Academic journal article Style

Roy Harris and Writing without Speech

Academic journal article Style

Roy Harris and Writing without Speech

Article excerpt

"A language [langue] and its written form [ecriture]," wrote Ferdinand de Saussure in chapter 6 of his Cours de linguistique generale, "constitute two separate systems of signs. The sole reason for the existence of the latter is to represent the former. The object of study in linguistics is not the combination of the written word and the spoken word; it is the latter alone which constitutes this object" (45). With this bold statement of doctrine in which writing is isolated from the object of linguistic study (la langue, modeled after speech), Saussure was emphatic in denouncing "the tyranny of the letter" and the "inconsequentialities of writing" found in such "irrational written forms" as, for example, oiseau, whose spelling fails to represent any of the sounds in the word as it is actually spoken (wazo) and which thus leave nothing of the image of la langue. Writing in fact serves to conceal la langue and, worse yet, is to be qualified not so much as a "garment" as a "travesty" whose effects can go so far as to place the image before the model, leaving us in the situation of someone who would hope to learn more about a person's appearance by scrutinizing his photograph than by looking at the person himself. Although Saussure does recognize, reluctantly, that written forms intermingle with and sometimes influence spoken forms (this is true particularly in societies which place a high value on written documents), it is thanks to phonology, he claims, that linguistics can free itself from the written word and "the illusions of writing." One logical consequence of this separation of language from writing is the classification of writing into two systems: ideographic, in which the sign relates to the word as a whole, independent of its sounds and devoid of any phonetic dimension; and "phonetic," further divided into syllabic and alphabetic systems based on the irreducible elements of the word. In a reversal of reasoning which is no less revealing than it is astonishing, Saussure cites ancient Greek as the prototype example of the alphabetic system, a nearly ideal system in which each simple sound is represented by one single graphic sign. Paradoxically, then, Saussure winds up appealing to the secondary role of writing in order to buttress the primacy of the oral, so that what has been pushed out the front door - the alphabetic writing of modern European languages, fixed in archaic forms that fail to keep pace with, to represent, the successive synchronic states of oral language - can thus be seen to sneak in again through the back door: a phonology modeled after an alphabetic system purged of its phonetic impurities and capable of bringing us one step closer to a faithful image of la langue, that supra-individual system of linguistic rules deposited within the brain of each member of the speech community.

Like many of the principles spelled out in the Cours de linguistique generale, the separation of writing from language has undergone numerous metamorphoses and has continued to be the object of intense critical debate and revision. Roy Harris's Signs of Writing, in many ways the fruit of more than twenty years of research and publishing in the field of general linguistics, is notable for a variety of reasons that will be discussed in the following pages, for in placing itself at a critical distance from various dogmas and dead-ends that have plagued whole areas of linguistics since Saussure and, in particular, in refusing to make the phonetic alphabet the measuring stick for all writing systems, this study places writing at the critical juncture of linguistic phenomena by putting into question the deeply-ingrained idea that speech corresponds to the pronunciation of written forms, while writing, reduced to a mnemonic function, is merely a way of setting down speech in a visual form. What is at issue in Harris's work is not a form of Derridean grammatology (we shall return to this point), but rather, through a critical reconsideration of Saussure (see in particular Harris's Reading Saussure, but also his English translation of the Cours) and a sobering critique of the state of present-day linguistic theory against the background of the history of linguistic thought (see in particular The Language Myth, The Language Makers, The Language Machine, and The Origin of Writing), an ambitious and pathbreaking attempt to outline a semiology of writing aimed at the following: (1) to identify those factors that enable us to see writing, not as a pale derivative of speech, but as a distinct form of human communication; and (2) to account for the actual and possible forms of writing through an investigation of various configurations of the relevant linguistic and nonlinguistic features. …

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