Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Quote of the Day: Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course in General Linguistics (really a book that is a conflation of his students' notes of his lecture) spawned the movement we call "structuralism" (and, therefore, also "post-structuralism") that has been so influential in linguistics, anthropology, mythology, etc., has an interesting one-liner when talking about the fraught, ambiguous, and ultimately arbitrary relationship between language and writing:

Writing is not a garment, but a disguise.


His point is that often, particularly in French, a written word has absolutely no relationship to its phonetic representations--his example is the french oiseau ("bird") that does not have a single letter that corresponds to its pronunciation [wazo]. But I wonder if we can take this further a bit, and say that not just writing, but language is not a garment, but a disguise. By altering one's speech, one alters one's identity, others' perspective of you--rightly or wrongly about your gender, your class, your level of education, your geographic origins, your nationality. While speech may function as a garment, perhaps an imposed one, in socializing you, in letting others know particular information about you (much like clothing itself does), you can also use it to hide, to transform yourself, or, knowing how people perceive or preconceive particular speech patterns, to mislead.

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