Academic, Language

Mark Liberman is correct to state that French post-structuralist theory, is not derived from what we, today, consider to be linguistics,” and if he had left it there I would not have felt compelled to respond. However, I feel he overstates his case when he compares the semiotics of Roland Barthes to a cargo cult,” no matter how cute and apt his analogy might be in regards to the crisis engendered by the failures of 60s radicalism. I feel compelled to respond to the tone of his message by putting linguistics in its rightful place — genealogically speaking that is.

Here is a quote from Saussure’s classic Course in General Linguistics (p. 15), with some added emphasis:

§3. Languages and their place in human affairs. Semiology  

The above characteristics lead us to realize another, which is more important. A language defined in this way from among the totality of facts of language, has a particular place in the realm of human affairs, whereas language does not.

A language, as we have just seen, is a social institution. But it is in various respects distinct from political, juridical and other institutions. Its special nature emerges when we bring into consideration a different order of facts.

A  language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and hence comparable to writing, the deaf-and-dumb alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, and so on. It is simply the most important of such systems.

It is therefore possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge.

The positivism of contemporary linguistics has bucked the Saussurian tradition by abstracting language from the social institutions in which it is embedded. (NB: Mark Liberman and his fellow Language Loggers depart from that stereotype and do a generally admirable job of discussing the social uses of language.) Linguistics, for Saussure, was a sub-field of semiotics, and those thinkers who drew from this tradition steadfastly refused to reduce language to a purely psychological phenomenon. Derrida and Bourdieu, for instance, were clearly interested in speech act theory and discourse analysis, even if they didn’t engage in the practices associated with contemporary phonology, morphology, or syntax.

UPDATE: Mark Liberman responds.

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