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Showing posts from February, 2013

Une pensée saussurienne...

...le lendemain du centenaire de la mort de Ferdinand de Saussure.
Le rôle caractéristique de la langue vis-à-vis de la pensée n’est pas de créer un moyen phonique matériel pour l’expression des idées, mais de servir d’intermédiaire entre la pensée et le son, dans des conditions telles que leur union aboutit nécessairement à des délimitations réciproques d’unités. La pensée, chaotique de sa nature, est forcée de se préciser en se décomposant.--Cours de linguistique générale, p. 156

Today in Language: Ferdinand de Saussure

It is hardly exaggeration to call Ferdinand de Saussure the father of modern linguistics. He was influenced by many predecessors (i.e., he didn't invent linguistics, or even some of his key concepts). He was made known by his students (without whom he may not even have been published), chiefly Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, important linguists in their own right. Yet Saussure serves well as both a marker in linguistic history as well as an original thinker.

The most significant aspect of Saussure's structuralism, as laid out in his Cours de linguistique générale, are the linguistic pairs he introduced. Study of language would focus on both diachronic and synchronic analyses. Significant layers of human language would begin to unfold with the differentiation between langue and parole. And the distinction between signifier and signified in the linguistic sign would enrich and nuance studies from morphology to phonology, not to mention open pathways to new linguistic subdisci…

A Saussurean Thought...

...on the eve of the centennial of Ferdinand de Saussure's death. The characteristic role of language in relation to thought is not to create a material phonic means for the expression of ideas, but to serve as an intermediary between thought and sound, in such conditions that their union necessarily leads to reciprocal delimitations of [linguistic] unities. Thought, chaotic in its nature, is forced to clarify itself in breaking itself down.
--Cours de linguistique générale, p. 156

Today in Language: Molière

Un certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, ou Molière si vous voulez, est mort à Paris le 17 février 1673. La fontaine Molière, au carrefour de la Rue Molière et la Rue Richelieu, n'est qu'un de la multitude de souvenirs du dramaturge français le plus célèbre.

A certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière as you may have heard him called, died in Paris on February 17, 1673. The Fontaine Molière, right in the heart of Paris and a couple of blocks from the Coméide Française that owes much to France's most famous playwright, is just one of many historical traces of Molière in the City of Lights.

Book Review: The Greater Journey

A superb departure gift from a cousin as my family and I moved to France last year, The Greater Journey by David McCullough fulfills for me several roles:
pleasure reading (in the midst of an overwhelming amount of other reading in contemporary French literature, postcolonial theory, and linguistics and pedagogy)information on historical Parisinformation on my cultural past (both French and American), particularly in regard to influential Americans (Samuel Morse, Emma Willard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper) and how they benefited from time they spent living in Paris. (Hey, like me!)I am thinking of writing an extended chapter-by-chapter review of this superb book by a superb storyteller of the past (he's not of the past, but recounts the past). In the meantime let me give two reasons to read this book (and none not to read, so far as I can tell): You are an American moving to Paris (or any nationality moving to any other country) for a time and will both discover more…

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study in Academia

The previous twoposts on linguistic kindness and sanity focused on case studies from politics. An area that, for its public nature and its public "wordiness" and its strong emotions, is highly susceptible to linguistic unkindness and linguistic insanity. Today we turn to a case study from a very different domain, one inhabited by folks who really should "know better": academia.

The Story
It is not exactly a story, more of an example. Alan Jacobs, who has written many fascinating books, is a professor of English. In December of last year, on his blog The American Conservative, he wrote the following regarding the word extrovert (or extravert, if you prefer): "FYI, [extravert is] the proper spelling: extrovert is common but wrong, because extra- is the proper Latin prefix."

Linguistic Sanity
Those of us who study and teach language have to call each other out at times: what Jacobs wrote is wrong. The only accurate part of the sentence is that "extrovert is…

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 2 in Politics

The last post discussed the urban legend surrounding President Kennedy's 1963 Berlin speech, a case study that revealed a potential lack of both linguistic kindness and sanity in the way it has been misused.

By contrast, the linguistic sanity of today's case study (i.e., the linguistic point that teachers and translators will draw from a mistake) is indisputable. We can learn much, however, about linguistic kindness.

The Story
At the beginning of the Obama administration, like at the beginning of every administration, everything was fresh and everyone was looking for change and renewal. Specifically in the area of foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Russia and conveyed to her Russian counterpart that the U.S. wanted to "reset" the relationship. She gave him a gift of a mock reset button that said "reset" in Russian. The problem, however, is that the Russian word chosen to print on the button actually means "overcharged."

Highly …

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 1 in Politics

If you know the following story, just pretend that you don't and that you are hearing a language teacher tell it for the first time to make a humorous point about mistakes we make when learning languages. We'll analyze the story and the humor afterwards.

The Story
President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 and gave a speech to express solidarity with the people of West Berlin (and thus express America's foreign policy against the Soviet Union). He said one sentence in German because, of course, it always comes across well if you say a little something in your audience's natural language. He said, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Translation: I am a Berliner -- right? Well, actually, a Berliner is a specific type of German pastry, meaning that the president actually said, "I am a jelly donut." Whoops! Ha ha!
Analysis: The Story I am no expert on this story, much less the Kennedy presidency or the Cold War. You can read a thorough account of the speech and c…

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity in 2013...

. . . and beyond.

But if we can have just the last 11 months this year with basic linguistic kindness and sanity, that would be a great start! Those who work in academics, and particularly the humanities perhaps, do not have an immediate impact on the major, visible problems of evil in the world (greed, idolatry, violence, poverty, oppression). But improving how we think about, say, language does change how we think about others and then ultimately how we treat them. A trickle-down effect if you will.

Linguistic Kindness
So how do we think kindly about others' usage of language? I would argue that it starts with humility. Regardless of how much we know about language in comparison to someone else, we do not allow ourselves to think less of them when they use language or say things about language (metalinguistics) that we disagree with or even know to be patently wrong.

Linguistic Sanity
At the same time, we must insist that none of us knows as much about language, or anything else, as …