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