the edited texts are also readable for non-experts in the field.
However, as I have pointed out in the previous section, the translation is not
always reliable and accurate.
Very useful, especially for non-expert readers, is the supplementary information
that the translators Carol Sanders and Matthew Pires have included in the
volume: footnotes, an index, and a bibliography. The footnotes contain some
textual commentary on the Saussurean writings. Topics range from comments on the
translation of single terms or phrases, explanations regarding persons or
theoretical terms and questions mentioned by Saussure, to references to parallel
passages in the CGL. The index includes all crucial terms and names of persons
(only surnames) that are mentioned in the texts. Very interestingly, the
translators have also listed all analogies for language, linguistics, and the
linguistic sign that Saussure used in his writings to illustrate his conception
of language and linguistics.
The bibliography contains works on Saussure in all major languages of the world
from 1970 to 2004. Its broad scope is at the same time its strength and its
weakness. On the one hand, it is very useful to include such a comprehensive
bibliography in a volume that will certainly become a point of reference for
Saussurean studies in the English speaking world. On the other hand, it would
have been desirable to make explicit the criteria underlying the selection of
the included titles. Also, the bibliography shows various formal
inconsistencies, e.g. some Japanese or Russian titles are only transliterated,
some are transliterated and translated, and others, finally, only translated; in
addition, it contains many typos.
On the whole, I consider the present volume a highly valuable publication not
only in the context of Saussurean studies but for all linguists and graduate
students interested in the history of linguistics, philosophy of language, and
semiotics. In a historiographical perspective, WGL will surely permit a critical
reevaluation of the Saussurean contribution to modern linguistics in the English
speaking scientific community.
In a philosophical perspective, it could be stimulating to confront Saussure's
usage-based approach to language and linguistics (see e.g. pp. 44-54), for
example, with Ludwig Wittgenstein's linguistic reflections in his ''Philosophical
Investigations''. Their disciplinary and theoretical differences notwithstanding,
both discuss similar questions: How are cognition and language related to one
another? What is the relation between cognition, language, and world? What is
the relation between language and society? What is the role of the individual?
Saussure's methodological and epistemological reflections are another
interesting strand of future research. In contrast to the positions known from
the CGL, his methodological claims, e.g. with regard to linguistic categories,
sometimes even remind one of ethnomethodological positions (see e.g. pp.122-135).
The Saussurean writings are fascinating documents of the history of linguistics.
Although sometimes not completely satisfying because of their fragmentary
status, they captivate the reader through their intellectual brilliance as well
as through their continuous doubts: ''Should we reveal our true thoughts? It may
be feared that a precise view of what 'langue' is will lead to doubts about the
future of linguistics. It is a science in which the difficulty of obtaining a
rationally defined object, and the importance of the object, are
disproportionate'' (p. 59).
Godel, Robert. (1957) _Les sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale
de F. de Saussure_. Genève: Droz.
Jaeger, Ludwig. (In press) Philosophische Induktion: Über einige Analogien der
Forschungsprogramme Ferdinand de Saussures und Wilhelm von Humboldts. In: Pierre
Swiggers (ed.), _Ferdinand de Saussure: Linguistique générale et théorie du
langage_. Leuven: Peeters.
Harris, Roy. (2001) _Saussure and his Interpreters_. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
Prosdocimi, Aldo. (1983) Sul Saussure delle leggende germaniche. _Cahiers
Ferdinand de Saussure_ 37, 35-106.
Sanders, Carol, ed. (2004) _The Cambridge Companion to Saussure_. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1922) _Recueil des publications scientifiques_. Publié
par Charles Bally et Léopold Gautier. Genève.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1968) _Cours de linguistique générale. Édition critique
par Rudolf Engler_. Tome 1. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1974) _Cours de linguistique générale. Édition critique
par Rudolf Engler_. Tome 2: Appendice. Notes de Ferdinand de Saussure sur la
linguistique générale. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (2002) _Écrits de linguistique générale_. Texte établi
et édité par Simon Bouquet et Rudolf Engler. Paris: Gallimard.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (2003) _Wissenschaft der Sprache. Neue Texte aus dem
Nachlass_. Herausgegeben von Ludwig Jäger. Übersetzt und textkritisch bearbeitet
von Elisabeth Birk und Mareike Buss. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (2004) _De l'essence double du langage_. Transcription
diplomatique établie par Rudolf Engler d'après le manuscrit déposé à la
Bibliothèque de Genève (1996), Texto! (available online:
Saussure, Ferdinand de. (2005) _Scritti inediti di linguistica generale_.
Introduzione, traduzione e commento di Tullio De Mauro. Bari: Laterza.
Starobinski, Jean. (1971) _Les mots sous les mots. Les anagrammes de Ferdinand
de Saussure_. Essai. Paris: Gallimard.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Mareike Buss is working as a researcher and lecturer at the Institute of
Linguistics and Communication Studies (ISK), RWTH Aachen University, Germany.
She is currently finishing her PhD thesis about 'iteration' as the central
semiotic mechanism governing the interaction of language system and language
use. Her research is concerned with usage-based models of language, functional
theories of grammar, metaphorology and semiotics as well as the historiography
of (modern) linguistics. She has co-edited and co-translated the German edition
of the Saussurean Orangery Manuscripts.