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  • Language in the Mind: An Introduction to Guillaume's Theory
  • John Hewson (bio)
Walter Hirtle . Language in the Mind: An Introduction to Guillaume's Theory. McGill-Queen's University Press. 2007. x, 274. $85.00

The linguistic work of Gustave Guillaume (1873-1960) is not well known outside of France: he published but little in his lifetime, all of it in French. The posthumous publications of the last five decades, however, have been extraordinary, including five extensive volumes in the past five years (2004-09), three from manuscripts left incomplete at his death, plus volumes 18 and 19 of the Lec¸ons de linguistique, a series made from the unpublished lecture notes of his years of teaching at the École pratique des Hautes Études of the Sorbonne in Paris.

Guillaume was introduced to linguistics by the great French comparativist Antoine Meillet, who in turn had been a disciple of Ferdinand de Saussure during Saussure's Paris years. The whole Paris School of the twentieth century had in fact grown out of the relationship of Saussure and Meillet and those who had followed their courses, a mentoring continuity of many strands. Guillaume left his papers to his Canadian student and colleague Roch Valin, who dedicated his life to their publication, and in turn directed the doctoral thesis of Walter Hirtle, a Canadian anglophone, so that there is a five-stage mentoring continuity from Saussure to Hirtle, who stayed on in Quebec and became the director of the Fonds Guillaume at Universite´ Laval, where the Guillaume manuscripts are stored.

Hirtle has consequently been the main expositor in English of Guillaumian linguistic ideas and this work represents its first full-scale presentation in English. There are sixteen chapters, which include an introduction and a conclusion. A pleasant feature is a choice quote presented at the beginning of each chapter; several of them are from Guillaume, but the rest run the gamut from Humboldt to Einstein, and from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot.

The second chapter is entitled 'Language and the Ability to Speak,' with a quote from Einstein: 'The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.' So much of Guillaume is, in fact, down-to-earth common sense. Hirtle begins with a critique of Saussure's notion of langue as the language of a community, which is, of course, an abstraction: it is not communities that speak; people do. He notes a similar problem with Chomsky's competence/performance dichotomy: 'language-as-competence is the prerogative of the ideal speaker,' an imaginary, non-existent, and consequently non-scientific entity. [End Page 408]

This chapter is only twelve pages long, but those who have time only to browse would do well to devote all of their time to it. It presents language as an activity, not a static contrast as in Saussure, or a purely abstract algorithm as in Chomsky. The activity requires three essential elements: a means of production, a producer, and a product. The typical means of production is the mother tongue learned in childhood, the producer the native speaker, and the product is spoken and written discourse. This essential sequence is spelled out in a variety of ways, as in figure 1.Figure 1. A schematic representation of the act of language

The notion of language as activity is one of Guillaume's most important contributions to modern linguistics. Hirtle quotes Langacker: 'Conceptual structure emerges and develops through processing time, it resides in processing activity whose temporal dimension is crucial to its characterization,' and notes also the comparison between synchronic linguistics (activity in time) to diachronic linguistics (evolution through time), both involving the absolute necessity of time.

Another important dictum stemming from Saussure and Meillet is that a language, a tongue, is a system of systems, un syste`me ou` tout se tient. It is well known and accepted by linguists that every language has a phonological system; it was a common understanding of the Paris School that the system of parts of speech had subsystems such as the nominal and verbal systems, which in turn had their own subsystems, and the rest of the book is concerned largely with the exposition of these...


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