The poet who could smell vowels

 The poet who could smell vowels

From The Times Literary Supplement (December 2007)


Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism, owed much to Hobbes and Mill, and numbered Henry VII among his ancestors

John E. Joseph



As he lay dying, in 1913, of arteriosclerosis and influenza, still a lethal combination today, Ferdinand de Saussure must have been sure that, come the year 2007, no one would mark the centenary of his first course on general linguistics at the University of Geneva or the sesquicentenary of his birth, on November 26. His name, never widely known, was forgotten except among the few scholars who recalled his impressive Master’s thesis of thirty-four years earlier.

All this depressed him. A modest, even-tempered man, at the age of fifty-five he harboured no deep bitterness, yet the one thing that consistently upset him was being denied his due. On a visit, in 1911, to his sister Albertine, at Mettingham Castle in Suffolk, her husband, Major Hastings Ross-Johnson, raised a sceptical eyebrow at Ferdinand’s claim to descent from English nobility. In good aristocratic form, Saussure disguised his dismay, but as soon as he returned to Geneva he started writing to cousins for information that would confirm the lineage.

With the help of Burke’s Peerage, he traced his direct line of descent from King Henry VII, via Princess Mary, the sister and co-heir of Henry VIII, to the Egerton family, Earls of Bridgewater. Saussure’s maternal grandfather, Charles-William Saladin de Crans, was the son of Elizabeth Egerton, and Burke’s Peerage confirmed Saladin’s right to quarter the royal crest in his coat of arms. As Ross-Johnson scanned the family tree which his brother-in-law drew up and sent to him, his eyebrow descended again. Your wife and I, it informed him, are pedigreed descendants of William the Conqueror, whereas you, Major, bear the name of one of his battlefields. Game, set and match.

When a letter from Albertine mentioned that she was planning to send her son to a public school, Saussure urged her to reconsider. As a boy of ten, he had himself gone to a Swiss boarding school run on the British model, and had terrible memories of what the older boys had put him through. He was pulled out in the middle of a term on account of what his father, not usually a reticent man, referred to in his diary only as “deplorable things”. Years later, Saussure claimed a special insight into the English mentality, which, predictably in the circumstances, did not always manifest itself as sympathy. His private writings show him to have been deeply upset at British policies in South Africa in the run-up to the Boer War, though this did not stop him from investing money in British companies there.

None of this information has been published before. It has come to light in papers discovered in 1996, only a very few of which have made their way into print. The Writings in General Linguistics, first published by Gallimard in 2002 (English translation from Oxford University Press, 2006), consists mainly of texts already published in 1974 or earlier. The new material in Writings, including the brief fragments found in twelve envelopes marked “On the double essence” or “On the essence”, does not differ on any essential point from the previously known manuscripts. Saussure was consistent in his conception of language throughout his life.

More revealing is the personal information in the papers. His claims to Englishness are surprising because he seems so archetypically Continental, standing as he does at the head of all the structuralism and poststructuralism that followed in his wake. Yet Geneva, the city of Calvin and Frankenstein (for whom Ferdinand’s great-grandfather Horace-Bénédict de Saussure may have been a model), was described in 1814 by the historian and political economist J. C. Simonde de Sismondi as “a sort of British city on the continent . . . a city where people think and feel in English, though they speak and write in French”. Saussure’s most characteristic ideas have British or American sources, including the most distinctively Saussurean idea of all:

“In a language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, the language contains neither ideas nor sounds that pre-exist the linguistic system, but only conceptual differences and phonic differences issuing from this system.” (From the posthumous Course in General Linguistics, 1916.)
Where the irregular, turbulent form of human thought (A) is mapped onto the irregular, turbulent form of human sound (B) and meaning (or content) is thereby drawn into being through the interconnections, themselves another form of form.

The terms “signifier” and “signified” were not introduced until one of his last general linguistics lectures in 1911. But the idea of a psychological sound pattern corresponding to a spoken word, functioning purely through its difference from every other such signifier, is found in his notes as far back as 1881, when he was in Paris working towards a French doctorate that he never completed. “Language”, he wrote at that time, in a manuscript now in Harvard’s Houghton Library and published in 1995, “is composed of a system of acoustic oppositions.” Acoustic only: no indication as yet that the conceptual side, the signified, is similarly oppositional in its nature – that it too has no positive content, just a value generated by its difference from other signifieds, as claimed in the quote from the Course.

