Stephen Anderson publishes translation of René de Saussure

September 3, 2018

Professor Emeritus Stephen Anderson has published a new book, which he edited with Professor Louis de Saussure of the University of Neuchâtel. The book contains English translations of two monographs by René de Saussure, brother of the famed Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Although René was a mathematician rather than a linguist, he developed an interest in language due to his involvement with the Esperanto movement, a movement to establish the constructed language Esperanto as a universal international language. The translations are presented side-by-side with the original text in French, along with commentary on his life and the influence of the Esperantists on his thinking about language.

The two texts presented in the book develop a theory of word formation. René viewed words as being composed of simple elements, which are today known as morphemes. For example, we may think of the word dishwasher to consist of three parts, or morphemes: the word dish, the word wash, and the suffix -er. René’s perspective contrasted with that of his brother Ferdinand. Instead of decomposing words into elementary parts, Ferdinand understood word formation as a series of relationships between similar words. For example, the word dishwasher might be related to a word like dishwash in the same way that baker might be related to bake. However, unlike René, Ferdinand would not have considered the suffix -er to be a meaningful linguistic object in its own right. These two perspectives—word formation as the composition of elementary objects, or word formation as a series of relationships—continue to be a subject of debate in modern linguistics.

René’s detailed study of language, and in particular of word formation, was likely motivated by a desire to showcase the various features of Esperanto. Esperanto is a language created by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof, who hoped that everyone in the world would be able to communicate with one another using an intermediary language that is easy to learn. One of the most striking features of Esperanto is that Zamenhof tried as much as possible to invent words that were composed of simple parts. For example, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs always end with -o, -a, and -e, respectively, and stems representing basic meanings are often derived from other stems using affixes such as mal- “not” (e.g. nova “new” and malnova “old”). René’s writings were well-received by Esperantists, who found in them a way to understand how their language was designed.

Despite their success in the Esperanto movement, René’s works remained unknown in the world of linguistics. Nonetheless, the texts presented in the book, along with Ferdinand’s work, represent one of the earliest instances of the debate between these two perspectives on word formation. For that reason, Stephen and Louis refer to the texts as a “historic landmark.”

Stephen and Louis’s book, René de Saussure and the theory of word formation, can be read for free on the publisher’s website. Printed copies can be purchased on Amazon.

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