Podcast episode 24: Interview with Lorenzo Cigana on the Copenhagen Circle

In this interview, we talk to Lorenzo Cigana about Louis Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle.

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References for Episode 24

Primary Sources

‘Travail collectif du Cercle linguistique de Copenhague’, in Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Linguists, Paris, Klincksieck, 1949, pp. 126–135.

Bulletins du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague, 1–7 (1931–1940)

Bulletin du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague 1941–1965 (8–31). Choix de communications et d’interventions au débat lors des séances tenues entre septembre 1941 et mai 1965, Copenhague, Akademisk Forlag.

Rapport sur l’activité du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague 1931–1951, Copenhague, Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag, 1951

Diderichsen, Paul (1960), Rasmus Rask og den grammatiske tradition: Studier over vendepunktet i sprogvidenskabens historie, København: Munskgaard.

Hjelmslev, Louis (1931–1935), Rasmus Rask. Udvalgte Afhandlinger udgivet paa Bekostning af Rask-ørsted Fondet i Hundredaaret for Rasks Død paa Foranledning af Vilhelm Thomsen af Det danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab ved Louis Hjelmslev med inledning af Holger Petersen. Bind 1–3, København, Levin & Munksgaards Forlag.

Holt, Jens (1946), Rationel semantik (pleremik), København: Munskgaard.

Jespersen, Otto (1913), Sprogets logik (The Logic of Language’), København, J.H. Schultz.

Jespersen, Otto (1918), Rasmus Rask: i hundredåret efter hans hovedvaerk, Kjøbenhavn, Gyldendal.

Jespersen, Otto (1924), Philosophy of Grammar, London, G. Allen and Unwin.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916), Cours de linguistique générale, Payot, Paris.

Togeby, Knud (1951), Structure immanente de la langue française, Copenhagen, Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag.

Secondary Sources

Gregersen, Frans and Viggo Bank Jensen (forthcoming). Worlds apart? Roman Jakobson and Louis Hjelmslev. History of a competitive friendship, in Lorenzo Cigana and Frans Gregersen (eds.), Studies in Structuralism.

Harder, Peter (forthcoming). Functionalism from Martinet to Dik, Croft and Danish Functional Lin-guistics, in Lorenzo Cigana and Frans Gregersen (eds.), Studies in Structuralism.

Margaret Thomas (2019). Formalism and Functionalism in Linguistics. The engineer and the collector. London: Routledge.

Rasmussen, Michael (1987). ‘Hjelmslev et Brøndal. Rapport sur un différend’, Langages 86: 41–58.

Ducrot, Oswald (1968). Le structuralisme en linguistique. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

‘Infrastructuralism’ Project, University of Aarhus: https://cc.au.dk/infrastrukturalisme/om-projekt-infrastrukturalisme/

Transcript by Luca Dinu

JMc: Hi, [00:11] I’m James McElvenny, and you’re listening to the History and Philosophy of the Languages Sciences Podcast, online at hiphilangsci.net. [00:19] There you can find links and references to all the literature we discuss. [00:23] Here at Hiphilangsci, our bags were packed and we were about to board the White Star Line steamship for New York when an urgent telegram arrived with a request to cover one more topic in Europe. [00:36] We very much welcome this level of engagement on the part of our audience and would like to oblige the request. [00:42] So now we offer a previously unplanned episode on Louis Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle. [00:50] To guide us through this topic, we’re joined by Lorenzo Cigana, who is a researcher in the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen and currently undertaking a major project on the history of the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle. [01:07] So, Lorenzo, to get us started, can you tell us, what was the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle? [01:14] When was it around, who were the main figures involved, and what sort of scholarship did they pursue? [01:21]

