Friday, 27 May 2011

Aleppo-born linguist: we are able to conceive of ourselves and others only through language

The linguist Émile Benveniste was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1902 and became a renowned semiotician and structural linguist in France where he lectured. I came across his essay, Subjectivity in Language and found it an inspiring text on the connection between the self and language the establishment or reproduction of his own self through language. In his essay, Benveniste opines that language is fundamentally essential for our ability, as human beings, to conceive of ourselves, and that this necessarily occurs through language as each speaker appropriates the pronoun ‘I’, placing all things in the universe as objects in relation to himself as the subject. That the speaker designates himself as ‘I’, infers that he conceives of his conversation partner as ‘you’, hence establishing the very essence of the self through the mutual relationship between the two pronouns. Only by this appropriation is a human able to identify himself as a ‘person’, and access the consciousness of others.

A speaker can only identify himself as a person by appropriating for himself the pronoun ‘I’ since this condition is fundamental to subjectivity.

Benveniste’s style is so lucid that I have mainly quoted him in this post.

Subjectivity in Language

Émile Benveniste opens by visiting the seemingly obvious and popular assertion that language is the instrument of communication. Language does, after all, transmit what I intend to communicate, and it elicits an adequate response from my interlocutor (speech partner). In that sense, it acts in terms of stimuli and response according to the behaviourist model and this supports the idea of language as an instrument for communication. Yet upon closer examination we realise we are in fact here describing discourse- language put into action. In other words we are claiming that language is an instrument because it is an instrument. The author then dismantles the notion of language conceived of as an instrument as unhelpful, since it implies an opposition between man and nature. Instruments such as the wheel or the sword are not in nature but in man’s nature, whilst language is inherent to man’s own nature.  It is naïve to conceptualize primordial man, in his complete state, stumbling across another human being and the two of them contriving a language together from scratch. We will never get back to man as reduced to himself (without language) and able to conceive of the existence of another by means other than linguistic. In the world what we find is a speaking man: language provides the very definition of man. In short, to view language as an object of any sort is to ignore its characteristics of immateriality, its articulated arrangement, and the fact that it has content. The moment we employ language, we instrumentalize it, yet this does not engender that language can be called an instrument. Rather, the instrumental function belongs to the act of speech, which itself is a manifestation of language.

So we have established that speech is a mere function of communication, which itself is only the actualization of language. What is it therefore that enables us to render language into communication? It is explained by a function residing deep within language itself.

Benvenist then comments, ‘It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a subject, because language alone establishes the concept of “ego” in reality, in its reality which is that of the being’.

The ability of the speaker to posit himself as the ‘subject’ is known in linguists as ‘subjectivity’. Subjectivity is a fundamental property of language. It is not the feeling that everybody experiences of being himself, but as the ‘psychic unity that transcends the totality of the actual experiences it assembles and that makes the permanence of the consciousness’.

We can only be conscious of ourselves by experience of contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone I identify as you in addressing them. As Beneviste notes, ‘it is this condition of dialogue that is constitutive of person, for it implies that reciprocally I becomes you in the address of the one who in his turn designates himself as I. Thus language is possible ‘only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself to I in his discourse. Because of this, I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me. This polarity of persons is the fundamental condition in language, of which the process of communication, in we share, is only a mere pragmatic consequence’.

This polarity is particular in that it can be found nowhere outside language-‘the polarity does not mean either equality or symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible.’ No parallel to this exists in the universe; the condition of man in language is unique’.

The implications of this are enormous. Benevist puts it so well that I can merely quote him, ‘[...] the old antimonies of “I” and “the other”, of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term, whether this unique term be the “I”, which must be established in the individual’s own consciousness in order to become accessible to that of the fellow human being, or whether it be, on the contrary, society, which as a totality would pre-exist the individual and from which the individual could only be disengaged gradually, in proportion to his acquisition of self-consciousness. It is a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.’

But must the basis of this understanding of oneself in relation to ‘the other’ be based in language? Could it be that the ‘ego’ can be expressed outside of language? Benveniste argues that language is fundamental to subjectivity. He demonstrates this by the existence of personal pronouns in all languages and in all regions and ages known to man. Though it is easy to overlook, pronouns such as “I” and “you” are inherent to all languages. In fact, ‘a language without the expression of person cannot be imagined’. What makes pronouns distinguishable from all other linguistic designations is that they neither refer to a concept nor to an individual. As Benveniste illustrates, there is no single concept of “I” that in one moment incorporates all the I’s being uttered at any given moment, whilst there is in fact a single concept of “tree” to which every single utterance of the word tree refers. Of course, speakers may be referring to a specific tree or a type of tree, yet they are aware at the same time that the designate of “tree” is stable. As the author continues, ‘The “I” then, does not denominate any lexical entity. Could it then be said that I refers to a particular individual? If that were the case, a permanent contradiction would be admitted into language, and anarchy into its use. How could the same term refer indifferently to any individual whatsoever and still at the same time identify him in his individuality? We are in the presence of a class of words, the “personal pronouns” that escape the status of all the other signs of language. Then, what does I refer to? To something peculiar which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is pronounced, and by this it designates the speaker. It is a term that cannot be identified except in what we have called elsewhere an instance of discourse and that has only a momentary reference... It is in the instance of discourse in which I designates the speaker that the speaker designates himself as the “subject”.

It is therefore true that the basis of subjectivity is in language. As Benveniste notes, ‘Language is so organized that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I... Language is accordingly the possibility of subjectivity because it always contains the linguistic forms appropriate to the expression of subjectivity, and discourse provokes the emergence of subjectivity because it consists of discrete instances. In some way language puts forth “empty” forms which each speaker, in the existence of discourse, appropriates to himself and which he relates to his “person”, at the same time defining himself as I and a partner as you. The instance of discourse is thus constitutive of all the coordinates that define the subject [...]’.

It is therefore the case that subjectivity, (that ‘psychic unity that transcends the totality of the actual experiences it assembles and that makes the permanence of the consciousness’), as expressed in language, creates the category of person.

The material in this post is based on the essay Subjectivity in Language by Émile Benveniste and appeared in his book ‘Problems in General Linguistics’, as well as Journal de Psychologie 55 (July-September 1958)


  1. Very interesting! As I read this it reminded me of this simple but lovely post titled "I Before Me" about a father and son having a discussion:

    The son has not yet learned that "I" is what he says to refer to himself when speaking with others. Instead, he uses it to refer to his father, being that is the word his father uses when referring to himself.

    Ah, these short moments of time in our children's lives before they grow up and learn to say everything "right." It gives us a glimpse into that which we take for granted (and how language influences that).

  2. thanks for the interesting comment. I love how child language acquisition shows us the way language works. The example in the link you sent is interesting because it poses the question of whether that boy is fully aware of himself as being himself when he cannot 'correctly' use the first person pronoun. I think that would be a little simplified. It's probably the case that he was simply imitating the language around him, and linguists know that young children often intend to say something, but verbally construe it otherwise as happened in the link. Their brains are ahead of their ability to construe their thoughts physically in language I think. Fascinating stuff!