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“It ain’t Necessarily So”: In the Globalisation of Linguistic Theories a Valid Issue?

Henri Le Prieult
p. 117-133


Dans cet article, je souhaite montrer que faire l’histoire des idées revient à rapprocher des points de vue, engage à ne pas aborder l’histoire de la linguistique sans précautions. L’augmentation exponentielle des sources, le bourgeonnement des médias, la citoyenneté numérique et ses limites, l’ouverture de l’arène scientifique à toutes les traditions et les cultures, les entraves à la gestion des données, sont autant de facteurs qui provoquent la confusion, conduisent à ce que la simplification soit érigée en vertu ou à ce que soient oubliées des pentes douces et les ruptures tranquilles. A travers trois exemples de ce qu’il pourrait être utile de nommer la « globalisation » des idées linguistiques (Port-Royal et son influence, le débat sur l’origine des structuralismes et la traduction de concepts nés dans une autre langue, le français dans le cas des théories de l’énonciation), je propose quelques repères méthodologiques destinés à un meilleur usage et une intégration harmonieuse de l’histoire des idées aux débats contemporains de la linguistique.

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There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
Eccl. I-11

1. “Dey tell all you chillum / De debble’s a villun”

  • 1 Voegelins (1963) apparently coined the term (according to Harris 1993: 268) and Hymes & Fought (198 (...)

1Until the end of time, writing the history of ideas may well come down to expressing standpoints, or to holding “stances” as our North-American counterparts would say.1 The first reason for this may simply lie in the irreducible narrative nature of historiography: when one tackles the history of linguistics, as of any other discipline, one is bound to follow and accept the modus operandi of storytelling. In doing so, one is bound to select a beginning, identify an aim, define an end, one is restricted to the flow of language itself, which leaves little room for the representation of simultaneous phenomena, of criss-cross theoretical paths, let alone theoretical inconclusiveness. Yet, as Sylvain Auroux (1994) states:

  • 2 My translation. On the last assumption, see Veyne (1971) and Danto (1985).

Whatever the historicisation ofdiversity may be, writing a history [of ideas] comes down to homogenizing the diverse. Any historical work consists in projecting facts into some hyper-space essentially composed of three dimensions: a universal chronology, a geography, and a set of themes. […] The historical goal can be considered to be reached when a state of order is built up, when a theme is selected and a succession of events is reconstructed, mainly on causal grounds, which all comes down to writing a plot or a narrative.2 (p. 20)

  • 3 Bearing in mind that according to set standards, only the victors used to write histories.
  • 4 What Foucault calls “des histoires à pente faible” (1969, 10)—gently sloping history.

2In some way or another the historiographer must admit to being both the slave and the challenger of storytelling. He must accept to produce a historical and narrative construct, objectively structured according to given paradigms such as centuries, disputes and schools, while remaining open and sensitive to overlaps, misinterpretations, myths and manipulations.3 This is not easier in our times than it used to be in earlier centuries, if not eras. Periodisation still cannot be separated from valuative premises (Hymes and Fought, 1982: 233). The exponential rise of material sources, the swarming of media, the new and apparently controlled citizenship of the Internet, the opening up of the intellectual arena to men and women of multifarious cultures and traditions, the sore difficulty of sorting and classifying data, all contribute to confusion, to simplification assumed as a virtue, to forgiveness of slight continuities and discontinuities,4 to what I may be allowed to call a certain form of globalisation of ideas. Yet history tends to prove that it ain’t necessarily so, even though the Book preaches that “there is no new thing under the sun”.

3What I intend to do here is merely to give a few methodological landmarks for the interpretation and proper integration of the history of ideas to the contemporary linguistic debates. I am not entitled to promote any particular theoretical frame—is anyone? What 1 want is only to encourage the readers of histories of linguistics to doubt, to question set postulates, to challenge and integrate the relativity, the complexity of human thought. Set in three voluntarily yet relatively distant periods, three instances of what may be the same prototypic symptom of historiography, trial and betrayal, will be proposed for scrutiny. If I do not doubt that such a postulate will not surprise the wisest readers, I hope it will give some food for thought to some linguists and non-linguists who tend to be overburdened by data, and who do not always spend the necessary amount of time browsing over (and remembering) our common heritage. My intention here may be defined as a wish to retrieve and assemble data that are shared unevenly in informed circles, and which, I hope, may come as a stimulus to open spirits, and furthermore help some others to open up to historical matters.

4If my catch-phrase in the following few pages is overtly “it ain’t necessarily so”, it is because I am deeply convinced that this is the simple lesson of history, because heuristics should never be pre-defined, because there must be conflicting and adverse ideas, because I’m satisfied with the notion that history makes us wiser and because I want to share this assumption.

