Je suis en train de (re)lire Problèmes de linguistique générale d’Émile Benveniste, dont j’admire l’érudition, le style accessible et l’approche décontracté au multilinguisme dans ses écrits. Le dernier point est illustré par une citation.

I’m reading, or, for some parts, rereading, Émile Benveniste’s Problèmes de linguistique générale, both volumes of which are available in the publisher Gallimard’s low-cost-high-quality collection tel.

Benveniste#[1] (1902-1976) is one linguist whose name should be the first that comes to mind when writing about (the lasting influence of) structuralism in contemporary French linguistics. Strangely enough, it doesn’t: in the anglosphere, I usually see some hand-waving about Lévi-Strauss, full stop. Lévi-Strauss has certainly influenced many disciplines, but he wasn’t a linguist and is, as far as I can tell, an indirect reference at best in French writings on language.

Problèmes de linguistique générale is a collection of articles published between 1939 and 1972. I like the very readable style — the only difficulty comes from the subject matter — and the sheer erudition, which is always in the service of the topic, is quite mind-boggling#[2].

I want to quote, without translation, the first and part of the second paragraph of Pour une sémantique de la préposition allemande vor (reprinted as ch. X of vol. 2, originally published in Athenaeum, nouvelle série, vol. L, fasc. III-IV, University of Pavia, pp. 372-375) because its approach to multilingualism made me smile (footnotes omitted):

Dans un article antérieur, nous avons tenté une interprétation unitaire des emplois de la prépositon latine prae, afin de monter en particulier que le sens dit causal de prae résulte d’une spécialisation du sens général de « à l’avant, à l’extrémité, au point extrème ». Nous avions donc repoussé l’explication donnée par Brugmann de l’expression prae (gaudio) : « Etwas stellt sich vor etwas und wird dadurch Anlass und Motiv für etwas ». P. Meriggi, sans considérer en détail l’argumentation de notre article, reprend la thèse de Brugmann, et à la question que nous posions : « je pleure devant la joie… En quelle langue s’est-on jamais exprimé ainsi ? », il répond: « In tedesco, perchè vor Freude è l’expressione del tutto corrente e addirittura unica pel lat. prae gaudio ».

Nous pensons que, loin de modifier notre conception du sens de lat. prae gaudio, l’expression allemande vor Freude la renforce.

In what follows, he extensively quotes from the Grimms’ dictionary. In the original German, of course.


[1]: The Johns Hopkins Online Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism used to have an entry that was a good intro, though slightly slanted towards Benveniste’s influence on literary criticism. Well, it probably still has, but the database has unfortunately become subscriber-only and is thus inaccessible to lowly people such as me. Wikipedia, is for once, rather unhelpful. Except for the German version — someone should definitely translate this. [2]: For example, the essay La phrase relative, problème de syntaxe générale (originally published in Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique, LIII, (1957-58), fasc. 1) starts with a brief introduction, and then considers Ewe, Tunica, Navajo, Chipewyan and Arabic, before stating On peut maintenant se tourner vers l’indo-européen — he turns to Sanskrit, Old Persian, Homeric Greek, Hittite and Latin, and finishes with a few notes on Old Irish and German.

The Eggcorn Database has its own forum now. I also made some changes to the posting rules. Oh, and we’ve managed to pass the threshold of 500 eggcorns this month.

Sometimes apparently simple entries can turn out to be more complex than meets the eye. Yesterday, Kaz Vorpal entered the substitution of flounder v. for founder v. This one had been suggested several times and is cited in many collections of usage advice, but I always resisted entering it. I saw it as an example of a confusion about which is which among two “complicated” words. (My rule of thumb for eggcorns: a “difficult” word is replaced with an “easy” one.) So I edited Kaz’ entry accordingly. But Arnold Zwicky didn’t agree, and he had the data to show that some people think of flounder, the fish:

In fact, some people have explained to me that “flounder” is the word to use, because a ship in this sort of distress flops about like a fish — a flounder, in particular — out of water. The association with flounder (the fish) seems to be unetymological: OED2 labels it “of obscure etymology”, suggests various non-fishy sources, and gives as its earliest sense the not particularly fish-related ’stumble’ (attested from 1592). But then the sense extended to ’struggle violently and clumsily, struggle in mire’ and the way was open for comparison to a flopping flounder. (Suspiciously, several of the OED2’s citations actually mention fish.)

Now wouldn’t that make for a great borrowing into German, where the fish is called Flunder?#[1] Herumflundern (gloss: flounder about/around) has a great sound to it.#[2] And indeed, at least one person has had the idea already:

  • Das Problem scheint in der Tatsache zu liegen, dass wir irgendwo mittendrin stecken, und herumflundern wie ein Fisch ausserhalb des Wassers. (link)
    [The problem seems to lie in the fact that we are stuck somewhere in the middle of this, and are floundering about like a fish out of water.]

And there seems to be a dialectal German verb, flundern, which I’m not familiar with.

[1]: Much, much better than what the Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company, does with their “InfoPoints” , “Economy Vierer” compartments, “Bahn & Bike” trains and the “BahnCard Teen” (a travel pass for 12 to 17 year olds). [2]: And it’s an occupation I’ve been getting much practice in lately. I’m starting to suspect short-term memory problems, but that’s another topic.