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/ US$78.50. 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 title...'.) 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 controversies. 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 classicist! 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.

    References: 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