LC: Yeah, hello, James. [01:24] First of all, thanks for having invited me to this chat, and a good morning to all the colleagues and friends out there. [01:30] Well, I guess the best way to put it is to say that the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle was among the most important and active centres in 20th-century linguistic structuralism and language sciences, along with, of course, the circle of Paris, Geneva, Prague and, on the other side of the ocean, New York. [01:49] It has been referred to also as the Copenhagen School, but the suitability of this label is somewhat debatable. [01:56] We will return later, maybe, to this topic. [02:00] Not just the existence of the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle, but its very structure, was actually tied to the structure of those similar organizations [02:09]. [02:10] It was founded by Louis Hjelmslev and Viggo Brøndal on the 24th of September, 1931. [02:17] That’s almost exactly one month after the Second International Congress of Linguists, which was held between the 25th and the 29th of August, 1931, in Geneva, a city that, of course, had a symbolic value since it was the city in which Ferdinand de Saussure was born. [02:34] And actually, if you check the pictures that were taken back then during that meeting, during that congress, you can see a lovely, merry company of linguists all queuing to visit Ferdinand de Saussure’s mansion on the brink of the old part of the city, which is very nice. [02:51] The Copenhagen Linguistic Circle also printed two series of proceedings, so we had Bulletins, the Bulletin du Cercle linguistique de Copenhague, and the other was the Travaux, Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Copenhague, which was a way to match what the Société linguistique de Paris and the Linguistic Circle of Prague had already been doing at that time. [03:15] What about the internal organization, you asked? [03:18] So the circle was divided into scientific committees, each of them devoted to the discussion of specific topics, so we had a glossematic committee, for instance, which was formed by Hjelmslev and Hans Jørgen Uldall, and tasked to develop the theory called glossematics. [03:36] Then there was a phonematics committee devoted to phonological analysis, and a grammatical committee which was focused on general grammar and morphology, which had a strong momentum. [03:50] Now, you might have the impression to see here Louis Hjelmslev’s imprinting, so to speak, and you would be right. [03:55] Louis Hjelmslev surely was the leading figure. [03:59] He was in many senses the engine behind the circle’s activity, something he was actually called out for in the following years. [04:07] At first, Hjelmslev got along very well with the other founder, Viggo Brøndal. [04:13] Hjelmslev was a comparative linguist and an Indo-Europeanist, while Viggo Brøndal was a Romanian [in the sense of ‘Romance’] philologist and philosopher, so they did complement each other. [04:23] Moreover, they both were the descendants, so to speak, of two important academic traditions, and this is something I really want to stress, as in fact it is important to keep in mind that the circle didn’t come out of the blue. [04:38] The sprout had deep roots. [04:41] Hjelmslev, for instance, had been a student of Otto Jespersen and Holger Pedersen. [04:47] Now, the first, Otto Jespersen, was an internationally renowned and influential linguist back then. [04:53] He was said to be one of the greatest language scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, and his research was focused on grammar and the English language. [05:03] He wrote a number of important works in syntax, like the theory of the three ranks, or more far-reaching contributions significantly called ‘The Logic of Language’ (Sprogets logik) in 1913 (if I’m not wrong) and also Philosophy of Grammar in 1924, which coincidentally is what I like to call my domain of research, philosophy of grammar. [05:26] Holger Pedersen, in turn, was a pure Indo-Europeanist and was in the same generation of Vilhelm Thomsen, Karl Verner, who is often mistakenly taken as German, and Hermann Möller was corresponding with Ferdinand de Saussure and offered his version of the laryngeal theory. [05:43] So although in being less interested in general linguistics, Pedersen worked on Albanian, Celtic, Tocharian, and