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Auteur: Frederick J. NEWMEYER

Some Remarks on Chomsky's Reading of Saussure

Abstract/Résumé: The point of departure of this paper is a puzzling reference to Saussure in Chomsky’s book Knowledge of Language (Chomsky 1986). Taken at face value, this reference appears to reverse dramatically Chomsky’s earlier negative evaluation of a central aspect of Saussurean thought. However, I argue that, properly interpreted, the quotation does not in fact embody a changed assessment of Saussure on Chomsky’s part. The passage is the following: "It should be noted that familiar characterizations of ‘language’ as a code or a game point correctly toward I-language, not the artificial construct E-language. A code is not a set of representations but rather a specific system of rules that assigns coded representations to message-representations. Two codes may be different, although externally identical in the message-code pairings that they provide. Similarly, a game is not a set of moves but rather the rule system that underlies them. The Saussurean concept of langue, although far too narrow in conception, might be interpreted as appropriate in this respect." (Chomsky 1986: 31) Chomsky appears to be identifying Saussure’s langue as a rule system that characterizes a speaker’s I-language. The problem is that a few pages earlier and one page later in the same book Chomsky unambiguously described langue as a species of E-language! Joseph (2002) takes the quote at face value and explains it by hypothesizing a convergence of opinion between Chomsky and Saussure. However, I do not believe that Chomsky’s opinion of Saussure had changed. I argue that the word ‘interpreted’ in this passage should be understood as ‘reinterpreted’. My arguments are based on the following considerations: 1. In the same chapter of Chomsky (1986), Chomsky reinterpreted Quine’s theorizing in the same way. 2. Reinterpretations of his opponents’ ideas had long been one of Chomsky’s favourite rhetorical strategies (I give examples from Chomsky 1957; 1964; 1971). 3. 1986 is too early to point to a convergence between Chomsky and Saussure. 4. Chomsky himself (personal communication) has denied that the quote represents a changed evaluation of Saussure.