This remains vividly controversial, as I was reminded some months back when I was drawn into an e-conversation with a philosopher of language who is convinced that the meanings of words must have some primordial reality that is not simply differential, and blames Saussure for introducing a fundamental error. Yet, in philosophy itself, and in sciences other than linguistics (because linguists just did not think about such things), it was a commonplace view in the second half of the nineteenth century that all thought and all consciousness was purely differential and negative in nature. It was a defining feature of British psychology, as opposed to Continental (particularly German) psychology, which, before the British approach made inroads into it, took thought to be made up of ideas, maybe innate, maybe acquired, but with real, substantive content.

For the late nineteenth century the locus classicus of differentiality was John Stuart Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), a scathing attack that brought far more attention to Hamilton’s writings than their author had managed during his lifetime. Hamilton’s “relativity of human knowledge” was one of the few things Mill agreed with, summarizing it as follows:

“We only know anything by knowing it as distinguished from something else; all consciousness is of difference; two objects are the smallest number required to constitute consciousness; a thing is only seen to be what it is by contrast with what it is not.”

“With this doctrine”, wrote Mill, “I have no quarrel.” Since Hamilton nowhere states it so succinctly or clearly, one can hardly begrudge Mill his co-ownership of it.

Saussure had come into contact with the English and Scottish philosophical traditions in his teens, reading Pictet’s survey of them in his book on aesthetics, Du Beau. That background left him receptive to the Hamilton–Mill doctrine when he was introduced to it, at the start of the 1890s, via his younger brother. After completing a degree at the École Polytechnique in Paris, René de Saussure had gone to the United States hoping to start an academic career. Not finding himself in demand, he worked as an architect and wrote papers on bidimensional geometry, a field straddling the border of geometry and physics. He would send these papers to Ferdinand, who critiqued them (sometimes to his brother’s irritation) and arranged for their publication in Genevan scientific journals. (The most important of René’s manuscripts, together with his letters to his brother, are among the Saussure papers to have come to light in recent years.)

The main source of René’s inspiration – indeed the sole source cited in one of his papers – was The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics (1882) by John Bernhard Stallo, German-born but from the age of sixteen a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio. René’s papers include very full résumés of Stallo and lengthy citations, ensuring that Ferdinand knew its contents, whether or not he read the book or its French translation. Among the many passages of interest to him is this one:

“Thought, in its most comprehensive sense, is the establishment or recognition of relations between phenomena. Foremost among these relations – the foundation, in fact, of all others, such as those of exclusion and inclusion, coexistence and sequence, cause and effect, means and end – are the relations of identity and difference. The difference between phenomena is a primary datum of sensation. The very act of sensation is based upon it. It is one of the many acute observations of Hobbes that ‘it is all one to be always sensible of the same thing and not to be sensible of anything.'”

Stallo next quotes the sentence from Mill cited above, not mentioning that Mill is summarizing Hamilton. But the invocation of Hobbes anchors the doctrine still more firmly in the tradition of British thought.

What is original to Saussure, then, does not include the view that linguistic meaning or any other form of conceptual knowledge is generated purely by the difference of one element from another within a system of values. Nor, of course, does it include the idea that the link between a linguistic meaning and the sounds which signify it is arbitrary – that is an ancient heritage. His novel contribution was to imagine the sound side of language on the one hand, and the conceptual side on the other, as perfectly alike in their nature and mental operation. This is the “double essence”: two orders of difference, held together by a force that is essentially social, which he called the immutability of linguistic signs. It makes it impossible for an individual to introduce a change into the sign system, and it means that any communal change creates a wholly new system of values, which is to say a new language.

For if all consciousness is of difference, we can only speak of “a language” where all differences have been conventionalized, and are shared. Saussure repeatedly testifies that on this point he was influenced by the work of the American linguist William Dwight Whitney, with whom he had a chance meeting while studying in Germany in 1879. While he did not fully accept Whitney’s characterization of a language as an “institution”, it set him on the track toward his own modified view of its essentially social nature.