2. “Methus’lah lived nine hundred years”

5The Grammaire générale et raisonnée by Arnauld and Lancelot (1660), together with La logique ou l’art de penser by Arnauld and Nicole (1662), can be taken as an adequate first foray into the complexity and relativity of thought transmission. First of all because its authors had a most paradoxical status in the French society of the time. They are still acknowledged, favoured, credited with a long-lasting influence over western thought although they were members of an outcast community, largely stigmatized as Jansenists and heretics. They were plainly isolated in a centralized state already endowed with an Academy which was supposed to produce the official thought, and which actually designed the bulk of the mainstream grammars of the time. They were as well persecuted because of their religious opinions: jansenism being considered a heresy even if Jesuits did not completely disregard their works and even studied them. Secondly, the Port-Royal case-study is a good test for the point I am trying to make because the works of the “Messieurs de Port-Royal” is a perfect example of the difficulties of the definition of an intellectual contribution to a specific domain of thought. How come it can still be read and discussed? Is it because of its influence, because of the status of its authors, because of some kind of newness that was immediately acknowledged? Did time take its toll?

6It has at least to be admitted that this powerful and profoundly original work, as it is still described, is presented by modern critics (Dominici 1984, Chevalier 2006) as stitching and reassembling postulates that were very largely present in the preceding decades, if not centuries. Their effort to offer a new method to the science of language was indeed already inaugurated by Ramus in previous centuries, if not by Descartes himself around 1637. The Modisti themselves had elaborated and promoted a profound restructuring of the reflection on language down to the great theoreticians of the 16th century (Scaliger, Sanctius, and again Ramus). The pedagogical experiments that took place in the “Petites Écoles” of the Port-Royal abbey also find roots in a general European trend towards rationalization of teaching procedures.

7What is again most paradoxical is that the long celebrated and praised, if not plundered, Port-Royal Grammar is commonly borrowed from for its conventional ideas. It is plagiarized when it simplifies things. Most often, the Grammar is misunderstood, when not corrected and thus deeply altered. Hence, most commentators would be wiser to mention Port-Royal’s spirit rather than its literal purpose. Strictly speaking, it is widely acknowledged that no one before Du Marsais, in his Méthode raisonnée pour apprendre la langue latine (1722), nearly fifty years later, paid real pedagogical as well as theoretical tribute to Arnauld, Lancelot and Nicole. Around the same period, the Grammaire is quoted in 28 of the grammatical entries of Diderot’s Encyclopédie whose authors happened to be Du Marsais and Bauzée.

8Much later, Michel Foucault himself was ill-advised when he accused Arnauld and Lancelot of generalizing only from two languages (namely, French and Latin, with sparse reference to Greek, Hebrew and Italian), thus undermining Arnauld and Lancelot’s surmises as non empirical. Foucault, in his preface to the 1969 edition of the Grammaire générale et raisonnée (p. ix), grossly underestimated the fact that Port-Royal took full advantage of a century long experimental movement which cultivated the comparison between languages, a movement directly related to the Renaissance counter-attack towards the generalizing “follies” of the Modisti, who indeed considered Latin as the sole food for thought, and a very artificial Latin at that stage. In a renewed landscape, teeming with vernacular languages, the Renaissance thinkers opposed usus (usage) to the latinist tradition and often took the risk of becoming mere lexicographers. Scaliger’s De Causis Linguae Latinae (1540), then Sanctius and his Minerva (1587—read by Lancelot for his second edition of the Méthode latine in 1650), and even Scoppius’s Grammatica Philosophica (1628—which reduced Sanctius’s 600 rules for Latin to 12) have all contributed to the discovery of the underlying ratio beneath the diversity of languages. They no longer accepted to solely state, prescribe or describe: they were looking for explanations. Hence, simplifying the description and determining the deeper patterns of natural languages were the assumed ends of the “Messieurs de Port-Royal”, which led to turning upside-down the premises of language study. Until the Renaissance the complexity and the abundance of data offered by a given language was a token of the richness of the thought it could transmit. But front then on it was the opposite. One has only to read the last sentence of the Grammaire générale et raisonnée (“there are hardly any languages which use less figures than our own…”) to be convinced that Pandora’s box had been irrevocably opened.

  • 5 Apart from the puzzling fact that a translation of the Grammaire was published in London in 1753, m (...)

9What of the cross-Channel influence of Port-Royal? It seems that Lane (A Key to the Art of Letters, 1700), who nonetheless admits no particular influence himself (but we must certainly always be wiser than just being confident about any author’s own source admittance), could be seen as the most important propounder of the Port-Royal doctrine in the British Isles. Yet such a statement cannot be sustained without much critical appraisal. Lane’s conventional distinction between noun and verb can no doubt be traced back to Aristotle’s logical tradition. He certainly took up the differentiation between adjective and substantive which seems to have mainly originated in Port-Royal and which had been “in the air” in Britain in the preceding decades (see Lewis’s Essay 1670, and The True Method 1696, anon.). Yet Lane still pledges much allegiance to Lily’s theory of “signs” and is perceived (Padley 1985) as differing substantially from Port-Royal when he cultivates a much empirical approach to language (the sign representing reality in its sensitive dimensions), whereas Port-Royal had a more mentalist stance (the sign representing mere operations of the mind). No clear substance to be had here, I’m afraid,5 and consequently much research ahead for the new generations.

