Saussure on individual linguistic knowledge: a non-nativist notion of instinct ?
The mainstream account of Saussurean theory describes it as completely objective, taking language (la langue) as a social, abstract object having no relation at all with the speaker/listener and her knowledge. Generative Linguistics, instead, claims to adopt the attitude of taking into account the speaker’s (although it is an ideal speaker) knowledge, and even states that every biological individual as such has language in her mind.
In spite of this (almost) unquestioned opinion, a close reading of Saussure’s texts shows hints of a clear focus on the linguistic knowledge and conscience of the speaker. Namely, the notion of sentiment de la langue, which can be found widely throughout Saussure’s works and notes, represents a form of very weak conscience. Closely related to this notion, it is also possible to find some occurrences of instinct, or rather of instinctivement (“instinctively”). Using these words, Saussure refers to linguistic (semi-)automatic activity, which is not, indeed, operated by native mechanisms, but works just like native instincts.
This shows how Saussure, just as Chomsky, considers (semi-)automatic mechanisms which guide linguistic behavior as a pivotal object for linguistics; but, unlike Chomsky, he thinks that this kind of linguistic mechanism is not related to a native device. This kind of conception opens a new perspective about language, where “natural” fades into “cultural”, and vice versa.
KEYWORDS Chomsky, Saussure, Conscience, Instinct, Morphologie
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