The Impact of Ferdinand de Saussure on Arabic Linguistic Research

09 December, 2019

The Lexical and Linguistic Studies Series of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Houcine Soudani’s study of The Impact of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) on Arabic Linguistic Research and the Reception of Linguistics in the Arab World, in which the author suggests de Saussure’s impact is akin to that of Sibawayh’s Al-Kitab on Arabic grammar. Soudani’s book (344 pp. with an introduction by Abdessalam al-Massadi) provides a detailed study of the Arab reception of the field of linguistics, the familiarity of Arab scholars with linguistic theories, and the contexts in which they presented and employed the theories and their foundations.

The book’s first chapter, “100 years of de Saussure studies” sets a timeframe with a conceptualization of the progressive evolution of Saussurean linguistic studies over a century, both in the university and broadly impacting the world-at-large. Soudani states that de Saussure, “if not the only linguist of his day exploring the concepts featured in his studies, was the first able to fashion a delicate and subtle system harmonizing disparate elements from their meanings. His systems and structures displayed an ability to clarify ambiguity, instill clearly differentiated meaning, and reconcile incompatible theories.”

In the second chapter, Soudani examines the circumstances that paved the way for incorporation of Saussure's views into Arabic linguistic research. In the period prior to Saussure’s discovery, Soudani found that reasons inhibiting and delaying interest in his views included the dependency of prevailing linguistic research in the Mashreq on the German University, and “the colonial reality” of the Maghreb, that delayed discovery of Saussure until after the establishment of the new institution of the university, following independence. Thus, Arabic linguistic research did not explicitly recognize de Saussure as an essential authoritative linguistic reference until the mid-nineteen fifties, despite familiarity, particularly in the Mashreq, with modern linguistic schools. When the Egyptian University became receptive to non-German centric university environments, with the return of the first educational mission that had studied linguistics at the University of London, Saussure was incorporated at last into linguist inquiry.”

Soudani goes on in the third chapter to explain how an acknowledged position for Saussure within Arabic linguistic research became realized when his students returned home from European schools, although they were not in all cases students who were focused exclusively on linguistic studies; some pursued interests ranging from sociology to literary criticism. The author believes that de Saussure's presence grew as authoritative books and articles on linguistics began to refer to him. Soudani notes that mediation can also create an effective cognitive dependency that fences off any knowledge the intercessor is not acquainted with or does not pass on.

Soudani later examines data providing a basis for achieving a deep awareness of the theoretical ingredients of de Saussurian linguistics during the late 1960's and 1970's. During these two decades, a number of fundamental ingredients joined forces to launch a paradigm shift in Arab linguists’ awareness of linguistics and de Saussurian linguistics in particular. The most prominent of these was the involvement of the Arab Maghreb in linguistic research, and linguists of the Levant becoming acquainted with Anglo-Saxon linguistics. The book’s fifth chapter investigates the crystallization of de Saussurian linguistics and their systematic presentation. Soudani explores the period from the establishment of the field of stylistics to the emergence of the five Arab translations of de Saussure’s works, as such the pinnacle of engagement of Arab linguists with his views: their presentation, interrogation and employment.

Soudani believes that contact of the Arab researchers with de Saussure incrementally escalated, with the ninth and tenth decades of the twentieth century witnessing the peak of interest in de Saussurian linguistics in the enrollment of the countries of the Arab Maghreb in linguistic research post-independence and the establishment of universities and some research centers. The francophone cultural background allowed the researchers to be receptive, with direct access to de Saussurian linguistics in French; and with the development witnessed by linguistics in the Arab Mashreq, especially among the generation that followed the Arab linguist pioneers. In the late twentieth century, interest in de Saussarian linguistics no longer restricted itself to exposition and presentation, and de Saussure's views and concepts became the foundational background for interpreting the heritage and a theoretical tool for addressing linguistic phenomena. De Saussurian readings were discussed in terms of backgrounds, origins and extent of innovativeness.

In the sixth chapter, the author expresses a growing awareness on the part of contemporary Arab linguists of de Saussurian terminology as being the stand-out feature of any monitoring of the Saussurian terminological corpus. This consciousness is both at the level of concept of a term, on the one hand, and its generative instrumentality on the other. Soudani’s final chapter considers de Saussure’s reception at the outset of the twenty-first century, i.e. the period characterized by the academic world marking the centennial of the passing of de Saussure and publication of his book, along with collections of de Saussure studies.

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