10But the linguistic debate would not be complete in evoking this episode without mentioning Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics (1966). In a recent paper (2006), I tried to analyse in detail the text of the essay itself which unequivocally resisted the aftermath of the harsh debate that followed its publication (from Aarsleff 1970 and 1971 to Bouveresse 1979). What it does not resist is the minute analysis of its declared historical project. Such an analysis brings to light the overall project of the essay: a systematic deconstruction and disqualification of structural and Post-Bloomfieldian linguistics (“pure mythology” n. 94). This explains why Chomsky willingly admits the historiographical and methodological shortcomings of his essay, finding it “very fragmentary and therefore in some ways […] misleading” (73); why he inadvertently claims the inadequacy of the expression “Cartesian linguistics” itself (2 and n. 3); why he concedes that major figures (Kant) “have not been mentioned or have been inadequately discussed”: in a word, his conclusion undermines completely the official historical purport of the essay, that is the demonstration that generative theories have long lasting and ancient sources. Vaugelas is only summoned to counter Saussure, Jespersen and Bloomfield (54-55). The creativity of language is found in Descartes solely to attack “stimulus-bound” (understand: “Bloomfieldian”) conceptions of language. The essay is just another condemnation of structuralism, and certainly not an historical rigorous study (as Chomsky admits). We are left with another clue concerning the ascendancy quest: it is never straightforward, rarely naive or inconspicuous.

3. “Oh, Jonah, he lived in a whale”

11Which leads us to another instance of source proof-reading: the debate about the origin of structuralism. When one begins to study the origins of structuralism, not only is one prone to refuting the term, at least as a singular form, but moreover, one is confronted to the puzzling intricacies of historiography. What 1 mean is that a trans-border, transnational examination of the definition, main sources, conditions of emergence and development of structuralism leads at least to accept the pluralization of the term and gives a deep insight into the parameters which interfere with the historian’s task.

  • 6 But the Nazis’ troops moved on further towards the west, and Jakobson had to leave Europe to find (...)
  • 7 But the agitation occurring in France starts to arouse some interest outside Europe: in October 19 (...)

12Let us first compare briefly the different accounts which are given of this genuine landmark in linguistic thought, from a national(ist) perspective. When one reads accounts of structuralism, such as Dosse (1992), the French reader may be less dismayed than any English- speaking scholar. From a French institutionally marked vantage point, structuralism is assumed to take its roots in the Saussurean inspiration transmitted to human sciences with the mediation of the Prague School and Hjelmslev from the 1920s on (with a special mention of the 1928 First International Congress of Linguistics in The Hague, and to Greimas’s 1956 paper). Dosse’s text (but I could take the example of Martinet 1953 as well), proves that historiographical representations cannot be but the unconscious result of national stances. Dosse admits that “something was also going on” in the United States at the same period, but only to refer to the brief stay of Jakobson in New York in the forties and his influence on the U.S. developments of the new born (European born, it seems here) structuralism.6 Such an ethnocentered evocation culminates in the building up of the myth of the globalisation of structuralism in the sixties, hardly equivocal,7 although mollified by the admission that this global frame of thought can only be bizarrely designated outside France with the phrase “French Criticism”. Most of the French historiographers (Pavel 1988 and 1989, Amacker 1975, Mounin 1972, to mention only a few) reach the same type of conclusion when it comes to relating the conditions of emergence and development of the structural “school”, sometimes in a very unwise manner. This is the case of Mounin who pretends that since the majority of contemporary linguists made reviews of Saussure’s Cours, it must not have gone unnoticed in spite of the unfavourable context of the First World War. Yet they all misjudged it, he claims, and ignored its true innovative nature (1972, 52). Even so, he pretends that such silence as Bloomfield’s about the Cours as a potential source of inspiration is destined to be suspicious (ibid., 117).

  • 8 These three men were not detached from their antecedents. Boas and Sapir were born in Europe, and (...)

13Although quite difficult to define as such, from a British vantage point, the historiography of structuralism follows its own line (e. g. Robins 1967, Lepschy 1970 and 1986), and tends to give less prominence to Saussure, paying extensive tribute to Sapir, Boas and Bloomfield as the fathers of modern structural linguistic thought, as if to underline their relationships with Europe through their training or their long lasting interests.8 We find here a contrasted vision of history which happens to be unsurprisingly amplified when one examines American historiography. Structuralism there is clearly defined and described as “home grown” (Harris 1993, 19). For him, as for Hall (1951 and 1969), Hymes (1974) or Dinneen and Koerner (1990) Saussure’s influence is judged a limited one, and this in fierce contradiction to their French counterparts. Yet Hymes and Fought (1981) tend to qualify this type of statement, balancing Saussure’s “effective role” with his “symbolic role”, the former being “badly in need for close investigation”, and encouraging a comprehensive study in this field of research:

So far as American structuralism is concerned, serious historiography has barely begun. To be sure, there exists writing that has historical flavor, and even writing that makes claims to historical adequacy, but little of it is based on scholarship. (p. 1)

