Notes on the History of the Concept of Language as a System 'Où tout se tient'


  • E.F.K. Koerner University of Ottawa


It is still customary, at least among textbook writers, to attribute the definition of language as 'un système oú tout se tient' to Saussure even though no one has ever found a locus of this famous phrase in the Cours. This seems surprising wIlen we also find that both Bally in 1932 and Trubetzkoy in 1933 refer explictly to the phrase as being Saussure's. Many scholars have found this state of affairs puzzling, if not frustrating. This paper is intended to explain the reasons for the attribution to Saussure. It is important to remember that Saussure wrote only one major book in his life-time, the Memoire sur Ie systeme primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-europeennes (published in Leipzig, in 1878), and that during 1881-1891 he taught at the École des Hautes Études in Paris, where Antoine Meillet (1866-1936) was one of his students. Teaching on Indo-European linguistics Saussure used the Memoire as a textbook; indeed, a second edition of the volume appeared in Paris in 1887. From Saussure's papers it is clear that he intended to add an answer to his critics, but was dissuaded by his colleagues from doing so; it is also important to note that Saussure referred to the Memoire as 'man Systeme des Voyelles'. Shortly after Saussure's departure for Geneva, Meillet started to build up his own career, of which his 1893-1894 articles on 'Ies lois phonétiques' and 'l'analogie' were the first major statements. It is in the first of these two where Meillet, not surprisingly, used the famous phrase for the first time, without explicit reference to Saussure or the Memoire. However, from 1903 onwards, in his Introduction 11 I'etude comparative des langues indo-europeennes, which Meillet explicitly dedicated to Saussure on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Memoire, we find Meillet using the phrase quite frequently and always either directly or implicitly in reference to Saussure's 1878 book, and never to the posthumous Cours. However, it is clear from all the circumstances sketched in this paper that the concept, if not the phrase itself, derives from Saussure's linguistic thinking and was disseminated through his students in Paris.




How to Cite

Koerner, E. (1997). Notes on the History of the Concept of Language as a System ’Où tout se tient’. Linguistica Atlantica, 19, 1–20. Retrieved from