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 phugeîn : phuktós, lékhos : léktron, etc. But then we come up against cases like tríkhes : thriksí, 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.
I recently traveled to Zürich, Switzerland for an informal academic visit to Claire Voisin, who is stationed for the year at ETH. The visit was productive, and yielded pivotal improvements in the elegance of my theory. I plan to graduate this May.
Beyond academic matters, I had a great time in Switzerland. My Airbnb host Michał (a 27-year-old Polish software engineer), his colleague and our roommate Andre (28 and from Portugal), and I had a great time together. One day, we explored Zürich’s old city together, trudging through snow-covered cobblestone streets after drinking crisp Swiss espressos. We frequented various bars: a glamorous bar on Zürich’s famous Langstrasse where Andre introduced me to the legendary Caipirinha; a hole-in-the-wall Alpine-themed bar where we tried Älpli-milch, a traditional concoction which mixed milk and a hefty dose of liquor; and Oliver Twist, a pub full of loud, drunken Irish and English expats.
The area surrounding the university ETH is also incredible, and after fruitful meetings with Professor Voisin, I enjoyed exploring this area at my leisure.
One weekend, Michał, Andre, and I — together with Victor, another colleague of theirs, a Romanian and Russian speaker from Moldova — traveled by car to Laussane, a city in the French-speaking part of Switzerland about three hours away. We explored the city raptly, Andre with his Nikon DSLR and I with my phone camera:
Despite all my traveling and sight-seeing, though, the most significant part of my trip was my experience at the café Das Amt.
Das Amt (‘The Office’) was a cafe just minutes from my apartment. Das Amt featured great coffee, a pleasant atmosphere, and congenial staff. Importantly, Das Amt’s patrons and workers spoke only (standard) German, despite the near-exclusive use of the Swiss German dialect elsewhere in Zürich. Indeed, as if operating under some unwritten pact, each successive cold-faced traveler, upon entering and taking off his or her hat and gloves, promptly smiled and greeted the staff in German.
My desire to learn German made this feature valuable to me. I went to Das Amt nearly every day, spending hours each time conversing with the staff in halting German and, often, reading de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics.
My experience at Das Amt validated de Saussure’s theories.
“Psychologically, setting aside its expression in words, our thought is simply a vague, shapeless mass. Philosophers and linguistics have always agreed that were it not for signs, we should be incapable of differentiating any two ideas in a clear and constant way. In itself, thought is like a swirling cloud, where no shape is intrinsically determinate. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure.” [1, p. 110]
De Saussure scholar and translator Roy Harris declares de Saussure second only to Wittgenstein in the extent of his having influenced how we view communication [1, p. ix]. De Saussure’s philosophy runs counter to a view I myself used to espouse: that the mind deals independently and abstractly with the objects of the world, and that to speak a language entails ultimately encoding these ideas into that particular language’s verbal forms. De Saussure suggests that linguistic tokens themselves constitute the primitives of thought, and that communication revolves around the exchange of these socially established verbal signs.
De Saussure’s theory — and not my prior philosophy — proved invaluable in learning German. Only during this most recent language-learning experience did it become clear to me that language learning, especially in its earliest stages, involves almost exclusively the memorization and development of key phrases and patterns, which, crucially, are not constructed and assembled from scratch upon each successive deployment. These phrases, and even certain whole sentences, are instead delivered as tokens in a sort of game — to use a Wittgensteinian turn of phrase. (Only in more advanced stages does one begin assembling these tokens into more complex structures using cognitive mechanisms.)
Before coming to Switzerland, I spent a few weeks casually using the online language-learning utility DuoLingo. While the service helped, I found myself frequently forgetting words. When conversing in Das Amt, on the other hand, I hardly ever forgot a word: each new word or phrase, indeed, was imbued with meaning via its attending circumstances. I still, when remembering the words I learned, attach to almost every one the situation in which I originally learned it. Because these situations carried much more semantic content than did the words alone, the words in these cases became much easier to remember. For example:
- The German auch (‘also’) evokes the assertion of Maria, one of the workers there, that “Ich auch komme!” (‘I’m also coming!’) when she saw me exiting to the front steps with a cigarette in hand.
- The German noch (‘still’, ‘more’, ‘yet’) evokes Janna’s friendly “Noch eine kaffe?” (‘Another coffee?’) when she glimpsed my empty cup.
I learned to use these words through social interaction and habit. No logical deduction was involved.
“It is often claimed that there is nothing more important than knowing how a given state originated. In a certain sense that is true. The conditions which gave rise to the state throw light upon its true nature and prevent us from entertaining certain misconceptions. But what that proves is that diachrony has no end in itself.” [1, p. 89]
De Saussure’s views about the respective roles of diachronic and synchronic linguistics are subtle. De Saussure argues that diachronic, or historical, facts are no more relevant to the study of a given instantaneous language state than is the historical “fact that chess came from Persia to Europe” to the study of chess’s internal “system and its rules” [1, p. 23]. He does acknowledge, as in the quote above, that diachronic study can be relevant, while simultaneously maintaining that this relevance ultimately but serves the end of synchronous linguistic study.
This theory was, again, validated by my experience. Though my intention was only to learn German as it is presently spoken, I found myself heavily exploiting the deep historical connections between the two in service of my learning.
German features such uncanny similarities to English as to make learning German as an English speaker often feel like “cheating”. Many of these similarities are syntactic; the rather exotic syntax of English — which features, for example, subject-auxiliary inversion and do-support — is preserved, and actually vastly extended, in German, yielding constructions which would appear prohibitively difficult for, say, native speakers of Romance languages.
Even more striking, though, are the phonological similarities between the languages, especially in the case of the languages’ common and irregular verbs. For example, we have:
- I come, I came, I have come → ich komme, ich kam, ich bin gekommen
- I bring, I brought, I have brought → ich bringe, ich brachte, ich habe gebracht
- I drink, I drank, I have drunk → ich trinke, ich trankt, ich habe getrunken
- k → ch, e.g. make → machen, speak → sprechen, book → Buch
- p → pf, e.g. apple → Apfel, cup → Kopf, plough → Pflug
- th → d, e.g. that → das, bath → Bad, thank → danken
I used these to great avail in my study of German.
“A language, as a collective phenomenon, takes the form of a totality of imprints in everyone’s brain, rather like a dictionary of which each individual has an identical copy. Thus it is something which is in each individual, but is none the less common to all.” [1, p. 19]
Though German’s fascinating syntax and its evolutionary significance surely contribute to its hold over me, my experience with the language, at the end of the day, has become a social one. I associate German, now, with beginning my fifth cup of European-style coffee, with my special spot in Das Amt, or with the friendly people who work there. This is exactly sense in which, as de Saussure writes, through language’s communal nature “At each stage, spirit is breathed into the matter given, and brings it into life.” [1, p. 85]
Indeed, de Saussure’s work — aside from presenting the theoretical advancements which inaugurated the field of linguistics — carries social import. His work places linguistics into the realm of science; it places language, meanwhile, just where it belongs — firmly in the realm of the social, amid conversations and among others. These two facts indeed complement each other, and, together, account for the great time I had in Switzerland.