Podcast episode 16: Interview with Chloé Laplantine on Émile Benveniste

In this episode, we talk to Chloé Laplantine about the life and work of French structuralist Émile Benveniste.

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References for Episode 16

Primary Sources

Annuaire du Collège de France. 1937-1938. Paris: Ernest Leroux.

Benveniste, Émile. 1937. La négation. (Manuscript notes). Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Papiers d’orientalistes 33, f°333-484.

Benveniste, Émile. 1966. Problèmes de linguistique générale. Gallimard: Paris. [English translation: E. Benveniste. 1971. Problems in general linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables (Florida): University of Miami. Press].

Benveniste, Émile. 1969. Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (2 vol.). Paris: Minuit.

Benveniste, Émile. 1974. Problèmes de linguistique générale, 2. Paris: Gallimard.

Benveniste, Émilie. 2011. Baudelaire. Présentation, éditions et notes par Chloé Laplantine. Limoges : Éditions Lambert-Lucas.

Benveniste, Émile. 2012. Dernières leçons. Collège de France. 1968 et 1969. Édition établie par Jean-Claude Coquet et Irène Fenoglio. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard. [English translation: E. Benveniste. 2012. Last Lectures: Collège de France, 1968 and 1969, ed. by Jean-Claude Coquet and Irène Fenoglio, trans. by John E. Joseph, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press].

Benveniste, Émile. 2015. Langues, cultures, religions. Choix d’articles réunis par Chloé Laplantine et Georges-Jean Pinault. Limoges: Éditions Lambert-Lucas.

Jakobson, Roman & Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1962. “Les Chats” de Baudelaire. L’homme 2(1) : 5-21.

Jespersen, Otto. 1917. Negation in English and other languages. Copenhagen: A. F. Høst Publication.

Secondary Sources

Adam, Jean-Michel & Laplantine, Chloé, dir. 2012. Semen 33, Les notes manuscrites de Benveniste sur la langue de Baudelaire. Besançon : Annales littéraires de l’Université de Franche-Comté. [Online: http://semen.revues.org/9442 ].

Dessons, Gérard. 2006. Émile Benveniste. L’invention du discours. Paris: Éditions In Press.

Laplantine, Chloé. 2011. Émile Benveniste : l’inconscient et le poème. Limoges: Éditions Lambert-Lucas.

Laplantine, Chloé. 2019. Questions d’art – terrae incognitae. In Emile Benveniste. Un demi siècle après Problèmes de linguistique générale. Fenoglio, Irène & D’Ottavi, Giuseppe, dir. Paris: Presses de la rue d’Ulm. 141-151.

Transcript by Luca Dinu

JMc: Hi, I’m James McElvenny, and you’re listening to the History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences Podcast, online at hiphilangsci.net. [00:20] There you can find links and references to all the literature we discuss. [00:24] In recent episodes, we’ve been talking about the history of linguistic structuralism in Europe. [00:31] We’ve mentioned that it was above all in France where structuralism really took hold. [00:36] By the middle of the twentieth century, structuralism in France had become something of an official doctrine underpinning the humanities and social sciences. [00:45] To get a better idea of the career of French structuralism, we’re joined today by Chloé Laplantine from the CNRS Laboratory for the History of Linguistic Theories in Paris. [00:58] She’s going to tell in particular about the life and work of Émile Benveniste, a key figure in French linguistics, who did much to elaborate structuralist thought. [01:10] So, Chloé, tell us: Who was Émile Benveniste? [01:15] How did he become one of the leading French linguists of the twentieth century? [01:19]

CL: Thank you very much, James, for inviting me to answer your questions. [01:23] It’s a pleasure to talk today with you about Émile Benveniste, who is indeed considered as an important linguist of the 20th century. [01:31] I’ll try today to shed light on his original contribution to the reflection on language. [01:37]

