Several years ago now, at an open day lunch for sixth formers, my colleague and friend in modern languages came rushing over to me and grabbed my arm for support.
‘I had to get away,’ she gasped. ‘I was talking to this young man, who seemed quite charming and so smart. So I asked him what he liked most about reading, and he said, “I’m not particularly interested in what happens in a book, but I love watching the way the words are placed on the page. I could do that forever.” I couldn’t believe it,’ she protested. ‘You have a splendid work of literature in your hands and all you care about is the organization of the verbs?’
It’s funny the way that linguists and linguisticians often get lumped together when their interests are such worlds apart. Students of linguistics are on the science end of the languages spectrum, and such is their adoration of the subject that it comes as no surprise to them that the words ‘grammar’ and ‘glamour’ are joined at their semantic root. I suspect you may just have to be born a linguistician to understand the obsession, that it involves a particular fandango of the DNA. One lad came for interview bearing a cherished leisure project, a book the size and shape of a telephone directory that contained a series of sentences and their variations, translated into an astonishing range of languages and coded in a rainbow spectrum of coloured inks. Naturally we accepted him and he went on to get a First class degree; you can’t quibble with that level of passion. But if you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of plot and character, it can be bewildering to come face to face with those for whom it is a pleasant irrelevance. I can’t understand the fascination with language at that level, but I can respect it, because some extraordinary sea changes in academia have developed out of a subject I think of as anal, dry and hopelessly dull.
It was a linguistician, way back at the start of the twentieth century, who made a huge difference to the study of the arts, but what I’m really interested in talking about in this post, is the fact that he never had any inkling of what he’d done. Ferdinand de Saussure was a quiet Swiss gentleman, a passionate linguistician, and a dutiful academic. But we know little more about him than this because he led such an uneventful and unremarkable life. Saussure displayed unusual qualities for an epoch-making thinker: he was always in touch with humility and self-doubt and he had no interest whatsoever in publicity. In the biggest paradox of all, the important book of his work that motivated a huge movement of intellectual change was actually written in his name, after his death, by other people.
So here’s what happened: the young Saussure was a precociously gifted linguist who, by the age of 15, had learned French, German, English, Latin and Greek. Already he was working on a ‘general system of language’ but when he went to university he followed in his family’s footsteps and enrolled on courses in physics and chemistry. It didn’t take long for him to figure out his mistake, and he ditched the sciences, headed off to Leipzig in Germany, and at 21 published a work of thrilling youthful exuberance, entitled Memoir on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages. Oddly enough this has never ended up on my bookshelf, but apparently it was deemed pretty fantastic by those in the know. He followed this up a couple of years later with a compelling doctoral thesis on the use of the genitive case in Sanskrit. I’m sorry, I do apologize to people out there who read that and think ‘how intolerably fascinating!’ It just seems to me faintly incredible, like an interest in the sport of extreme ironing. Saussure went on to wow them in Paris with his classes on Gothic and Old High German and Indo-European philology, and then he took a job back home in Geneva and things started to slow down for him. He married, fathered sons, and settled for a provincial backwater where he failed to capitalize on his early promise, not least in his inability to put a work together for publication. In truth, Saussure felt demoralized and full of self-doubt. He was overwhelmed by the need to start the study of linguistics over again, stripping away all the old orthodox thought and creating a fresh terminology, a completely different approach. The scale of the work daunted him, and he buckled under it.
Then, in 1906, when another professor at the university retired, he was assigned the teaching of general linguistics. Saussure didn’t much fancy the job, but he did it because he felt it was his duty. Thenceforth, in alternate years, he delivered the series of lectures that would make his name, though he never knew it. He fell ill in the summer of 1912 and died in February 1913, aged 56. It was his students who decided that his work deserved to be consolidated and preserved; Bally and Sechehaye, in collaboration with other students and colleagues, got all their old lecture notes together and recreated Saussure’s theories. The mere thought of my students compiling their notes from my lectures into a book and claiming it as a representation of my thought makes me shudder with horror – accuracy is not their watchword. But then again, linguisticians do take the study of detail to a whole other level, so perhaps it’s the only subject in which such a strategy could be plausible. The three series of lectures were synthesized into one, the book was published, and the rest, as they say, is history.
You don’t really want to know what he said, do you? Well, look, I’ll do a brief summary, but feel free to skip. Saussure recognized that language is made up of what he called ‘signs’, which are combinations of things or concepts and the words and sounds used to designate them. But he pointed out that the link between word and object is wholly arbitrary. There’s no fundamental reason why I should call this thing I’m sitting on a chair, for instance. The only reason language holds together is that it marks a social convention – we all agreed a while back that ‘chair’ was a good enough designation and it still holds. However, if enough time passes, it’s quite possible that the designation will change; some bright spark will come up with a new word, and it’ll stick, and the meaning of ‘chair’ will shift. The word ‘silly’ for instance, used to mean ‘happy, blessed and pious’, not foolish or even stupid. Equally, while the English language might make certain distinctions, for instance, between rivers and streams, other languages will wish to make different ones. In French, the distinction is not in size, but whether the body of water runs into the sea (fleuve) or not (rivière). So, what comes out of all of this is the recognition that languages are living, dynamic systems, constantly shifting and changing and created by arbitrary but widespread social conventions. If, however, at any one time you cut a slice through a language, you can see that it works by the relationships between its finite set of words. I know what ‘chair’ means because it isn’t ‘charm’ or ‘chin’ or ‘share’ or any other near miss. I know what ‘silly’ means because it isn’t ‘pitiful’ or ‘innocent’ or ‘sweet’. A good way to think of it is by means of the system of colours. We understand what blue is, because it’s not green or yellow or brown. And yes, that’s cultural too: English understands ‘light blue’ and ‘dark blue’ to be shades of a single colour, whereas in Russian they are considered to be two distinct primary colours.
It was the idea of system and structure that really took hold, and the concept of negative difference – the idea that things mean something because they don’t mean something else. It influenced the study of anthropology, of psychoanalysis, of philosophy, of literary study. The repercussions for the understanding of language were striking. Language had always been seen as a tool, something that we could bend to our will. Now that it was understood as a self-enclosed finite system, it was evident that we had to bend our desires to what it was capable of saying. Rather than controlling it, as we fondly supposed, language was in fact highly influential in forming us, in carving up the world and telling us how to view it. It was a shocking thought, but one that academics in various disciplines ran with, often to surprising ends.
Not bad for a man working in the dullest field of study conceivable and who himself wrote ‘I am fed up with all that, and with the general difficulty of writing even ten lines of good sense on linguistic matters.’ And it just goes to show that there is no orthodox trajectory towards making a significant difference. When your career looks like it’s heading down the pan, when you’re at your lowest ebb and heavy with doubt, that’s the time when the really important stuff may just be happening.