Hittite, and [05:52] also in the existence of a Nostratic macro-family, for example, linking the Indo-European family to others, like Finno-Ugric and Altaic. [06:02] And if we focus on Viggo Brøndal, what about his background? [06:06] Well, he was a pupil of Harald Høffding, one of the most important Danish philosophers, who worked extensively on the notion of analogy and analogical thinking, which was a topic of great momentum in the epistemology of that time. [06:21] Moreover, he read and commented on the Course in General Linguistics, the Cours de linguistique générale of Saussure, as soon as it was published, and was particularly receptive to all that came from Wilhelm von Humboldt, Gottfried Leibniz, and from the phenomenological tradition of Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl. [06:41] However, if we push our gaze even more backwards, we see that all these figures we have just mentioned — Jespersen, Høffding, and Pedersen — were in turn standing on the shoulders of other giants, so to speak, and in fact, they all had knowledge, in a way or another, of the work of their predecessors, notably Johan Madvig and Rasmus Rask, who both lived in the early 19th century. [07:08] So let us just focus on Rask, who is rightly considered as the pioneer or the founding father of multiple linguistic disciplines, like Indo-Europeanistics and Iranian philology, among others. [07:20] So Rask didn’t just give relevant factual contributions to language comparison, but also insightful theoretical and methodological considerations, and these considerations can especially be found in his lectures on the philosophy of language and were especially dear to Louis Hjelmslev. [07:38] And then, Louis Hjelmslev saw an anticipation of his own approach, and no wonder why. [07:45] Rask distinguished between two complementary stances in linguistics. [07:48] So we have the mechanical perspective, which provides a collection of facts, and a philosophical perspective on the other side, which tries to find the system or the link between all these facts, and adopting Rask’s own analogy, the mechanical view deals with the process of making colours, [08:08] for example, with the preparation of the frames and all the different stances required to paint a nice portrait, but only the philosophical perspective deals with the process of painting and the portrait themselves. [08:22] So this is quite important to keep in mind. [08:25] So why I decided to give this glimpse on the background of the circle is because it is important to, again, keep in mind that the influence of those figures lingered on, so they were still present in the mind of the circle’s members as a tradition they all came from. [08:43] Rask in particular was dear to many linguists of the Copenhagen School. [08:47] Jespersen wrote a biography of Rask, Hjelmslev collected his diaries and tried to make him a structuralist ante litteram, Diderichsen tried to reframe Hjelmslev’s own interpretations. [08:58] So it was on such fertile ground that the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle built its own scholarship. [09:06] And let us come now to the Copenhagen School itself. [09:11] So you asked, James, who their members were and what kind of output they had. [09:16] Well, despite the claim that each member built his own tradition, there were indeed some shared guidelines, and glossematics being one of them, possibly the most important back then. [09:29] The work of building this new theory, glossematics, was carried out mostly by, of course, Louis Hjelmslev and his friend and colleague Hans Jørgen Uldall, who joined his project in 1934, yeah. [09:44] Now, we have already spoken of Louis Hjelmslev, but very little is known about Hans Jørgen Uldall, who was a remarkable figure in his own right. [09:51] He was first and foremost a very talented phonetician and collaborated with Daniel Jones, who was arguably the greatest British phonetician of the 20th century. [10:00] Uldall’s phonetic transcriptions were also known as extremely precise, and yet he was also trained as [10:08] a field anthropologist, so another interesting aspect of his life. [10:12] He travelled all across America, especially around California, carrying out research for Franz Boas. [10:19] This gave him an incredible background that complemented so well Louis Hjelmslev’s own