“Saussure’s Muse”

This blog post concerns a relatively new publishing product: from blogs to book. In other words, the blogger collects his or her Internet blogs and then publishes these on paper, the old-fashioned way. Apollonio Discolo’s La musa di Saussure (Edizioni ETS, 2013, pp. 116, 12 Euros) is one such example. This booklet is also an example of that type of reading material which produces great intellectual enjoyment as well as abundant cognitive frustration.
Apollonio Discolo (a pseudonym of a well-known Italian linguist teaching in Zurich) is of course the name of the most august of the ancient Greek grammarians; but it is a somewhat fanciful anagram of the Italian version of two names of Greek gods: Apollo and Dionisio. As a consequence, the reader is forewarned and expects thoughts about languages and grammar, and culture and fancy. This expectation is fully realized, and more.
The 58 blogs (which appeared on the Web between 2005 and 2012) all present interesting and thought-provoking ideas; there is simply no way they can individually be dealt with justly here. What follows presents some general impressions which underpin this reader’s enjoyment and frustration with the libricino. The points below contain two parts: the first part expresses my intellectual enjoyment and the second part, introduced by “But”, my cognitive frustration.

1) The author presents ideas about language of which we do not find echos in the linguistic literature of the received, generally accepted and published, academic knowledge about how languages function. In other words (as is wont in many linguistic circles on the periphery), throughout the booklet, there are subtle and not so subtle hints at the ridiculousness of some of the traditional and above all modern (read: formal[ized]) theories of language. The observations offered by Apollonio Discolo range from sheer anger at the continuous usage of terms which do not really illuminate our knowledge of what language is (terms such as, for ex., “noun”, “possessive”) to heartfelt mockery of the idea that linguistic theory as practiced now really illuminates our knowledge about such complex phenomenon as language.
But, Apollonio Discolo never presents any way out of this situation: if linguists are useless because they do not really illuminate our knowledge of what language is, then what would make them useful? It is well to define linguistics the science of the relation(ship) between being and expression (“la scienza della relazione tra essere ed espressione”, p. 7), but it is clearly not enough to remain within the vagueness of Saussure’s “relationship (of difference)” procedure. No clear examples of this procedure are given – hence the frustration.
2) The author’s modus scribendi presents an idea as a given, which the reader accepts at face value, but then he quickly presents the opposite of this idea and therefore forces the reader to choose between the first or the second interpretation. Obviously, this follows the Socratic method, but Apollonio Discolo goes even further and uses chiasmus whenever he can to make this love of the opposites shine through.
But, the final and highly dissonant reading experience leaves us neither here nor there, and therefore frustrated. Even he falls into the hands of postmodernist tyranny of “fluidity” and “speed”, when, evidently, a more lengthy train of thought (his thought) is required.
3) Being disconcerted at the amount of conventionalized, accepted ways of doing things (and of seeing linguistic phenomena) is one of the endearing features of these bits of wisdom. The subtitle of the booklet can be “Against conformism”: especially in the sciences and in the science of language particularly. In research, conformism marks the death of originality.
But, interestingly enough, Saussure’s idea of language (or any semiotic system for that matter) requires convention and therefore it is based on conformity: how could we presume to have a notion of understanding even slightly what our interlocutor has in mind if we did not agree/conform to the values of the system which lies between us as speakers? Apollonio Discolo does not entertain any discussion regarding this point.
4) Italian as a foreign language is defined jokingly as a “frivolous subject”, listed in one publication (the title of which is nowhere cited) among other frivolous subjects such as music and arithmetic for household use. Apollonio Discolo makes the following wish: “il cielo voglia ancora conservare a questa lingua non comune il carattere che la rende insostituibile tra le lingue del mondo: la sua femminile, amabile, irritante, profonda frivolezza.” (p. 63, translation mine: may heavens keep the characteristic of this not-so-common language which makes it irreplaceable among the languages of the world: its feminine, lovable, aggravating, profound frivolousness). As a personified image of the Italian language, this picture warms the heart; could it (the frivolousness) also explain the attraction Italian has for non-natives who attempt to learn it and who therefore do not believe that pragmatics guides everything (i.e. having frivolousness does not mean having a goal…)?
But, even all irony and joking aside, as a non-native speaker, I would more than like to know what exactly contributes to the Italian “feminine, lovable, aggravating, profound frivolousness”.
In conclusion, if it is true that Italian is one of the less common languages, then this booklet must be translated; not only for the intellectual enjoyment the reading of it brings, but also for the cognitive frustration it creates, because these two are sure to produce novel ideas. Hopefully, linguists and non-linguists alike will come up with a way out of our metalinguistic tunnel. It remains to be seen whether anything like this can be achieved thanks to “from blogs to book”.

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