an unlikely innovator

I’ve just come across an article by John E Joseph on the man who invented the term ‘phoneme’. It’s something of an accidental followup to this post which was really only an opportunity to showcase the narrow escape which phonologists had from the tonguetwisting nightmare of phthongology – but it turns out there’s tantalisingly more to the question of the origin of some of our most familiar terminology than I’d realised.

The man in question began his career as a sailor and travelled all over the world, giving ‘considerable energy to the recording and analysis of the phonetic inventories of whatever languages he came across.’ (p57) Intriguingly, he is still known only by his surname, Dufriche-Desgenettes – his first name has never been discovered beyond its initial, A.

He never had any formal training in languages or phonetics (in other words, he was an ‘autodidact,’ which the OED informs me means ‘one who is self-taught’). Joseph portrays him as a man always on the margins of the academic linguistic community, stubbornly holding on to his own opinions regardless of how much they were dismissed and disregarded by other scholars. He seems to have always been very careful in matters of terminology – one letter (translated by Joseph) shows him defending himself for using the term phonology rather than phonetics: ‘I’m not trying to substitute this name for that of phonetics: certainly there are two nuances.’ (p67)

His term phoneme was adopted by a younger associate of his, Louis Havet, who later became acquainted with Saussure (Saussure was only a teenager when Dufriche died in 1878). Joseph credits Havet with a fairly substantial role in propagating the term – he was the first to quote it, and he edited and even read out some of Dufriche’s papers to the Société de Linguistique in Paris, for example. The term was then available for Saussure to pick up – he ‘put it to memorable use in his Mémoire,’ which itself became more widely known thanks in part to the enthusiasm of Louis Havet. ‘From there,’ says Joseph, ‘phonème found its way into the work of Jan Baudouin de Courtenay and Mikołai Kruszewski, where it would gradually take on the meaning with which it would be the very cornerstone of structural linguistics through most of the 20th century.’ (p71)

So there we have it. And that’s only the origin of the term itself – never mind the tortuous debates over what it actually means, or whether phonemes even exist beyond phonological notation and diagrams – questions which I think we can safely leave for another day.

Joseph, John E (1999), ‘Dufriche-Desgenettes and the birth of the phoneme.’ In Sheila Embleton, John E Joseph, and Hans-Josef Niederehe (eds), The Emergence of the Modern Language Sciences. Volume 1: Historiographical Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins


4 thoughts on “an unlikely innovator

  1. I enjoyed reading this. You know, I presume, that Saussure was from a staunchly Calvinist Genevese family? –Best wishes, John Joseph


  2. No actually I didn’t know that, thanks for the info! How very strange! Would it be fair to say that he wasn’t terribly committed to his family’s religion himself? I understand you’re writing a biography of him, it’s very much on my list of most wanted as-yet-unpublished works :)


  3. Saussure hasn’t left us a great deal of direct testimony about his religious commitment. My sense is that he considered his beliefs private. There is though some indirect evidence of his sincere but unostentatious adherence to the Calvinist creed of his forefathers, a creed which of course advocated the pursuit of knowledge unfettered by any theological presuppositions.

    He took a very active role in 1909 in the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the birth of Calvin, and the 350th of Calvin’s founding of the Academie (later Universite) de Geneve where Saussure taught. One of his brothers, Horace, was a member of the committee that selected the design for the great Wall of the Reformation that faces the university in the Parc des Bastions. Another, Rene, spent many years exploring the reconciliation of advanced physics with theological ideas, very much in the Calvinist spirit, and Saussure helped him with the editing of that work. (Rene’s son, Jean de Saussure, would become an important figure in mid-20th-c. Calvinist thought.)

    The one direct clue to Saussure’s personal beliefs that I’ve found comes from a notebook he kept as a preternaturally mature twelve-year-old. In it he copied out a passage from the very popular novel Picciola by X. B. Saintine. It is a dialogue between the central character, the Count de Charney, and his fellow prisoner, Girardi, that occurs near the end of the novel. Girardi says

    “… Incredulity, not content with separating us from our Creator, loosens the bonds of society, and even those of the family; in depriving man of his dignity, it causes isolation and abandonment to spring up around him, and leaves him alone, alone with his pride!… I’ve said it before: a ruin in a desert!”

