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Auteur: Reinier SALVERDA

De Saussure and Language play

Abstract/Résumé: Language play appears to be a universal of human language behaviour, but it is not immediately clear what place it has in mainstream scientific linguistics. Recreational linguistics, or Logology, may be a thriving field today, but it appears to have arisen independently - not within linguistics, but from Surrealist language games, Nonsense literature and Recreational Mathematics. In linguistics, Saussurean ideas have been a dominant force from the 1870s till today. In 1878, his Mémoire was a milestone for systematic reconstruction within historical-comparative linguistics; and in 1916, his Cours de linguistique générale laid down the foundations of 20th century structural linguistics. At the same time, De Saussure was at a loss what to make of language play, and he regarded jeux de mots, together with e.g. loan words, folk etymology and coq-à-l’âne (idle nonsense), as ‘irrational, bizarre, even pathological’ phenomena, well outside the domain of linguistics (Saussure 1972: 60, 239). Back in 1916, De Saussure also did not relate language play to the rapports associatifs, which in his Cours he posited as one of the key mechanisms of language structure (cf. Harris 1987: 234). And it was not until 1971 that Starobinski published his reflections on anagrams and other ‘mots sous les mots’, which demonstrated how hard Saussure had tried to develop this into a new line of linguistic research. Interestingly, Starobinski’s book more or less coincided with the rise of Recreational linguistics in the seventies. Today, we can see how studying language play as Calvet (2010), Crystal (1998) or Goatly (2012) do - i.e. not as a marginal aspect but rather as a core property and universal feature of human language behaviour - opens up new vistas for our understanding of the processes of “structuration, restructuration and destructuration” (Jakobson & Waugh 1979: 237) that operate in human language. Studying language play – just like e.g. metaphor – can teach us a lot about the organisation of the language system and the way in which language is produced and understood by human beings. In this contribution, I will discuss the rise to prominence of language play in linguistic research, and the concomitant loosening of formalist structural linguistics and its tenets. References: Calvet, Louis-Jean (2010), Le jeu du signe. Essai. Paris. Crystal, David (1998), Language Play. Chicago. Eckler, A. Ross (2001), Making the Alphabet dance. Recreational Wordplay. London. Goatly, Andrew (2012), Meaning and Humour. Cambridge. Harris, Roy (1987), Reading Saussure. London. Jakobson, Roman & Linda R. Waugh (1979), The sound shape of language. Brighton. Saussure, F. de (1916), Cours de linguistique générale. éd.crit. De Mauro, Paris, 1972. Starobinski, Jean (1971), Les mots sous les mots. Les anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure. Paris.