strong comparativist and epistemological views, and of their collaboration during the ’30s, it was reported that they couldn’t say where someone’s idea finished and the other started. [10:35] And this is, I really believe this is such a brilliant and comforting example of collaboration between two scholars. [10:42] But of course, there were also other members. [10:45] So if you take the proceedings, the 6th International Congress of Linguists, for example, that was held in Paris in 1949, you can find a nice summary of the activity of the Copenhagen Circle since its very foundation, and it’s a very nice summary indeed also because it gives you a clear idea about how the circle understood itself, rather, how it wanted to present itself to the audience, and this meant roughly: “We deal [11:14] with general grammar and morphology over everything else.” [11:18] So Hjelmslev worked on the internal structure of morphological categories: case, pronouns, pronouns, articles, and so forth. [11:28] Brøndal, too, in a way, and he was trying to describe the structural nature of such systems and their variability as two complementary aspects connected to logical levels [11:39] of semantic nature. [11:41] But then there were also Paul Diderichsen, Knud Togeby, Jens Holt, and Hans Christian Sørensen, four fascinating figures. [11:51] So if we take Knud Togeby, he’s probably the best-known of these four, at least beyond the borders of Denmark. [12:00] He wrote La structure immanente de la langue française in 1951, a sort of a compendium in which he described French in all its layers, from grammar to phonology, and was harshly criticized by Martinet. [12:14] And now, if you pay attention to the way he used the very term ‘immanent’, structure immanente de la langue française, you’ll recognize, I mean, I guess, the imprinting of Hjelmslev, because Hjelmslev was stressing, right, the need of something of an immanent description. [12:31] Paul Diderichsen was originally a pupil of Brøndal, and later became a follower of Hjelmslev. [12:38] He is mostly known for having developed the so-called fields theory, which is basically a valency model for syntax that works particularly well for Germanic languages and that played a big role in how Danish was thought [12:52] and still is nowadays. [12:54] He also developed what he called graphematics, which means a description of written language that could be compatible with the framework of glossematics, since it was based on graphemes conceived as formal units. [13:08] However, Diderichsen became frustrated with it and cast it aside. [13:14] And then we have Jens Holt and Hans Christian Sørensen, two figures that I personally feel very much related to. [13:21] They were both specialists of Slavic languages. [13:25] They both struggled with Hjelmslev’s theory and tried to apply it to the morphological category of aspect, and they both ended up in reworking some points of Hjelmslev’s theory in their own way. [13:39] For instance, Jens Holt in particular tried to develop his own rational semantics, and here again we find this weird urge to qualify a theory as rational, right? Something which is quite telling. [13:51] And he called his model ‘pleremics’ — that is, investigation of content entities in plain reference with glossematics, as glossematics itself was indeed its natural framework. [14:05] And finally, we should mention Eli-Fischer Jørgensen, who cannot be left out of the picture. [14:10] We can think of her as the Danish version of Lady Welby, the glue of the circle. [14:16] She corresponded with the most important figures of linguistics and phonetics at that time, and had a life-long correspondence with Roman Jakobson. [14:25] She began her studies in syntax but found it too philosophic a home, so she decided to change, landing on phonology and phonetics instead. [14:35] Now, despite the consonances between the members, and despite their ties to Hjelmslev, no school was established, no consistent tradition. [14:45] They were tapping Louis Hjelmslev’s ideas, all right [14:47], but according to their own needs, as glossematics was the most consistent theory discussed back then. [14:53] Yet because, or perhaps thanks to, the different backgrounds and stances, they could keep a consistent general framework, and that must have been of some discomfort to Hjelmslev himself later on. [15:08]

