Indo-European Thought project update 5: Reading Saussure

With the proofs and index of The Archaeology of Foucault complete, the next thing will hopefully be receiving an advance copy toward the end of the year. The new edition of Dumézil’s Mitra-Varuna is now in production with HAU books, and should be out in June 2023 (on the editing work, see here and here). I have a complete draft of a long overdue article too. Much of the summer has been completing projects from some time back, catching up, and finally feeling I am back on top of things. This is helped immeasurably with not teaching the coming year, otherwise I’d already be shifting focus back to that.

My work this summer on the new Indo-European thought project was intended to be background, so as well as some reading of mythology, and some books on dead languages and historical linguistics, I’ve been doing a bit of work on some of the earlier, pre- or early-twentieth century figures. With anthropology, I’ve been reading some work by Marcel Mauss beyond The Gift, though I probably need to go back to Durkheim at some point. I’m not sure I will write about any of this, but it sets the scene for what I do intend to discuss.

Ferdinand de Saussure seemed an obvious place to start for the work on linguistics. While I had read the Course on General Linguistics before, this was the first time doing anything more serious. As many people will know, there are two English translations of the Course – the older one by Wade Baskin and another by Roy Harris. While I think Harris is more reliable, Baskin’s choices for some terms seem to endure. It’s good to have two versions to compare to the French. (There is a newer edition of Baskin’s translation, but there are only a few new notes beyond a useful Introduction.) 

It is also well known that the history of the French text Cours de linguistique générale is complicated. It was compiled by two of Saussure’s students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, from different sets of student notes. Saussure gave the course three times, in 1907, 1908-09 and 1910-11, but died in 1913. Bally and Sechehaye attended the first two courses, but not the third, which was used as the basis for the edition. As they say of the editorial decision they settled on: “We would attempt a reconstruction, a synthesis. It would be based upon the third course of lectures, but make use of all the material we had, including Saussure’s own notes. This would involve a task of re-creation” (p. 11). This text was published in 1916. 

The 1972 French edition of the original Cours has extensive apparatus by Tullio de Mauro, translated from the 1967 Italian edition of the text. The main text is the earlier French edition – with the pagination of the second edition in the margins, which is also in the Harris translation. The additional material includes 80 pages of “Notes Biographiques et critiques sur F. de Saussure”, along with 70 pages of notes to the text and a Bibliography. As far as I’m aware, this additional material isn’t available in English, but on this and indeed anything here I’m happy to be corrected.

As Bally and Sechehaye blended materials from across the three courses, and smoothed over the joins so that a reader doesn’t see what they did, it is easy to forget that it is a hybrid text. Ultimately it is a text of Saussure’s ideas, based on what he said, but without much of it being Saussure’s written words. Given the influence the book had, the extent to which it is an accurate reflection of Saussure’s thought is only one question. For many people the published text was important, whether or not it is really Saussure. 

It is worth noting that in his lifetime Saussure published very little. The most important texts were his dissertation Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879) and his doctoral thesis Sur un point de la phonétique des consonnes en indo-européen (1881). Both these texts, along with many shorter pieces, were collected in Recueil des publications scientifiques de Ferdinand de Saussure after his death (1922). Although these are all out of print, they are available open access on Gallica (and therefore in some print-on-demand reprint editions of variable quality). I don’t think any of this work has been translated into English. A 100-year anniversary conference on the Recueil is being held in September 2022.

What’s striking about the publications is that the Mémoire appeared when he was 21, and the thesis when he was 23, but between these texts and his death at the age of just 55 he published only articles and short research notes. Of the 600 pages of the Recueil, over half are the Mémoire and thesis. However, there are a lot of resources for those that want to delve deeper into what Saussure thought.