How the psychological link is made between the two orders of difference is not addressed by Saussure. But he became centrally involved when the question was taken up in 1892 by his psychologist colleague Théodore Flournoy, the most regular European correspondent, confidant and intellectual soulmate of William James. In his review of Flournoy’s book on “coloured hearing” (also called synopsia or photism or, more generally, synaesthesia), James underscores the vast range of individual peculiarities discovered in the research. “Sometimes”, James notes, “it makes a difference how one imagines the sound to be written. The photism, e.g., of French ou may differ from the same individual’s photism of German u, though the sounds are the same.” The individual James was writing about – referred to by Flournoy as “the eminent linguist Mr X” – was Saussure.

Photism, a word James himself was the first to use in English, had been a popular subject in German and French psychological research since the start of the 1880s. None of the studies mentions the poem “Voyelles”, written in 1871–2 by the young Rimbaud, even though these psychologists were scholar-scientists who kept up with literature. Of Flournoy’s 700 anonymous subjects, Saussure was the only one to report that it made a difference to him how a sound was written:

“In French we write the same vowel four different ways in terrain, plein, matin, chien. Now when this vowel is written ain, I see it in pale yellow like an incompletely baked brick; when it is written ein, it strikes me as a network of purplish veins; when it is written in, I no longer know at all what colour sensation it evokes in my mind, and am inclined to believe that it evokes none.

When Saussure associates ain with an incompletely baked brick, it is hard not to think of the prototypical baked good, and one of the two most common French words to contain ain. Although pain (bread) is not mentioned, it too is a pale yellow when incompletely baked. When ein strikes him as a network of veins, this time the word used to identify the visual association is present – veines – though while the letters ein are there, in this word they are not pronounced with the vowel he is discussing. If in evokes nothing, could that have to do with in- being a negative prefix? Or with in being the stressed vowel of his given name, Mongin, which he never used? He continued:

“So it does not seem to be the vowel as such – as it exists for the ear, that is – that calls forth a certain corresponding visual sensation. On the other hand, neither is it seeing a certain letter or group of letters that calls forth this sensation. Rather it is the vowel as it is contained in this written expression, it is the imaginary being formed by this first association of ideas which, through another association, appears to me as endowed with a certain consistency and a certain colour, sometimes also a certain shape and a certain smell.”

Terms such as association and sensation which Saussure uses here figure prominently in the “associationism” established by Mill’s Scottish ally Alexander Bain. In the second half of the nineteenth century it came to define “modern” psychology in Britain, then in America and Continental Europe, where opposing traditions were more firmly rooted. Saussure deploys an associationist vocabulary in a casual and comfortable way that suggests no deep study of the subject, but rather a familiarity acquired from articles addressed to the general public and discussions in the salon. These are the likely sources of the echoes of Hippolyte Taine, a popularizer of associationism in France, that Hans Aarsleff was the first to spot in Saussure.

Saussure makes no pretence of analysing his own reactions psychologically. He just records them, in exquisite detail. The French letter-sound a he experiences as

“off-white, approaching yellow; in its consistency, it is something solid, but thin, that cracks easily if struck, for example a sheet of paper (yellowed with age) drawn tight in a frame, a flimsy door (in unvarnished wood left white) that you feel would shatter at the slightest blow, an already broken eggshell that you can keep cracking by pressing on it with your fingers. Better still: the shell of a raw egg is a (whether in colour or in the consistency of the object), but the shell of a hard-boiled egg is not a, because of the feeling you have that the object is compact and resistant. A yellowed pane of glass is a; a pane of ordinary colour, offering blueish reflections, is the very opposite of a, because of its colour, and despite its consistency being just right.”

Flournoy’s analytical commentary states the principle of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign that will generally be credited to Saussure’s later lectures, though again its antiquity is well known:

“The word is arbitrary, conventional, and gets attached to the idea only through the direct but purely superficial and (if I may use the term) cortical link that repetition ends up creating between the corresponding centres or plexuses; the connection of the sign and the thing signified is artificial and results from habitual association. On the other hand the relationship of photism to the auditory phenomenon is natural, being essentially founded on . . . the identical psychological effects that they have in the depths of the organism.”