JMc: How did the Copenhagen Circle relate to other linguistic schools active at this time, in particular the Prague Linguistic Circle, which we’ve heard quite a bit about in this podcast, mostly in episodes 15 and 21? [15:21]

LC: Yeah. [15:22] Well, in order to answer your second question, we will use the strategy that was developed by Homer in the Illiad. [15:28] You know, painting in poetic terms the clash between two whole armies is a hell of a job. [15:32] The escamotage was then to describe the war between the two armies, the Greeks and the Trojans, by collapsing the armies into champions, [15:41] right? So instead of having complicated, confused war scenes, we have battle scenes between two champions. [15:48] This is what I would like to do here, because it’s actually… I wouldn’t call it a war, but a conflict, in a way. [15:56] That was really what happened back then. [15:58] So the Prague Circle and the Copenhagen Circle had overall a relationship that could be called a friendly competition, or rather competitive friendship, [16:07] right? I mean, not that this kind of relationship characterized the attitude of every single member, but if we boil it down to the relationship between our main actors or champions, so to speak (so Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Serge Karcevskij, Viggo Brøndal and Louis Hjelmslev), the label, I guess, can be pretty accurate. [16:29] So let us take, for instance, what happened at the Second Congress of Phonetic Sciences in London in 1935. [16:35] The backstory for it is that they had all met themselves at the first congress of linguists in the Hague in 1928, so they knew each other. [16:46] Then around 1932, Jakobson – or rather, the Prague Circle – would write to Hjelmslev asking, “Wouldn’t you be interested in providing a phonological description of modern Danish?” [16:59] To which Hjelmslev answered, “Yeah, I can do that.” [17:03] Then two years passed, Hjelmslev met Uldall, they discovered that both the content and the expression side of language (roughly, the signifier and the signified) could be described in parallel, so their approach changed somewhat, and in 1934, Hjelmslev wrote to Uldall saying, “You know what? We are not going to give what Jakobson asked us for. We are going to give our own talks, putting forward our own theory,” that back then was phonematics. [17:34] “Let us show them that we are a battalion, that we, wir marschieren.” [17:39] That was the word used. [17:41] And this, I mind you, at the very heart of phonetic conference and at the very same session in which Trubetzkoy was speaking: it must have been disruptive. [17:50] It must have looked like a sort of a declaration of war, and indeed, it was understood as such, as Trubetzkoy himself wrote to Jakobson wondering about Hjelmslev being a friend to the phonological cause or rather an enemy. [18:04] And as you know, in the past, we were probably a little bit too keen in considering this kind of competition on a personal level, as if between Trubetzkoy and Hjelmslev there was a personal animosity or rancour. [18:17] I personally don’t think so. [18:19] I do believe that scientific contrasts were felt in a very serious way, as back then there was indeed a need to gauge [18:27] one’s contribution to a common cause, and in this case, the common cause was the building of a new discipline: structural linguistics. [18:34] And indeed, starting from 1935, Hjelmslev and Uldall put a lot of effort into disseminating their view, stressing the fact that it was complementary and not identical to the one that the Circle of Prague was developing. [18:49] Hence, for instance, the stress that Hjelmslev put on the fact that the investigation in phonology should focus on the possible pronunciations of linguistic elements and not at all be limited to the concrete or the factual pronunciation. [19:02] Their view on language was becoming larger and larger, and coincidentally, their frustration grew too. [19:09] In the same years, so around ’35, ’36, Hjelmslev was invited by Alan Ross to hold some lectures on his new science in Leeds in Great Britain, and after having touched upon the rather skeptical attitude in the audience, Hjelmslev wrote back to Uldall saying, “No one seems to understand what we are trying to do. [19:29] They all want old traditional neo-grammarian phonetics. [19:32] Oh, Uldall, I really want to go back to the continent.” [19:36] So a theoretically rich ground for confrontation was of course the theory of distinctive features, or mérisme, as Benveniste would have called them, and Prague was keen in analyzing a phoneme into smaller features of a phonetic nature, of course, while for Hjelmslev, this procedure was too hasty. [19:55] If phonemes are of abstract, formal nature, they should be analysed further into formal elements rather than straight into phonetic oppositions. [20:04] Such basic formal elements were called glossemes and represent the very goal of glossematics, the science of glossemes. [20:10] And then there was, of course, the aspect of markedness and binarism. [20:14] This is the idea which Jakobson stubbornly maintained throughout his life that distinctive features always occur in pairs defined by logical opposition [20:23], an idea that Hjelmslev never endorsed and actually actively fought. [20:28] So overall, I think one could say that the relationship between these approaches – Prague and Copenhagen, Paris – was twofold. [20:37] Viewed from the outside, they gave the idea of being a uniform approach, a single front opposed to the one of traditional grammar or traditional linguistics of the past, [20:47] right? So they were trying to build what Hjelmslev hoped for, a new classicism. [20:52] However, viewed from the inside, if we increase, so to speak, the focus of our lens, we begin to notice massive differences that might appear a matter of detail, but that are quite significant in themselves. [21:06] So we have, at the same time, unity and diversity, a key [21:10] aspect that need to be taken into account simultaneously if you want to give an accurate picture of what happened in structural linguistics back then. [21:19]