14Considering these truly diverging historiographical traditions, one is bound to be dismayed and troubled. There seems to appear a set of parameters which take their roots in (a) the general backdrop of common ancestors (Whitney, Baudouin de Courtenay, Humboldt), mainly the influence of the 19th century and its methodology, most of the structural leading figures having spent some time or other in Leipzig or Berlin; (b) the actual impact of two World Wars on the transmission of knowledge across the Atlantic, which has to be questioned as a factor conditioning or not journeys and meetings between people from far off regions, and which must be qualified by a close study of phenomena such as the residence in the United States of European immigrant scholars during the Second World War period, or an assessment of the circulation and translation of the major works of the time; (c) the obvious yet often sadly underdocumented intermingling of generations, and thus the existence of informal influences through specific institutions or reviews; and (d) the clear problem of access to the information about the sources and theoretical influences, in fact the examination of the phenomenon of avowal of heritage (sometimes implicit, sometimes postponed or silenced), the necessary deciphering of reviews, tributes (which should not be taken for granted) and correspondence between scholars. In this dense context, it seems quite clear that the relationships between Europe and the United States suffered radical changes considering the new geo-political background of the first half of the 20th century. Testimony of this can be found in many places, i.e. this famous aphorism by Sapir, which tells a convincing story about the longing for intellectual independence deeply experienced by American scholars:

A linguist who insists on talking about the Latin type of morphology as though it were necessarily a high-water mark of linguistic development is like the zoologist that sees the organic world a huge conspiracy to evolve the race-horse or the Jersey-cow. (Sapir 1921, 124)

  • 9 Letter by Bloomfield to T. Michelson, December 23, 1919: “My models are Pânini and the kind of work (...)
  • 10 “…there is no doubt that European ideas were known and felt within the United States. Boas, Bloomfi (...)
  • 11 Let it be sufficient to quote another letter by Bloomfield (June 3, 1925): “My ignorance must often (...)
  • 12 See De Mauro 1967 for a complete appraisal of the mutual knowledge Saussure and Whitney had of each (...)

15If most of them did not deny their European training,9 or acknowledged frequent contacts with their European colleagues,10 the European tradition was often judged irrelevant, taking into account what was called the “Amerindian imperative” (i. e., the dire strangeness of Amerindian languages as opposed to I.E. ones), and it seemed to be in fashion to be adverse to European heritage or to simply ignore it11 to construct explicitly and pursue an unobtrusive “cultural imperialism” (Harris 1993, 27). Hence the difficulty for the historiographer to proceed to any kind of attempt at collecting traces of intellectual kinship or legacy. Sapir simply does not mention Saussure in his 1921 publication. Is it sufficient to remember that the Cours de linguistique générale was only published in 1916, in the midst of a major armed conflict, and that it was not translated into English before 1959? Gadet 1989 usefully shows how feeble the impact of the Cours was in the years following its publication, bringing a clear contribution to the paradoxical destiny of the text. Yet one cannot be satisfied by believing that there could have been no relationship between the two continents around that period. We know, for instance, that Saussure was contacted at the time of Whitney’s death to contribute to a Memorial Meeting in Philadelphia in 1894, and evidence from his collected notes (Godel 1957, 32 ssq.) proves that he had started writing a paper for this occasion (no less than 70 pages of draft).12

16When it comes to Bloomfield, the situation is much more difficult to decipher. He seems to acknowledge Saussure’s existence only in a marginal way, hence giving little suspicion about any intellectual influence. According to Benveniste “there exists proofs that Bloomfield knew Saussure’s ideas pretty well and was aware of their bearing” (1968, 15). Yet Benveniste does not plainly make out his case and this recently led me to inquire further into the matter out of pure desire to have a clear perception of the genetic relationships between European and American structuralisms, since the plural form seems hardly avoidable. When Bloomfield acknowledges some of his sources, he is content to refer to Meillef s definition about the sentence that he adopts compliantly, as he willingly states his debt to Sapir (1921), as well as to Saussure, who are both described as having taken “steps toward a delimitation of linguistics” (Bloomfield 1926, n. 4). It seems nonetheless that he is deliberately quoting the 1922 edition of the Cours, that is its second edition, which he reviewed in 1923. If we take his letter to Michelson on December 23, 1919 (Hall 1987) as a piece of evidence, it appears that he had only heard about the Cours then, had just ordered it and was “anxious to see it”. Yet how can we come to terms with this statement of ignorance when we have in mind that the man frequently makes no secret of his neglect for references: “I shall omit reference to Boas and reference to theory of women in tribe […] I have cut the reference to Meillet out of my article…” (Letter to Sapir, June 3, 1925, in Hall 1987)? This last avowal seems cruder when we know from another letter to Sapir, where he thanks him for the prospectus of Les langues du monde, that he had ordered Meillet’s book before February 19, 1925. A fact which, if we consider reasonable shipping delays and the war period, informs us that American scholars were particularly watchful and alert about European scholarship. These facts led me to investigate further, deliberately trying to assess the exact time Bloomfield had Saussure’s text in his hands. One will remember that he reviewed its second edition of 1922, not the one he ordered in 1919, but the following one. He explicitly refers to this first edition in a note of his 1923 review of the book, a text where he does justice to “a clear and rigorous demonstration of fundamental principles”, concluding Saussure “has given us the theoretical basis for a science of human speech”. He differentiates himself from Saussure through often quoted statements, but above all he shows, in as short a text, a particularly convincing ability to manipulate the Saussurean stock phrases and vocabulary (“langue”, “parole”, and the famous dichotomy “synchronique” vs. “diachronique”). The second edition of the Cours was published in 1922. One may reasonably think, considering the period, that a few weeks were necessary for the shipping of the book across the Atlantic. Then how is it still possible to believe, as most commentators do, that Bloomfield discovered it in that edition when one comes across this review of Sapir, dated Mars 13, 1922: “One is glad to see, therefore, that Dr. Sapir deals with synchronic matters (to use de Saussure’s terminology) before he deals with diachronic, and gives to the former as much space as to the latter”? This is a review that I feel obliged to quote further on to prove my point and to introduce a little ironic slant and a touch of relativity in this tedious reasoning:

