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Duped by Saussure

Written By: daveski on July 24, 2008 1 Comment

Ferdinand de Saussure‘s distinction between three interrelated domains of language–langue, parole, and langage–was foundational in my language studies at Berkeley, as it is undoubtedly in programs across the country and around the world. Yet now, after having spent 6 months off and and on (more off than on unfortunately) studying French, I wonder how much of my fascination with these concepts at first came from the fact that they are in another language, and that learning them (though off-putting at first, I thought, another example of the snooty barriers of academic discourse) was a tiny step in a new direction, an eye-opening language learning experience and, thus … pretty darn cool.

Langue“, William F. Hanks reminds us in his Language and Communicative Practices (p.25, though I’ve extrapolated from his glosses here) is the formal system of grammar that forms the collective linguistic knowledge of a group of people at a particular instant in time; “parole” is the realization of langue in actual talk–what real individuals produce as they talk to each other with all their individual style, their stutters, stops and starts; meanwhile “langage” is the larger human phenomenon of language that encompasses both langue and parole (or, as many of our professors here say, “language with a capital ‘L'”).

It’s not often that English speakers in the U.S. are told that the words we have to describe our own reality don’t cut that reality up into as many pieces as they could–in a sense, that English isn’t as fine-grained or precise as it could be. Sure, we (especially those of us living in low altitudes in the sunny state of California) are willing to cede the fact that we don’t have as many words for snow as do the Inuit people are reputed to, an often-cited example when talking about linguistic relativity (though this is also reported to be a misunderstanding of what a “word” is).

But “language”? Wouldn’t it just make sense in English to have a different word for the human faculty of language when English, Moldovan, and Nuahatl are languages too? And why stop there? When one says in English, “The language of this document seems to indicate that…”, isn’t the speaker actually talking not about langage or even langue, but parole, a particular, unique instantiation of a larger system replete with idiosyncrasies, even errors?

That would seem to make sense. Or so I thought, smugly, as I left for France recently, armed with foundational theoretical insights that not only allowed me to slice up linguistic reality in my mind, but would also undoubtedly speed my acquisition of spoken French.

Wrong again. In four weeks of strained listening I don’t think I heard the word “parole” once. (Maybe that’s because people don’t talk about it, they just do it?). When I tried using the word in conversation with a fellow grad student at the university, she looked at me a bit askance. Then I tried mentioning the name “Saussure” but it didn’t help. Was I supposed to have said “de Saussure”? Was I mispronouncing everything horribly? Memories of repeating the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s last name over and over again under my breath before daring to verbalize them in front of my French-speaking advisor flashed through my mind…”Bordeaux, Bordieu, Bourdeaux…”

Never mind. I dropped my efforts at “parole” and refocused on “langue” and “langage”. After all, I was there to work with people who were experts in FLE, or Le français langue étrangère, teaching French as a foreign language. And there it was in the title–French as a foreign “langue”, just like the theory said.

So why was it that I kept hearing the word “langage” when I thought everyone was talking about the French language or the English language in particular? I wish I had a tape recorder to show you, to prove to myself. Ha! Why did I keep feeling like I was having my utterances corrected, that every time I tried using “langue” it was upgraded to “langage”? Can French be a langage? What would that mean? French is universal? Or wait, did I only hear that word because it sounds more like the English word and all the ‘langues’ of conversation were getting lost in an incoherent stream of sound? What am I supposed to call the language I’m learning, the language I’m writing?

And why can’t they just have one word for it? That’d be so much easier. 🙂

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One Response to “Duped by Saussure”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 27 July 2008 at 1:12 pm

    A very interesting and provocative post, Dave…

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