JMc: What became of the Copenhagen Circle? [21:22] Did it continue over several generations, or does it have a contained, closed history with a clear endpoint? [21:28] What lasting effects did the scholarship of the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle have on linguistics? [21:34]

LC: Well, the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle is still alive and kicking, actually. [21:40] It has changed somewhat direction, that for sure, and we may say that the structural approach or the structural generation has flowed naturally into the new generation, which is called the functional one. [21:55] But this would be to oversimplify the state of affairs. [21:59] I do believe the flow from one generation to the other wasn’t a simple transmission of approaches, methods, and ideas. [22:06] The modern approach, the functional one, understands itself of course in some continuity with a broad framework of structuralism, even of glossematics. [22:17] Yet in many respects, it was also a matter of reacting – right? – against the purely formal stance that glossematic structuralism represented in Copenhagen, as well as with Hjelmslev’s somewhat cumbersome figure not just in scholarship and intellectual activity, but also in academic bureaucracy, by the way. [22:42] So this is interesting. [22:44] And it is, after all, a game of positions – right? – of theoretical postures. [22:49] Some of them can be seen as interpretation or explanations of previous positions. [22:55] Others are original claims that are not necessarily linked with the previous theories. [23:00] So Danish functionalism, first, I would like to say that it has nothing to do, of course, with the trend in Danish architecture. [23:07] Functionalism in linguistics can be seen as sort of a combination of insights coming from structural framework, all right, with some ideas already fitting the [23:16] subject and that were developed later on, especially by Simon Dik in Amsterdam, and also with some ideas coming from cognitivism. [23:27] And at the very core of Danish functionalism, [23:31] even if it may be trivial to record here, is the attention given to how linguistic elements are used in given contexts. [23:39] So in functionalism, it’s how they function, or what is functional in such a context. [23:46] Function thus has nothing to do with relation, which was how the term was adopted by Hjelmslev, [23:53] right? So here we have a first sort of a distinction. [23:56] Function in terms of relation was what linguistic structuralism and Hjelmslev’s structuralism wanted to use. [24:05] In the new context of functionalism, ‘function’ is rather interpreted as a role, and it is strongly tied to the idea of language as a communicative tool. [24:18] And now, this is very interesting, because such a definition may appear so obvious and trivial, right? Language as communication. [24:28] But actually, this is not. [24:29] After all, this was not how language was conceived in other structural contexts by Hjelmslev, for instance. [24:36] For Hjelmslev, the point was not communication, but formation or articulation, so language is less a way to communicate than a tool to articulate meanings in relation to expressions and vice versa. [24:49] It’s also a way to represent subjectivity as such, a position that was explained so well by Oswald Ducrot, for instance. [24:58] So claiming that language serves to communicate can be seen as a position that was held in reaction to what a certain structural tradition was trying to do, and this entails some other theoretical consequence, like how expression and content (so signifier and signified) were interpreted and are interpreted nowadays, a cascade of differences and of conceptual claims that may seem a matter of details, once again, but which we need to be aware of. [25:27] And I cannot elaborate this further without entering into details, but let me just say that these differences are not purely terminological. [25:35] How function and form are defined in linguistics nowadays is not how function and form were defined back then, so we cannot assume these concepts are universal, or trivial, or commonsensical. [25:49] Not at all. [25:51] The task of a language scientist is also to draw attention to these epistemological stances, since they have a deep influence on his or her work, and this is, I think, the best way to understand our job, too, and a nice way to actualize what Saussure felt himself – right? – about the urge to show what linguists are doing while doing their own job. [26:13] And this is why I don’t particularly like the label of ‘historiography of linguistics.’ [26:18] I do prefer something like ‘comparative epistemology’ because this is actually what we do. [26:24] So I hope to have answered your question, James. [26:27] Thank you once again, and see you next time. [26:30]

JMc: Yeah, that was great. [26:33] Thanks very much. [26:33]

LC: Thanks. [26:34]

JMc: That was excellent. [26:34]

LC: Thanks. [26:34]

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