French quotes | Ce qu’ils disent

Color word box - USE

“Le langage reproduit le monde, mais en le soumettant à son organisation propre.”
(Language reproduces the world, but in doing so organizes the world like language.)

| Émile BENVENISTE, Problèmes de linguistique générale

This quote intrigues me to the core.

Émile Benveniste (May 1902 – October 1976), a French structural linguist and semiotician (someone who studies signs and symbols), penned this gem. Born in Syria, he is best known for his work on Indo-European languages, teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, and his election to the Collège de France in 1937 as professor of linguistics.

A devotee of language and language learning – specifically French – I was struck by the relative complexity of this line fashioned in so few words. We rarely think about language, how we use it, and if we succeed in using it the way we want.

Ideally, we employ the vocabulary at our disposal to describe that which is in front of us, reality, and that which is not in front of us, the abstract. Rarely do we consider that in describing something, we also define it. We reproduce that something using the only structure we know – language. We “organize” it within the confines of that structure and, fundamentally, according to that structure. Because of this, language is never devoid of judgment.

Which makes me think – is the language at our fingertips, rolling so unconsciously off our tongue, ever enough?

Can we always “reproduce the world,” or accurately describe the world we live in and the life we live? Interestingly, French philosopher Eric Weil thinks not.

“Seul l’homme sait parler de ce qui n’est pas, et, à vrai dire, ne sait parler que de ce qui n’est pas. Il parle de ce qui n’est pas encore, de ce qui n’est plus et il échoue lamentablement dès qu’il essaie de parler de ce qui est… on a toujours avoué que la vérité ne se formule pas, mais se vit, se vit donc en dehors du langage. Car le langage n’est pas un instrument destiné à énoncer ce qui est, mais à exprimer ce qui ne satisfait pas l’homme et à formuler ce qu’il désire; son contenu n’est pas formé par ce qui est mais par ce qui n’est pas.”

Weil suggests that mankind only knows how to speak of that which is not – the negative. We can depict what has not yet occurred or what no longer exists, but not what is. To him, truth, or what is, cannot be articulated but must be lived – outside of language.

There is undoubtedly truth in this.

I, for one, believe that we transform the world, for better or worse, by describing it. And we organize the world, according to our own desires, in this description. As long as we are cognizant of language – its nuances and pitfalls, temptations and tricks – we are one step closer to producing a better version of the truth.


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