The same concept [“distinctive features”] was developed (independently, I think, by Franz Boas (Handbook […], 16) and by de Saussure (Cours […]). It is a question of no scientific moment, to be sure, but of some external interest, whether Dr. Sapir had at hand, for instance, this last book, which gives a theoretic foundation to the newer trend of linguistic study.

17Some people would call this cheek…

18My case here, as I hope is apparent, is not to bring anyone into disrepute, and not Leonard Bloomfield of all tutelary figures. I simply want to give, by the means of a slightly different approach, some evidence of the complexity of heritage tracing. This would probably lead us to assume the plural form of structuralisms with caution. This should also help us to reject as suspect simple lines of kinship and try to make as minute an observation as possible of cross-influences, beyond or in spite of what I retraced briefly as nationalist historiographies, beyond the multiple layers of the historiographical doxa. There remains some fascinating work for later generations of researchers.

4. “Li’l David was small, but oh my!”

19What about a more recent example of the vicissitudes of the globalisation of ideas in the linguistic realm? One can say, to start with, without any ill-meant intention, that English (and many of its variations) has become the global language of our times. Being objectively, undoubtedly and ungrudgingly so, it may be deemed to become the language of globalised thought. I’m not about to say that only theories originated in English have become necessarily prevailing or appealing. I’m only stating that one cannot dismiss the fact that, for instance, the translation of a given theory, which was designed by speakers of a specific culture, into any other language, be it English or any other—Latin used to have such a status for centuries—poses a number of problems that may impair the theory itself. Pointing at the links between language and thought would obviously need a longer development. Here I only want to venture a few instances of the topicality of this problem in today’s world as seen from a French-speaking vantage point, more specifically from that of the so-called “théories de l’énonciation”, which originated in the mid-sixties in the wake of Breaks, Guillaume’s, Bally’s and Benveniste’s works and which have been blooming in the English departments in France throughout the last three decades of the previous century. Many commentaries have been made about the French “theoretical citadel”, one instance of which was mentioned just above when it came to deal with the historiography of structuralism. Many debates have also tackled the issue of the French “cultural exception”, and admittedly not only in Eurocratic circles.

20When broaching this subject, it is necessary to provide, if not a tentative definition, at least a broad characterization, of the tradition of study of English Grammar by French scholars. I certainly would not take such a risk myself, for two main reasons. First of all because it is a rather difficult, if not an unwise task for an “insider” like myself, having been trained in the 1980s and 1990s by scholars directly linked to several “enunciative” circles. The one who was fed from the horse’s mouth is bound to be less objective, and this is precisely what would be lacking here if we are to keep any kind of historiographical standpoint. Secondly because this is all about recent history and a historiographer is naturally ill-at-ease with such non-deposited sedimentary data. I will then voluntarily resort to the testimony of an “outsider”, R. Salkie, who in a recent paper (2001) tried to contrast the “British tradition of grammatical analysis” with what he himself called “English Grammar in France”.

  • 13 See bibliography at these names for references.