In 1957, Robert Godel published Les sources manuscrites de linguistique generale de F. de Saussure. While the reconstructive work of the Cours was known, and the editors’ preface is explicit about it, Godel’s work demonstrated more clearly what they had done, and how, indicating the texts with which they had worked. Not all the texts Godel discussed and catalogued were included in the Bally and Sechehaye edition, though they were certainly the ones consulted. In his biography of Saussure John Joseph describes it as “a magisterial study that later discoveries have only added to, without surpassing it or rendering it outdated” (p. 648). The next important step seems to have been Rudolf Engler’s critical edition of the Cours de linguistique générale – a 500-page first volume in 1968, and a much shorter second volume, really a supplement of only 50 pages, in 1974. This edition paired the published Cours with the notes in parallel columns, showing more precisely how the 1916 Cours had been patched together.

There are also three volumes edited and translated by Eisuke Komatsu and George Wolf, or Komatsu and Harris, which present the texts of the best-preserved student notes of the three courses, in parallel French/English pages. These volumes are really helpful, but seem to be long out-of-print, and very expensive second-hand. Fortunately pdfs are available online, though Elsevier also sells the third as an expensive e-book. Warwick has these volumes, and the Godel and Engler ones, though most housed in their off-site store. The Engler edition is the one in the cardboard box in the photo. Jean Starobinski also presented some manuscripts by Saussure on anagrams in a series of articles, collected in Les Mots sous les mots in 1971 (the 1979 translation Words Upon Words is long out-of-print).

One of the reasons which Bally and Sechehaye give for compiling their edition from student notes is that Saussure’s own notes were very fragmentary, but in 1996 some previously unknown writings by Saussure were discovered. These are known as the ‘Orangery manuscripts’ because they were found in that building on his family estate in Geneva.  These were published in Écrits de linguistique générale in 2002, edited by Simon Bouquet and Rudolf Engler and translated into English as Writings on General Linguistics by Carol Sanders and Matthew Pires with Oxford University Press in 2006. That volume also includes some texts from the earlier Engler edition, including some much earlier lectures from 1891. Unfortunately, despite the English translation appearing 16 years ago, it has still not appeared in paperback or e-book, and the print-to-order hardback is currently an exorbitant £110/$145. These and other manuscripts are now in the Bibliothèque universitaire et publique de Genève, but there are also some at Harvard. (One manuscript from Harvard on phonetics was published in 1995, but it’s not easy to find copies of this. And one from Geneva, also hard to find.)

The Preface to Écrits/Writings says that a Leçons de linguistique générale will follow, but twenty years after that comment no volume of that title has been published. Engler died in 2003, which may explain this.

The situation with Saussure is therefore odd – there are editions of what seem to be the most important archival papers and some good translations of key works beyond the standard edition of the Course, but often out of print, nearly all expensive and generally difficult to find.

In terms of the secondary literature, which is enormous, I found E.F.K. Koerner, Ferdinand de Saussure: Origin and Development of his Linguistic Thought in the Western Studies of Language (1973) helpful, but the mammoth 800 page biography Saussure by John E. Joseph certainly surpasses it (2012). To get a sense of its scope, perhaps simply mentioning that Ferdinand isn’t born until page 101 is enough. There is also a biography by Claudia Mejia Quijano in French, using letters extensively, of which two volumes are published so far (2008, 2011). I haven’t seen this yet.

Engler has a good discussion of the history of the texts in The Cambridge Companion to Saussure (“The Making of the Cours de linguistique générale”). That collection also has an interesting essay by Anna Morpurgo Davies on “Saussure and Indo-European Linguistics”, which will be a useful guide for me –in terms of his own work, those that came before him (Jacob Grimm, Franz Bopp, Adolphe Pictet, etc.), and those that followed. I’m particularly interested in following the line from Saussure to Antoine Meillet, and then from him to Benveniste and Dumézil.

And it really is what Saussure does with Indo-European languages that is of principal interest to me, rather than the general linguistics. But in order to make sense of the comments on Indo-European languages in the Cours, I thought I had to get a sense of the whole, and that led into the textual issues. But it’s increasingly clear to me that the most important work he did for what I’m exploring is outside the Cours entirely.

Earlier updates on this project are here. This project is funded by a Leverhulme major research fellowship beginning on 1 October 2022. For the Foucault series of books, there is a lot more information here.

This entry was posted in Emile Benveniste, Ferdinand de Saussure, Georges Dumézil, Indo-European Thought, Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Foucault, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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