Let’s first say a few words about his life and career. [01:41] He was born in Aleppo (Syria) in 1902. [01:45] His parents where teachers for the Alliance israélite internationale. [01:49] He was sent to Paris in 1913 to pursue rabbinic studies, to become a rabbi, at the Petit Séminaire. [01:58] There, he met Sylvain Lévi, who was replacing another teacher during the war. [02:04] Sylvain Lévi (who belonged to the same generation as Ferdinand de Saussure) was an important figure in Oriental studies, particularly interested in Sanskrit, in the history of Indian religion and culture, teaching “Sanskrit language and literature” at the Collège de France. [02:24] Sylvain Lévi apparently found in Benveniste a promising student, and sent him to the Sorbonne. [02:32] At the Sorbonne Benveniste attended the classes of Joseph Vendryès (with whom he studied Celtic linguistics), and under whose direction he wrote his first essay in 1920, “The Sigmatic Futures and Subjunctives in Archaic Latin”. [02:49] Benveniste also attended the classes in comparative grammar given by Antoine Meillet at the Collège de France, and meanwhile frequenting the École des Langues orientales, studied Sanskrit with Jules Bloch, Vedic with Louis Finot, Latin paleography with Émile Chatelain, at the École des Hautes Études. [03:10] Benveniste was one of the young and brilliant students who were gathering around Antoine Meillet: among them we can mention Louis Renou, Pierre Chantraine, Jerzy Kuryłowicz, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt. [03:26] As we can already see, Benveniste’s work originated in the French tradition of Oriental studies, comparative grammar, philology, and within the framework of existing institutions like the École des Hautes Études, the Collège de France, the Société de linguistique de Paris, the Sorbonne and the École des langues orientales. [03:48] In 1927, Meillet invited Benveniste, then aged only 25, to replace him at the École des Hautes Études, and 10 years later, in 1937 he was named to the chair of “comparative grammar” at the prestigious Collège de France, again replacing Meillet who had died the previous year. [04:14] Now that we have seen the institutional background of Benveniste’s work, let’s go into details. [04:21] What strikes me the most when glancing at the classes Benveniste gave at the Collège de France, when reading their summaries or consulting his manuscripts, is the orientation he gave to the notion of “comparative grammar”. [04:37] We can see that from the beginning, that is to say 1937, he examined general problems in linguistics under the light of the greatest variety of languages, which is something quite new. [04:52] Meillet, teaching comparative grammar before Benveniste, was already looking for data in non-Indo-European language families, but with Benveniste – who was trained as an Indo-Europeanist – we see clearly that linguistics is not only Indo-European linguistics, or even more that our knowledge about languages can be refined or even renewed under the light of non-Indo-European languages, and this can make us think of Franz Boas or Edward Sapir. [05:29] Just to give an example, one of his first lectures in 1937 was devoted to the notion of negation; a glance at the manuscripts shows us that he was particularly interested in the system of negation in Greek, but also collected quite a bit of information on negation in many different languages – Chinook, Eskimo, Hottentot, Yakut, German, etc. [05:59] What is more, his research doesn’t consist in a collection of facts but leads to the formulation of a “general theory of negation”. [06:09] We also see from his notes that, while preparing his class, he was reading Jespersen on negation in English, Jacob van Ginneken’s Principes de linguistique psychologique, but also Hegel, Henri Bergson on the idea of “nothingness”, and Heidegger. [06:29]

I think this example gives us a good idea of the originality of Benveniste’s approach; his openness to the empirical diversity of languages, and the constant tension between this empirical diversity and the formulation of a general linguistic theory. [06:50] We might quote here a passage from one of his articles, “Coup d’œil sur le développement de la linguistique” (published in 1963). [07:01] He writes: “It is with languages that the linguist deals, and linguistics is primarily the theory of languages. [07:12] But, … the infinitely diverse problems of particular languages have in common that, when stated to a certain degree of generality, they always have a bearing on language in general”. [07:28] I think, in this passage, we can hear something characteristic of Benveniste’s approach, which is to consider that knowledge may always be called into question – and this is not a structuralist attitude. [07:45] This attitude of critical distance appears clearly in the notion of “problème” he frequently uses in his writings, and which he chose for the title of his volume of collected papers, Problèmes de linguistique générale, published in 1966. [08:06] Most of Benveniste’s writings are devoted to problems in Indo-European linguistics. [08:13] But these articles or books, as specialized as they may sometimes look, if you consider their titles, have in common that they are not confined to a purely linguistic analysis. [08:27] When Benveniste works on the system of tenses in Latin, or on the distinction between nouns for agents and nouns for actions in Indo-European, his analysis of the formal system of the languages brings to light unconscious cultural representations. [08:49] We can take another example: in his article “two different models of the city”, Benveniste compares two ways to conceive the politics in the relation of the citizen to the city; he shows that the Latin civis is a term of reciprocity and mutuality (one is the civis only of another civis), and that the derived term civitas is the whole of these relations of reciprocity; in a different way polis in Greek is an abstract term from which the term polites is derived, the citizen being then only a part of a preconceived whole. [09:38] In the same way, when Benveniste works on the notion of rhythm, or on the notion of eternity, by examining the history of linguistic forms through examples taken from philosophers, historians, or poets, he brings to light conceptions specific to particular societies, like an ethnographer would do, and at the same time unveils an archeology of our conceptions. [10:09] This is precisely what he did with his book Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, which can be considered as a book of linguistic ethnography, a very different approach from the approach of ethnologists who would generally consider language as something contained within the society. [10:33] For Benveniste, language is not contained within the society; it is the interpreter of society. [10:40]

