Comparative reconstruction and… bisexuality??

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The department that it is my privilege to lead runs a colloquium series that begins this year on Thursday 30 September with a myth-busting talk by our own Professor John Joseph, about what he calls "the least understood book in the entire history of linguistics". I'll be there, and on the edge of my seat. Because I've never seen anyone try to link Indo-European comparative phonological reconstruction to bisexuality before.

Here's John's abstract:

Saussure's Mémoire on the original Indo-European vowel system: shedding light on the least understood book in the entire history of linguistics

John E. Joseph (University of Edinburgh)

Encyclopaedias, biographical dictionaries and internet sites routinely refer to Saussure's ‘famous’ Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879) as a major contribution to historical linguistics and the starting point of what would develop into 20th-century structuralism. If they go on to provide details about its contents, the circumstances of its writing or its scientific afterlife, however, these are inevitably wrong. A series of fables that suit a narrative of disciplinary progress, and provide a compelling Sherlock Holmesian story involving the decipherment of Hittite, have been endlessly recycled, effectively taking the place of the book itself in linguists' minds.

But the actual book is far more interesting than the myth. This paper sketches the developments that led up to Saussure's proposal that Proto-Indo-European had a single vowel, and — contrary to what was universally assumed — disyllabic roots. It clarifies what he meant by ‘sonant coefficients’, and how they developed over the evolution from ‘primitive’ to ‘pre-ethnic’ PIE; and unravels the relationship between two hypothetical sonant coefficients and ‘laryngeals’, a term which never appears in the Mémoire, but was contributed later by another linguist. It also recounts how Saussure rushed the book into print, at his own expense, in what he perceived to be a race with one of his teachers; and it considers the reasons for the Mémoire's failed reception in Germany, which led to its marginalisation and rejection. Finally, it looks at some of the later mythologisations, including a recent interpretation of the sonant coefficients as (get ready for it) symbols of latent bisexuality.

I have a long-standing interest in how academic myths become established and misinformation spreads; it seems epistemologically fascinating to me, and in the case of myths in linguistics it is of course very much germane to what I teach, as well as what I grouse at and mock in articles like the ones collected in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, and in posts here on Language Log. (No future tense in Urdu, indeed!) And as for the sexual orientation interpretation of those "sonant coefficients" (roughly, abstract quasi-vowel segments in the reconstructed phonological forms of words in Proto-Indo-European)… This I want to hear about. It sounds like John has found some work that is out-of-the-envelope eccentric even by the standards of psychoanalytic literary theory.

If you live within travelling range of Edinburgh you can of course be at the talk, or any of the Linguistic Circle talks: 4 p.m. in room 3.10 of the Dugald Stewart Building on Bristo Square. Language Log readers have only to show their subscription cards and provide certain biometric data and they will be shown right in. Indeed, the Linguistic Circle is happy to welcome any linguists, or even just people who'd like to be. More the merrier.


  1. language hat said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    I very much look forward to your report on this!

  2. Arjan said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    Just yesterday I received my copy of The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax by mail. It proved detrimental to my sleep last night. ;)

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    I note that at least for Americans, it may not be necessary to wait for Geoff's report, since a "full view" of Saussure's Mémoire is available from Google Books.

    None of the obvious search strings turned up any hits, though, so I suspect that the bisexuality is, well, less than fully explicit.

  4. language hat said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    As an Indo-Europeanist manqué, I have read Saussure; I am interested in Professor Joseph's take on the book (and, of course, Geoff's take on that take).

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    Who needs oral sex when you can have laryngeal sex? (hey hat, it's rodii)

  6. Joe Fineman said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    Exploit, explit, explitten.

  7. Martyn Cornell said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

    Myths and misinformation spring up like Japanese knotweed in ALL fields, and it does seem to be a widespread human failing to prefer a good story to the facts.

  8. groki said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

    I too look forward to GKP's report (Edinburgh is not nearby, alas).

    and re: a recent interpretation of the sonant coefficients as (get ready for it) symbols of latent bisexuality.

    latent in 'primitive' or 'pre-ethnic' PIE speakers, in Saussure, in other linguists, or . . . ?

  9. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    Exploit, explit, explicit?

  10. George said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 5:48 am

    Could the lecture be recorded and posted here?

  11. Don said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 6:55 am

    I can't fathom the connection between sexual orientation and phonological reconstruction. Even if it's some far fetched myth like Tamil and Wolof being related, actually hearing the evidence for it would be very interesting/amusing. Looking forward to hearing your take on the actual lecture!

  12. Bill W said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    Could the mysterious bisexual sonant coefficients be related to this?

    According to myl,

    "The paper hints, but doesn't quite assert, that the (more diffuse) vowel differences between (self-identified) male straight and gay speakers might reflect a difference in precision of articulation, which might have other correlates as well, for example the differences in aspiration that have sometimes been found associated with sexual orientation differences among men."

    The results of the study discussed in the LL article were supposedly "inconsistent with the conjecture that innate biological factors have a broadly feminizing influence on the speech of gay men and a broadly masculinizing influence on the speech of lesbian/bisexual women", but that suggests that there are those who contend that there are innate biological factors affecting the speech of gay or bisexual men. Could the idea behind the "interpretation of the sonant coefficients as (get ready for it) symbols of latent bisexuality" be that the "laryngeals" somehow arose as a as a result of the spread of the genetically conditioned articulation of vowels (or of THE vowel, in Saussure's view) by bisexual men throughout the PIE community? (I'm not endorsing this view, just speculating on what the underlying theory is.)

  13. Robert Coren said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    @Martyn: Or, as the Italian saying has it, "Se non è vero, è ben trovato."

  14. language hat said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    That Ben Trovato, what a liar. (Hi rodii!)

  15. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 5:20 am

    @GKP: I suppose you are familiar with Richard F. Hamilton's The Social Misconstruction of Reality. Most thought-provoking book I've ever read on "how academic myths become established and misinformation spreads", although the essays in it tend to quit just as things are getting interesting (except, perhaps, the ones on the rise of the NSDAP and on Weber's spirit of capitalism).

  16. John Joseph said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us… I too am looking forward to your report, Geoff!

  17. iching said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 2:25 am

    All I know about Saussure is contained in the lines of The Magnetic Fields song "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure". e.g. I met Ferdinand de Saussure\On a night like this\On love he said\"I'm not so sure\I even know what it is…"

    Is the report on this talk still in the pipeline?

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