21In this paper Salkie identifies three main influential “frameworks” or “approaches” in France and in some other French-speaking countries and academic centres: (i) psychomechanics developed by G. Guillaume in the early 20th century and applied to English by Joly and O’Kelly, (ii) la théorie des opérations énonciatives developed by Culioli and his colleagues (Bouscaren, Chuquet, Danon-Boileau, etc.), and (iii) la théorie métaopérationnelle initiated by Adamczewski and implemented by some of his followers (Gabilan, Delmas, etc.).13 This first attempt at classification does not encompass, as Salkie admits, all the research done on the subject. It does not pay special tribute to a large number of studies made by French-speaking scholars related in various ways to these three main threads of analysis (Cotte 1997, Delmas et al. 1993 to indicate but a few). Yet one must be careful not to relate them too rapidly to one of the three frameworks or approaches Salkie discerns. On these already complex bases, many attempts have been made lately in French speaking linguistic circles to achieve a certain level of generalisation of the scope of the “enunciative” theoretical set and to bring any one of the previous “approaches” to adopt more extensive coverage of the description of the English language. In accordance with this righteous ambition, a significant number of studies written in English are to be taken into account (Culioli and some of his followers made a special effort at this), to which must be added a few PhD theses in recent years (Ballier 1997, Toupin 1994), without forgetting to mention Cotte’s Les théories de la grammaire anglaise en France and recently Valette 2006, plus a reasonable number of scientific journals publishing papers mainly in French (Sigma, Modèles linguistiques, etc.), and finally some books which made an attempt at giving an overview of the “enunciative” approach in a specific domain (syntax, for example: Douay 2000, Wyld 2001 or Celle and Gresset 2003; style and literary criticism: Salbayre and Vincent-Arnaud 2006; etc.).

22Once this characterization of English Grammar in France is agreed upon, even though temporarily, the historiographer may try and examine a first set of problems arising when a theoretician tries to cross the linguistic borders: translating concepts which happened to originate in a specific language, namely French. Again, the relationship between language and thought being too serious a matter to be dealt with within a few lines, I only intend to note the fact that words such as “fléchage”, “repérage”, “marqueur”, or even “énonciateur” do not not have any direct equivalent in English, since they have been the object of a process of semantic specific investment by specific French-speaking scholars. It would not only be useless to merely translate them with “pinpointing”, “locating”, “marker” or “enunciator”, but it may durably jeopardize the theory itself, and its chances of being shared by English-speaking linguists.

  • 14 See also Groussier et Rivière 1996.

23This difficulty in translating the terms of the theory couldn’t but be perceived by the very people who taught English grammar in a French-speaking context. Since this theory of grammar is first produced in French, as it has been in France from the 1970s on, it is bound to thrive with metaphors, coined words, modes and forms of conceptualization deeply rooted in the genius of the French language. Hence there have been efforts made to translate the theory into English by many, among which I will take two examples: Bouscaren et al. 1987 (translated and adapted into English by Flintham and Bouscaren in 1992), and the glossary (“petit lexique”) which appears in Lapaire and Rotgé 1993. If I do so it is because these two attempts seem quite iconic of the difficulties as well as the limits of such a job. Each corresponds to a slightly different aim: Lapaire and Rotgé’s target was to complete a glossary of French enunciative terms with an English unequivocal counterpart,14 whereas Bouscaren and Flintham’s purpose was in some way more ambitious yet more contained, since they intended to translate the whole body of Culioli’s theory, one of the three approaches pointed at above, which they had covered in their 1987 book.

  • 15 Groussier et Rivière 1996 suggest “scanning operation”.

24For the former scholars the exercise rapidly reaches its limits. Admittedly they are faced with many terms offering simple and plain translations into English, although sometimes more than one: give focal prominence, highlight, front as topic for “topicaliser”; mood, modality for “modalité et modalisation”; word-formation, word-creation for “lexigénèse”; discourse, speech, text for “discourse”; present, actual for “actuel”. Other terms resisted the process of translation and led them to admit their own limitations or their frustration as translators: semantic bleaching for “subduction”; basic level operations for “opérations de phase 1”; class review operation for “parcours”15; metaoperator, marker for higher complexity for “métaopérateur”; item selection for “extraction”, etc. In the foreword of the first 1992 edition of the glossary they even explicitly stated how embarrassed they were:

The definitions and glosses we give are an attempt to render some sort of conceptual middle ground [in English in the original]. We abstained from expressing our own preference or our personal reservations. We even refrained from remodelling the concepts wejudged as ambiguous.
(my translation—Lapaire et Rotgé 1992)

  • 16 Banks 2002, among others: “The “théories de l’énonciation” remain a particularly French phenomenon, (...)

25Yet the gathering up of linguistic tools in a foreign language to pay the right tribute to the enunciative corpus cannot be limited to a glossary and they felt the need to complete the “lexique” with a writing guide whose sub-title shows what is at stake: “how to avoid loan translation, heaviness of style and gallicisms when translating the French grammatical metalanguage”. The foreword to this writing guide points at a paradox, largely commented upon,16 which defines the enunciative theoretical approach rather well: the French linguists would suddenly become silent when they could express themselves in a foreign language. To extenuate this, one must remember that the translation of technical terms is an issue in most fields, and largely underevaluated in a globalised world. Lapaire and Rotgé have made honest and brave efforts to confront this issue, sometimes encouraging loan phrases when they were accepted by native speakers (prepare the ground for “préparer le terrain”, a classic example for “un exemple classique”, etc.), sometimes rejecting constrained translations and resorting to set phrases like a present tense with a future time value instead of the awkward a present with a future value for “un présent à valeur future”. Still, concepts and notions hide behind terminology. On this matter Lapaire and Rotgé have been most clear-sighted:

