December 12, 2007

The secret Saussure

A fascinating article on the life of Ferdinand de Saussure, a central figure in the emergence of modern linguistics, appeared in the Times Literary Supplement a few weeks ago, and Language Log is a bit late in providing a pointer to it: The poet who could smell vowels (alternate title "The secret Saussure"), by John Joseph (Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Edinburgh). Saussure became known very early in his life for a student thesis in which he deduced the existence of two abstract phonological segments that must have been present in Proto-Indo-European (he called them "sonants", but they became known as "laryngeals"). These were sounds whose effect on later evolution of sounds was clear, that but they were not thereby identified phonetically — mystery consonants that no one alive has ever heard or ever will. He is primarily known for a series of lectures he gave at the University of Geneva between 1907 and 1911. He never published them, and by 1913 he was dead. But his students took such careful notes that a few of them were able to reconstruct the lectures almost in full, and publish them as a book, the famous Cours de linguistique générale. The title of that course of lectures, "general linguistics", appears on both my Ph.D. certificate and the title of the Professorship at Edinburgh that I now hold. Saussure's course introduced, or at least popularized, the name of the field that gave me my career. So I raise a glass to him in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 12, 2007 04:57 AM