The place of Saussure’s Memoire in historical linguistics
January 13, 2015 11:34 AM   Subscribe

You may be familiar with Ferdinand de Saussure as the founder of structuralism or as one of the defining contributors to semiotics but did you know that he also did ground-breaking work in Proto-Indo-European linguistics at the age of 20? Welcome to the Laryngeal Theory.

"Saussure's achievement in his Mémoire is phenomenal. Published during his student days, actually in 1878 rather than the indicated 1879, it was far in advance of his time. Applying the method of internal reconstruction to Proto-Indo-European, he proposed the hypothesis that the long vowels had developed from short vowel plus sonant coefficients. His hypothesis was confirmed after Hittite was discovered. J. Kurylowicz in 1927 pointed out that the Hittite consonants transcribed with ḫ corresponded in some cognates to those which Saussure had suggested purely on the basis of phonological analysis of morphological patterns. The Mémoire is accordingly a fine example of the method of internal reconstruction, possibly the most dramatic application that has been made."

More details from Saussure and Indo-European Linguistics:
Page 15: One of the greatest French linguists, Antoine Meillet, later on called it the most beautiful book of comparative grammar ever written (Meillet, [1913– 14] 1938: 183); the judgement is still valid. It remained the only full book that Saussure ever published. Louis Havet, professor of Latin in Paris, who had agreed to write a brief review, ended taking a full page of the Tribune de Gene`ve and explained in a letter to the author that once he had read and understood the book he was bowled over by its novelty and its importance (cf. Redard, 1978a: 30). The review ended by stating that the book was likely to lead to a renewal of part of the discipline and that much could be expected of its author who was still only twenty-one years of age. (See Havet [25/2/1879] in Redard, 1978b.) The Indo-Europeanist who rereads the book today experiences a series of difficulties because of different terminology and different conventions, but finds the task much easier because most of the conclusions have become part of the acquired knowledge in the field; the first reaction is still stunned admiration.

Page 17: The book concerns the vocalism of Indo-European; on the one hand this refers to the vowels that we can reconstruct for the parent language, on the other to the phenomena of vocalic alternation which mark grammatical contrasts, the so-called Ablaut or vocalic apophony (see below), its function and its origin. Anachronistically it could be stated that the book concerns the phonology and morphophonology of reconstructed Indo-European and the derived languages.

Page 21: The first real confirmation that Saussure was on the right track came in 1927, well after his death, when Jerzy Kuryłowicz recognised that the newly deciphered Hittite, the oldest attested IE language, had a consonantal phoneme () which was etymologically derived from Saussure’s A. Conclusions reached largely on the basis of inter- nal reconstruction were convalidated by newly found comparative data.

Bonus links! Saussure was also a synesthete and did some wacky anagram stuff at the end of his career.
posted by bq (16 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
posted by bq at 11:35 AM on January 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

AND he is the subject of a Magnetic Fields song, which is where I know him from, sooooo...fascinating to know more!
posted by at 11:56 AM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by bq at 11:59 AM on January 13, 2015

Welcome to my grad school days.

Anyone interested in Saussure should read Boris Gasparov's Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents, which I reviewed here. (Bonus from thread: a comment from the managing editor at Columbia University Press complaining about "the reviewer’s last paragraph criticizing the editing and proofreading of Gasparov’s book"!)
posted by languagehat at 12:07 PM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Probably my favourite Magnetic Fields song. It's sometimes a little too clever for its own good. Which is why it's so good.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:31 PM on January 13, 2015

I highly recommend Fortson's Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction as a, well, introduction to this fascinating subject. If you've had a touch of Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit and a modern European language, all the better, but it's not necessary.
posted by eclectist at 12:38 PM on January 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

And just today I was asking someone "who was that guy who wrote about the signifiant and signifié again?".

(Context: we were discussing the kind of theorizing exemplified by the phrase "a touchpoint is an information object wrapped in an interaction").
posted by Captain Fetid at 2:10 PM on January 13, 2015

Yes. His reconstruction of these completely lost, completely unknown (at the time) consonants, based purely on the fact that they would create symmetry in the system -- it's like particle physics but instead of a cyclotron to confirm your findings you need the Hittite language.
posted by edheil at 2:12 PM on January 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Last I heard, there is *still* not a complete consensus on what those sonantes coefficients, the "laryngeals," even *were*. h1, h2, and h3. One made adjacent vowels sound like "a", one like "o" and one didn't do either.
posted by edheil at 2:15 PM on January 13, 2015

(Laryngeal theory on MetaFilter! I think I will be happy here.)

There isn't even a complete consensus that there were three, although that's what most people assume. Saussure posited two, the "a-coloring" and "o-coloring" laryngeals, but missed the neutral one that doesn't change vowel quality (but can lengthen a preceding vowel, like the other two). Some think there are more, or rather that one or more of these constructs actually reflects more than one PIE phoneme.

Fortson's book linked by eclectist is excellent, and so is this one by James Clackson (which is more concerned with areas of current controversy and has problem sets to get your hands dirty).
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 2:42 PM on January 13, 2015

there is *still* not a complete consensus on what those sonantes coefficients, the "laryngeals," even *were*

To be fair, though, that's true to some extent for all the phonemes in Proto-Indo-European, or any other reconstructed language. The thing about the comparative method of reconstruction is that it reconstructs phonology, not phonetics: that is, it tells you what sets of meaningful sound contrasts existed in the system, but it can't tell you the precise details of how these contrasts were implemented phonetically. So for example there's a set of stop consonants in PIE that are traditionally referred to as "voiced aspirates", but most Indo-Europeanists would probably not bet too much money on these necessarily having been phonetically aspirated; all we really know is they had some set of phonetic features in common that distinguished them from the other stops, but we may never know just what these were (and don't really need to for most purposes).
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 5:17 PM on January 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Granting the truth of that, would you agree that the "laryngeals" have a thicker fog of uncertainty/inspire more vigorous scholarly disagreement than the others, at least partly because they left only very abstract traces in most of the recorded daughter languages of PIE? Or is this a misperception caused by that romantic lost-and-found history?
posted by No-sword at 8:13 PM on January 13, 2015

I'd say the phonetics of the laryngeals are definitely one of the foggiest patches in terms of our generally very foggy knowledge of what PIE might have sounded like, but actually a lot more of the scholarly debate in that area has been on other questions. Most obviously, the question of the the phonation features of the three series of stops, where the debates about glottalic theory have reached a kind of exhausted truce in which a minority pro-glottalic camp sticks to its guns while the majority, although dismissing GT for various sensible reasons, is also not too happy with the alternative, traditional system.

Even on the phonological level there isn't a complete consensus on the sound system of PIE -- there's still some disagreement (among respected scholars, not crackpots) about such basic questions as whether or not it had an /a/ vowel, or whether there were two or three dorsal series (types of k-sounds).
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 8:40 PM on January 13, 2015

"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."
posted by clavdivs at 9:44 PM on January 13, 2015

I don't get it.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 11:38 PM on January 13, 2015

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