One shall not forget that the translation from French to English will be a good test to sort out play-on-words and true original concepts. What is notionally clear can always be expressed in another language, be it through the means of a sole term or through a longer expression. When we are stuck with a key-term (like “repérage”, “phase”, “métaopération”, “sphère du ΜΟI”), it is wrong to be looking immediately for an English equivalent which could replace the French original term in all occasions. Instead, the good attitude consists in asking oneself: “which basic idea is referred to with this term?” and “how can I communicate its true meaning to an English-speaking person? (Lapaire et Rotgé 1993, 304)

26Hence translation is a relatively marginal issue when confronted to the larger and more essential objective of transmitting original concepts unaltered, even if strongly dependent on the language in which they were conceived. The purpose of Bouscaren et al. 1987/1992 is assuredly quite different, though tackling the same type of constraining issues. More than at a synthetic glossary of “enonciative” technical terms in both languages, it aims at offering a whole theoretical presentation of one the three above set approaches, namely that of Culioli and his followers, that the authors themselves entitle “an utterer-centered approach”. From the onset, the text of the translators’ foreword gives a clear description of the ordeal they were confronted with. They admit right away that “terminological coherence was [their] main concern”. They choose two examples of terms which they had problems transferring through the language barrier: “énoncé” and “valeur”. As for the first one, it appeared to be a “crucial problem” indeed, considering its central position in the theoretical set. All the more so because “énoncé” in French takes in its wake a prolific family referring to seemingly unequivocal concepts for a French linguist: “énoncer” (v.), “énonciateur” (n.), “co-énonciateur” (n.), “enunciation” (n.), “énonciatif/-tive” (adj.), and because the term is theoretically related to highly connoted terms in the French-speaking structural and post-structural background such as “discourse” (taking into account Benveniste’s use of the word) and “parole” (from Saussure on), not mentioning the milestones of language description, this time in English, such as speech, utterance, sentence, phrase, discourse. The authors honestly share their hesitations when trying to find an appropriate equivalent for “énoncé”:

Of the two possible translations (words derived from utter or from enunciate), we chose utter because it seemed to us to convey most clearly the main idea involved and particularly because the word utterance seemed as close as possible to un énoncé as this term is used in the theory. We are aware that some of the words of this family, utterer for example, will probably seem a little strange to English speakers. The problems raised by enunciate, enunciative and enunciation are even more obvious. We would moreover have to coin a wordfor énoncé. (Bouscaren et al. 1992, “foreword of the translators”)

27This last remark about the necessity of coining may be perceived as a product of (French) academics’ compulsive habits. More so, it gives a clear indication of the type of dead-end in which the authors found themselves. Another problem was met when they had to come to terms with the translation of “valeur” within Culioli’s theoretical framework:

Our choice of the word value rather than meaning was motivated by theoretical considerations. Although meaning is no doubt more idiomatic, we decided against it because of its philosophical overtones. The mathematical term was felt to correspond more closely to our theoretical framework. We hope that our translation will make this theory accessible to English-speaking readers, (ibid.)

28Accessibility, the desire to be read, the necessity to be understood, all these are factors that are currently largely underestimated in the general assessment of these theories by linguists from both sides of the Channel and from all over Europe. Designing a (tentatively) original set of theories while using a specific (non global—although this ought to be qualified for French) language is a real challenge. What is strikingly obvious is that terminology is never trivial: it is always to be linked to representation, and beyond this, to conceptualization. Even a native or non native English-speaking linguist would not easily diverge from the, say, generative or functional mainstream and their terminological warehouses. Even if some of us have pioneered into trying to identify the forefathers of énonciation within the English grammatical tradition itself (act of speaking, speaker-hearer relationship to be found in Ward 1765, a definition of the 3rd person as negative in opposition to the 1st and 2nd ones in Wright 1794 after Harris 1751—see Rousse et Verrac 1992, 355), this quick foray into the untranslatability of theoretical frameworks leaves us with some unanswered questions.

29Still I wish to hint at a few paths that would hopefully lead to mutual understanding between the French “enunciative school” and English speaking linguists. In terms of concept sharing, there probably should be more intensive contacts with cognitivism(s) as has been developed in California and in other places. Cognitivist works should offer useful enough if not adapted solutions about the translation issues just broached. Secondly, I am convinced that there must be more international advertisement of the so called “enunciation” theories. For those to whom globalisation of thought is perceived as a threat, it should be an imperative. And finally, and certainly not conclusively, I would like to make public a heartfelt wish: that practitioners of “enunciation” accept to venture into common theoretical grounds with contemporary world wide linguists, that they address current topics and work on “ordinary” current internationally acknowledged terminology, even if only to criticise and amend it. This is what I aimed at with Le Prieult 2006, together with encouraging a return to a deeper historical knowledge of long used terms and linguistic debates.

5. “It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa…”

  • 17 In the same way, I tried to revive the lines from the famous gospel G. Gershwin incorporated into P (...)

