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Sounding out différance: Derrida, Saussure, & Bhartṛhari
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Sounding out différance Derrida, Saussure, & Bhartṛhari Charles Li Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge And Reality itself remains unaffected by these differences of textual explanations. Vākyapadīya 2.233, as rendered by K. R. Pillai1 “There is no purely and rigorously phonetic writing,”2 proclaims Jacques Derrida as he coins the term différance. The a in différance is not audible; the difference is purely graphic, and when expressed orally the hearer understands différence whether it is written with an e or an a. But Derrida is working in French, and while it is clear that French is not purely and rigorously phonetic in its writing, this does not necessarily hold for other languages or linguistic scripts, nor does the silence of différance necessarily survive translation. Moreover, especially if one considers Derrida's more generalized definition of “writing” – not only as marks on a surface, but as a sign system – then a natural counter-example of a rigorously phonetic “writing” springs to mind: over two millennia before Derrida's proclamation, Indian grammarians such as Pāṇini were refining and documenting the pronunciation of Sanskrit, rigorously matching spoken phonemes with linguistic signs. Derrida notes accurately that in French, non-phonetic signs such as spaces between words are inevitably used to separate units of meaning. But for a Sanskrit grammarian, 1 words are not arbitrarily spaced apart; if they are elided in speech, the linguistic sign precisely notates the resultant sound. This phenomenon, sandhi, is similar to the French system of élision and liason, although much more rigorous in its application.3 Even quotation marks – silent, graphic signs in French – take the form of a spoken word, iti, in Sanskrit. Derrida notes that “the silence of the graphic difference between the e and the a in différance can function only within the system of phonetic writing”,4 but the system is assumed to be flawed enough to allow for Derridian play in the interstice between speech and writing. Sanskrit grammarians are so rigorously phonocentric that they make it impossible to write différance; it is not even conceivable. Phonocentrism – the emphasis on the orality of language, over its written form – is a topic which receives heavy criticism from Derrida, who sees it as an overarching theme in the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure; in Of Grammatology, Derrida writes, “For Saussure, [writing] is even a garment of perversion and debauchery, a dress of corruption and disguise, a festival mask that must be exorcised, that is to say, warded off, by the good word: ‘Writing veils the appearance of language; it is not a guise but a disguise’”.5 Saussure's distrust of writing echoes a sentiment found in many Sanskrit texts that prohibit the writing of the Vedas; in the Mahābhārata, for example, one who writes the Vedas is said to go to hell.6 Given this and other coincidences, it is no wonder that Saussure's theories are frequently compared with the Sanskrit grammatical tradition. There are tantalizing historical links as well: Saussure was a professor of Sanskrit, and his doctoral dissertation focused on a specific aspect of Sanskrit grammar – the genitive absolute.7 But in the final analysis, there does not seem to be any evidence that Saussure consciously borrowed from the Sanskrit grammatical tradition when he developed his own linguistics . Although his bookshelf contained editions of Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī as well as Yāska's 2 Nirukta, as Giuseppe D'Ottavi points out, his attitude towards his Sanskrit sources was one of condescension, as was common in his time; he considered the Sanskrit grammarians merely for their historiographical value, rather than as authorities on the language.8 Yet, it is clear that Saussure was very well-versed in the work of the grammarians – in his thesis, he quotes liberally from both the Aṣṭādhyāyī and its commentary, the Mahābhāṣya, as well as from later literary figures such as Mallinātha, who, although not a grammarian, was nevertheless thoroughly knowledgeable in grammar. With this in mind, it is difficult to consider the many striking similarities between Saussure's...