JMc: Okay, and what were the main contributions of Benveniste to structuralist theory and what impact did his work have on the development of structuralism, both within disciplinary linguistics and more broadly? [10:58]

CL: We see in many of his articles that Benveniste considers Saussure as a starting point for the study of language (not the only one, of course, but an important starting point), and this for serval reasons, among which we can mention the idea that language is a form, not a substance, that language is never given as a physical object would be, but only exists in one’s point of view, and thus the necessity for the linguist to acquire a critical distance and consciousness of his or her own practice (Saussure speaks of the necessity of showing the linguist what he or she does). [11:44] Benveniste recognizes everywhere the importance of Saussure, but also says that what proves the fertility of a theory lies in the contradictions to which it gives rise. [11:59] In “La nature du signe linguistique” published in the first issue of Acta Linguistica in 1939, he argues, against Saussure, that the relation between the concept and the acoustic image is not arbitrary but necessary, the idea of arbitrariness being, according to Benveniste, a residue of substantialist conceptions of language. [12:28] In articles such as “La forme et le sens dans le langage” (in 1966) or “Sémiologie de la langue” (in 1968) Benveniste invites us to go beyond Saussure and the dimension of the sign, which, according to him, is only one aspect of the problem of language and doesn’t do justice to its living reality. [12:54] He suggests a tension between two dimensions: one that he calls semiotic which is the dimension of the sign, and involves the faculty of recognition (a sign exists or does not exist); the other dimension is called semantic, it is the universe of discourse and meaning, its unity being the sentence and the faculty involved being comprehension. [13:22] Here we find not only something new in comparison with Saussure, but also something that does not match at all with structuralist presuppositions. [13:32] The point of view on language is totally different as it is now conceived as an activity. [13:41] Each enunciation is a unique event which vanishes as soon as it is uttered. [13:48] It is never predictable; the universe of discourse is infinite. [13:54] Benveniste writes that “To say ‘hello’ to somebody every day is each time a reinvention”, and you’ll notice that he chooses a sentence word as an example. [14:07] You can repeat the same word, it is never the same enunciation. [14:13] Another notion that goes with enunciation is that of subjectivity. [14:19] Benveniste criticizes the reduction of language to an instrument of communication which supposed the separation of language from man. [14:29] For Benveniste man is in language, and even more constitutes himself in and through language as a subject. [14:39] We can quote here a manuscript note: “Language as lived
Everything depends on that: in language taken on and lived as a human experience, nothing has the same meaning as with language viewed as a formal system and described from the outside”. [15:02] In 1967 Benveniste undertook research on the French poet Charles Baudelaire. [15:09] Maybe it was an answer to Jakobson and Levi-Strauss’s structuralist analysis of Baudelaire’s poem Les Chats published in 1962. [15:21] When Jakobson and Levi-Strauss take the poem to pieces, analyze it with the tools of structuralist linguistics, nothing remains of the originality of Baudelaire’s poem and this analysis can be repeated indifferently with any poem. [15:42] On the contrary, what Benveniste tries to do is to show how Baudelaire re-invents language in his poems, how he invents an original experience or vision that he shares with the reader. [15:57] This research on Baudelaire’s language, which was never published, develops an important reflection on meaning. [16:05] A poem by Baudelaire doesn’t work the same way as ordinary language. [16:12] For Benveniste, Baudelaire creates a new semiology, a language that escapes the conventions of discourse. [16:20] So I think we’ve seen that Benveniste’s work extends far beyond the framework of structuralist thought. [16:28] I mentioned earlier his curiosity for linguistic diversity. [16:33] I could have said a few words about the research he did in 1952 and ’53 on the Northwest Coast of America on the Haida, Tlingit, and Gwich’in languages. [16:47] His curiosity about these languages and cultures was motivated, among other reasons, by an interrogation on meaning: he wanted to investigate the ways language signifies and symbolizes. [17:02] And he had the feeling that linguistics, in particular in America, didn’t care about meaning anymore. [17:11] But for Benveniste, much more than a means of communication, language is a means of living. [17:20] Bien avant de servir à communiquer, le langage sert à vivre. [17:24]

JMc: That’s great. [17:26] Thank you very much, Chloé, for talking to us today. [17:30]

CL: Thank you very much, James! [17:32]

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