Swiss French, Swiss German

Ferdinand de Saussure was a profound linguistic thinker of the early 1900s. During a legendary series of lectures given at University of Geneva, de Saussure, a French-speaking Swiss, introduced to the world many ideas which have since become fundamental — even “self-evident” — within the discipline of linguistics. De Saussure suggested, for example, that the historical and etymological emphases of his day failed to recognize as the central object of linguistics the instantaneous internal structure of a language, to which prior evolutionary contingencies are irrelevant. A language’s internal structure, in fact, exists moreover independently of the writing system it uses, of the concrete sounds of its phonetic system, and even of its words. It consists entirely, de Saussure argued, of an abstract system of so-called signs — each linking an idea to a sound — which subsist only through the network of relationships among them and persist only through the coordinated ativity of a linguistic community. “It is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition,” de Saussure famously wrote, “and because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary.” [1, p. 74]

De Saussure’s facility with historical linguistics was, to his credit, uncanny. Discussing the unfortunate common tendency to confuse historical (diachronic) with instantaneous (synchronic) linguistics, for example, he writes:

In order to explain Greek phuktós, it might be supposed that it suffices to point out that in Greek g and kh become k before a voiceless consonant, and to state this fact in terms of synchronic correspondences such as phugeînphuktóslékhosléktron, etc. But then we come up against cases like tríkhesthriksí, where a complication occurs in the form of a ‘change’ from t to th… [1, p. 96]

De Saussure proceeds like this effortlessly, citing detailed examples variously from Sanskrit [1, p. 2], Latin [1, p. 95], Old High German [1, p. 83], Anglo-Saxon [1, p. 83], early Slavonic [1, p. 86], and, of course, French [1, pp. 31, 69, 85, 95, 104, 106, …].

De Saussure’s true genius, however, was evident perhaps most of all in his novel theory of signs, which emphasized the social, conventional, and ultimately arbitrary nature of linguistic systems — and which eventually produced the field of semiotics.

This theory was validated during my recent trip to Switzerland. Continue reading

The Philosopher

“I know dusk / And dawn, rising like a multitude of doves. / What men have only thought they’d seen, I’ve seen,” [1, p. 89] writes the late-1800s French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in a quote elevated by his latest translators, Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock, to their edition’s back cover.

It is telling that Harding and Sturrock choose this quote. These scholars characterize Rimbaud’s style as one infused by “a disordering of all the senses” (Rimbaud’s words) “often with the aid of alcohol and drugs” (their words). Rimbaud was only 15 when he abandoned his native Charleville for Paris, where he was arrested for not paying his train fare. By 17, he had been taken in more stably by Paul Verlaine, a young leader of Paris’ so-called Parnassian school of poets, whose wife and in-laws Rimbaud then taunted by demanding the removal of a picture from one of their walls and by “vandalizing an ivory Christ” [1, p. xxv], and, later, through the developing homosexuality of his relationship with Verlaine. Under the protection of another poet, Théodore de Banville, Rimbaud allegedly “slept in his boots, smashed the china and sold the furniture” [1, p. xxvi], and also stripped in front of an open window and threw his clothes onto the roof. Rimbaud later joined the avant-garde Zutistes’ circle, who “convened for regular drinking sessions in a hotel overlooking the Boulevard St Michel” [1, pp. xxvi-xxvii]. By 21, famously, Rimbaud had abandoned poetry forever, travelling around Europe and eventually settling as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at 37.

Rimbaud’s “disordering”, Harding and Sturrock write, was most of all one of the self itself, which in his poetry “is wilfully distended and distressed, offering the maximum surface area to which unusual information… can adhere” [1, p. xxiv].


This “meme” used to be visible in the library’s basement floor outside the darkened, locked door of a graduate student carrell.

Just how Rimbaud’s poetry achieves its striking character is perhaps too subtle to write down. Surprising insight, though, might be gained through the eliminative materialist ideas of the modern philosopher Paul Churchland. Continue reading