    In copying out Charney’s reply, which follows, Saussure has bracketed the part beginning “Why does man”, and has written in the margin, “This is edifying”:

    “Alone with his pride! murmured Charney, his elbow on the arm of the bench, his forehead in his hand. The pride of human science? yes …. yes; that’s it … Why does man enjoy destroying the elements of his happiness by wishing to deepen and analyse them? … Even if it is simply to a lie that he owes this happiness, why try to lift the veil, and run on his own ahead of disaster? Is truth so sweet to him? Does science then satisfy his ambitious desires? Nonsense! that was my knowledge etc.”

    Saussure’s lifelong friend Elie David wrote that his character was essentially formed by the age of twelve. It is likely then that such a fundamental belief as this stayed with him throughout his life. Certainly his mature approach to language will be one that rejects any “science” that locates reality in any kind of analysis rather than in the linguistic intuitions experienced by ordinary speakers of the language.

    The broader philosophy implied in this passage is that religious faith is necessary to social cohesion and individual happiness, and would be so even if the object of faith turned out not to exist. This seems to accord with the Calvinism of his time, at least in Geneva, which had close connections to Edinburgh — but my knowledge of Calvinist doctrine here is weak, to put it generously. Any enlightenment would be most welcome!


  4. This is extremely interesting – thankyou so much for this follow-up. I’m afraid I’ve been away from the computer for several days or I’d have replied much sooner!

    I should say that I’m not particularly well versed in how Calvinistic thought has developed over the years, particularly in relation to matters outside of doctrine, but I can give you a layman’s reactions, even if it is based more on reading more devotional/theological material rather than the philosophical works which would be more relevant here.

    I think it would strike me as odd if an intellectual case against the pursuit of knowledge would have come in any straightforward way from a calvinistic worldview. From an admittedly 21st century perspective, I’d have expected the “edifying” aspect of that quote to come from the later point – that science, or increased scientific knowledge, cannot satisfy man’s desires or ambition – I think it was Augustine who made a comment to the effect that man was made for God and could not find real satisfaction in anything less than God. God is understood to have given two kinds of revelation of himself, the revelation of creation-and-providence, which gives the creaturely observer some limited idea of what God is as Creator and Provider, but more importantly the revelation of scripture, which gives a detailed and authoritative revelation of himself, with particular reference to the relation between fallen creatures and God the Saviour. But the two aren’t incompatible, from this theological perspective. A science that would overlook the role of God as Creator/Governor/Sustainer of all things would come in for particular criticism i’d expect (in line with what Girardi says above) – whatever you discover in the natural world should inspire you to give more glory to God who had made it that way. That’s why i’d have imagined it would rather be a good/admirable/worthwhile thing to seek to analyse the phenomena observed in the world around you and so deepen your understanding of it – the thought that this would ‘destroy the elements of man’s happiness’ rings slightly oddly to me, unless it was in the context of using/abusing the knowledge you gained to dispute the existence or workings of God himself, eg.

    Although it would certainly (i think) be characteristic to believe that religion is necessary both for social cohesion and individual happiness, I would again be inclined to doubt that that would extend as far as cases where the object of faith did not in fact exist. Calvinism (presumably in common with many/all of its contemporary worldviews) would have been totally exclusive of alternatives/competitors – non-existent or false objects of faith could not have been allowed/admitted to give rise to *genuine* social cohesion or personal happiness (rather, both of these could only be achieved to the extent that the directions revealed in scripture were followed). Even when thinking of things that are not revealed, ie things that you reason out for yourself based on your observation of God’s creation, there is such a cohesion to the whole natural world that believing a lie, or making a mistake, will throw a spanner in the works *somewhere* and to the extent that your reasoning is erroneous it would spoil your whole system in one way or another. This might not necessarily impinge on your happiness as such, if that was defined less in terms of the accumulation or accuracy of scientific knowledge, and more in terms of your spiritual relationship to God as a saved sinner – calvinistic writers are very egalitarian as they write about happiness, defined spiritually: it’s within the reach of any kind of human being, intellectually gifted or not – but it would presumably give you a mistaken idea of how God had created the object (or how he was upholding the process) of your investigation.

    The point that ‘reality’ is external to analysis is something I’ve been thinking a bit about, off and on – particularly in phonology, it’s a bit of a worry that a lot of what’s treated as data is itself (seemingly, arguably, perhaps!) already an analysis or interpretation of raw(-er) data (eg transcriptions, my current hobby-horse) – whether the raw data is speakers’ intuitions or something else is a different question, but it surely must be important to keep the ‘third-party observable’ phenomenon distinct from the interpretation that your school of thought puts on the phenomenon.


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