Flournoy’s detailed terminology of cortical links and plexuses will never be taken up by Saussure, nor will the notion of repetition or habit creating links. He was scrupulous about sticking to purely linguistic matters, his expertise being philological rather than psychological. Still, the overlap with the Jamesian Flournoy is unmistakable. The two men remained close, Flournoy turning to Saussure to analyse the “Sanskritoid” utterances of the medium Hélène Smith, made world-famous in Flournoy’s From India to the Planet Mars (1900). Saussure’s son Raymond studied under Flournoy and married his daughter, Ariane, before going on to become a disciple of Freud.

What seems most disharmonious with Saussure’s later views is the status he accords here to the written sign. No hint of the “tyranny of the letter”, of the visual image of a sound leading to “vicious pronunciations” that are “pathological” – all those overstatements so brilliantly deconstructed by Derrida, but actually all from the pen, not of Saussure, but of Bally and Sechehaye, editors of the Course in General Linguistics. Saussure did make remarks, in his third course, about spelling pronunciations being tératologiques, “anomalous”, even “monstrous”, suggesting that it is unnatural for the visual image of a sound to affect the spoken image, which it is its function to represent passively. In his synaesthesia, the two images seem much more equal, neither outweighing the other in its contribution to the imaginary being that evokes synaesthetic sensations.

No one becomes as famous as Saussure did without both admirers and detractors reducing them to a paragraph’s worth of ideas that can be readily quoted, debated, memorized and examined. Those ideas then become “Saussure”, while the human being, in all his complexity, disappears. But Saussure was a man who lived a life of contradictions, as we all do, he perhaps more than most. At seventeen, he had heard his neoclassical poetry publicly proclaimed by his teacher John Braillard, normally a brutal critic, to be superior to that of Jacques Delille, “the French Virgil”, an immortal of the Académie Française. After that, Saussure never wrote another line of verse, apart from amusing party pieces, though he never lost his poet’s instincts for language.

The best of his poems is “Le Feu sous la cendre” (The fire beneath the ashes), the portrait of a Huguenot family of the sixteenth century: “Seuls on voit éclairés d’une rouge lueur / Le père et ses deux fils devant la cheminée” (Alone are seen, illumined by a red glow / The father and his two sons before the fire). Something, we are not told what, is troubling the old man. As he and his sons look into the fire they have frightful premonitions, and hear anguished sighs reminiscent of Dante’s Hell:

Et les voilà tous trois, rêveurs et sérieux
Cherchant dans ce chaos un sens mystérieux
Et si le destin sombre aussi leur fait attendre
Quelque vague malheur qui couve sous la

(And there are the three of them, rapt in sombre thought, / Searching the chaos for a mysterious meaning / And whether dark destiny also has in store for them / Some vague misfortune smouldering beneath the ashes.)

It is the one poem in which Saussure holds something back – a mysterious meaning that smoulders beneath the text. His other verses start from a transparent image, or event, or sentiment, and strive for literary effect on the surface, in rhythm, rhyme and the occasional syntactic affectation.

The family portrayed is undoubtedly Saussure’s own. In his veins ran the Calvinist doctrine that one must express ideas clearly and directly. Any revelling in the beauty of language would be doubly frowned upon, both because it was pleasurable and because it must stand in the way of clear expression. Saussure’s poetic nature provides an insight into his synaesthesia, his fascination with anagrams and his belief in a structure lurking within the chaos. His Calvinism helps us to understand the lucidity of his lectures, achieved with enormous personal effort, but also his inability to commit his conceptions of language to paper in a form that met the superhuman demands he imposed on himself.

For someone who believed that opposition and difference were fundamental to language, he was entirely blasé about the contradictions in his own life. A Genevan through and through, a sergeant in the Swiss militia, his earliest years were spent growing up on a farm, not in Switzerland, but in France. He had Prussian citizenship, because his mother’s family were from Neuchâtel, which belonged to Prussia until 1857, the year of his birth. But French was the Saussures’ language, and Ferdinand never felt at home speaking the German he learned at the boarding school where all those deplorable things occurred. And let us not forget, for he himself has said it, and it is greatly to his credit, that he was an Englishman. Burke’s Peerage shows that Ferdinand de Saussure, the poet who could smell vowels, was a tenth cousin (twice removed) of Princess Diana. In some parallel universe, that surely signifies something.

John E. Joseph is Professor of Applied Linguistics in the University of Edinburgh. His recent books include Language and Identity: National, ethnic, religious, 2004, and Language and Politics, published last year.

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