30As has just been stated, this paper aims at being inconclusive. I only hope to have succeeded in reviving a simple obvious line,17 yet a determining one for the future of linguistics: orthodoxy and science are a dangerous pair. Scientific scorn is certainly not a trite side-effect of the politics of science, let alone scientific wars (a term more than often used by historiographers of linguistics lately). Obviously history makes us wiser, if not wise, and the newer generations should ideally become unfailingly convinced of this. Everything is not in everything, this ain’t necessarily so either. Let us remain open to change of focus and to the questioning of our own comfortable frames of mind. History reading (and writing, since history, although necessarily narrated, is never definitely written) is always a good start.

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1 Voegelins (1963) apparently coined the term (according to Harris 1993: 268) and Hymes & Fought (1982) justly remark: “The stance of rejecting a preceding dominant approach, or frame of reference, […] may be a necessary ingredient of a successful movement. It would be difficult to argue that it is a necessary ingredient of scientific advance, unless one found that movements themselves were necessary”. (234)

2 My translation. On the last assumption, see Veyne (1971) and Danto (1985).

3 Bearing in mind that according to set standards, only the victors used to write histories.

4 What Foucault calls “des histoires à pente faible” (1969, 10)—gently sloping history.

5 Apart from the puzzling fact that a translation of the Grammaire was published in London in 1753, most likely the first translation of this text into English.

6 But the Nazis’ troops moved on further towards the west, and Jakobson had to leave Europe to find refuge in 1941 in New York, at the “Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes”. Meanwhile a Linguistic Circle had appeared in New York. He thus came into contact with people who were receptive to his thesis, and the journal that the Circle inaugurated in 1945, Word, had Jakobson among its editing committee. The first issue was a true abstract of the structuralist program, since it dealt with the application of structural analysis to linguistics and anthropology. And as Word set as its own objective to strengthen “cooperation between American and European linguists from various schools”, it will be easily understood that Jakobson once again was in the best position to bring such an enterprise to a success”. (Dosse 1992, 77— my translation)

7 But the agitation occurring in France starts to arouse some interest outside Europe: in October 1966 an important structuralist event was organized in the United States by the Centre for Humanities of Johns Hopkins University. It is the first time structuralism crossed the Atlantic to reach the New World”. (Dosse 1992, 381—translation)

8 These three men were not detached from their antecedents. Boas and Sapir were born in Europe, and Bloomfield studied neogrammarian historical linguistics under Leskien and Brugmann (1913-14). They were familiar with the work of the earlier American historical linguist and sanskritist W. D. Whitney, himself much influenced by nineteen-century European thought. Boas’s and Sapir’s basic attitude to language […] can in great part be traced back to Humboldtian ideas. […] American theory was conditioned by the rigorous positivism of the behaviorist of mechanistic psychologists”. (Robins 1967, 207)

9 Letter by Bloomfield to T. Michelson, December 23, 1919: “My models are Pânini and the kind of work done in I.[ndo]-E.[uropean] by my teacher, Professor Wackemagel of Basel. No preconceptions; find out which sound-variations are distinctive (as to meaning), and then analyse morphology and syntax by putting together everything that is alike”. (In Hall 1987)

10 “…there is no doubt that European ideas were known and felt within the United States. Boas, Bloomfield, and Sapir were oriented toward international cultural and intellectual life, and took part in international activities”. (Hymes & Fought 1981, 14)

11 Let it be sufficient to quote another letter by Bloomfield (June 3, 1925): “My ignorance must often shock you. Since doing Am. work I have had no library and have read almost nothing” (In Hall 1987) or numerous references in Hymes and Fought 1981 stating the “hysterical conflict between the ‘Americanists’ and ‘Prague’ schools”, “conscious opposition”, the “inhospitability to European theory”, or the “strong anti-European feeling of many American linguists in the 1930’s and 1940’s”. (1981, 14-15)

12 See De Mauro 1967 for a complete appraisal of the mutual knowledge Saussure and Whitney had of each other.

13 See bibliography at these names for references.

14 See also Groussier et Rivière 1996.

15 Groussier et Rivière 1996 suggest “scanning operation”.

16 Banks 2002, among others: “The “théories de l’énonciation” remain a particularly French phenomenon, virtually unknown outside France. This may be to a large extent due to the fact that until recently publication tended to be systematically in French, and even where, more recently, some work has been published in English, this has usually been in French-base publications. These two factors restrict the readership of this work”. (172)

17 In the same way, I tried to revive the lines from the famous gospel G. Gershwin incorporated into Porgy and Bess and with which I structured this paper because of their universal revolutionary value.

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Bibliographical reference

Henri Le Prieult, « “It ain’t Necessarily So”: In the Globalisation of Linguistic Theories a Valid Issue? », Anglophonia/Sigma, 12 (24) | 2008, 117-133.

Electronic reference

Henri Le Prieult, « “It ain’t Necessarily So”: In the Globalisation of Linguistic Theories a Valid Issue? », Anglophonia/Sigma [Online], 12 (24) | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 19 June 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/anglophonia.978

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About the author

Henri Le Prieult

Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes, University of Toulouse 2-Le Mirail

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