'Language is not just the material phonetic means'

In his seminal french-language work Cours de linguistique generale, Ferdinand de Saussure, the universally acclaimed father of modern linguistics, explains the role of language in relation to thought as follows:
The characteristic role of a language in relation to thought is not to supply the material phonetic means by which ideas may be expressed. It is to act as intermediary between thought and sound, in such a way that the combination of both necessarily produces a mutually complementary delimitation of units.
The above insight into the role of language was seen for the first time in the history of modern linguistics in the lectures of Ferdinand de Saussure at the University of Geneva during the period 1906-1911. However, we believe some Upanishads (like the Bruhadaranyaka) and the Vedas have mantra-s which anticipate the very core of de Saussure's thesis, and given de Saussure's interest in Sanskrit may well have been his inspiration. Closer study of references to naama (name) and roopa (form) in the Upanishads, the various Bhashyas (commentaries) and the hymns of creation in the Vedas, we believe, can throw more light on that "mystic" (to use de Saussure's word) interplay between thought and sound. But we digress.

The point we'd like to make here is - language is not "just a means of communication" as is often misunderstood by many. We've argued elsewhere that it is equally if not more importantly a "means of cooperation" as well. But de Saussure tells us that it's a lot more. It is language which works in tandem with the mass of thoughts in the human mind to "delimit" units. It's not that ideas and objects exist before words for them are coined. Ideas and objects do not obtain the status of separate entities without the help of language. It's language which helps distinguish between say feelings of "happiness" and "excitement". For one who does not know the two words (in any language), the two feelings are also unseperable; in him/her there is no line drawn between happiness and excitement either in the realm of thoughts or in the realm of language. It is language which helps the experiencer of those feelings distinguish between them, give them two different names, and "sort them out" in the mind.

This fact has immense implications. It nearly completely explains the status of different languages in the world today including, of course, Kannada. It explains why some linguistic registers such as science and technology are nearly unpopulated in Kannada. It explains why we are materially unadvanced. It explains why we have a shortage of nouns in Kannada. It explains what is lacking in our society because of which Kannada is not in the state in which say Japanese or Hebrew are today. And of course, it also clarifies what has to be done in order to get over all these shortcomings. All these insights are difficult to capture in one blogpost, so look forward to more articles on this topic as we move on.

We urge readers to purchase a copy of the English translation of Ferdinand de Saussure's book: Course in General Linguistics, Open Court Classics, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois, USA.

A sneak peek of the book is available on Google Books, too.

Picture courtesy: Wikipedia

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey do you know Manjunath Naicker of malgudi days? i heard his mother tongue is tamil but he speaks such a good kannada. hats off to him.

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