Monday, April 09, 2007
from Ferdinand de Saussure's "Course in General Linguistics" * :
In chess, each move is absolutely distinct from the preceding and the subsequent equilibrium. The change effected belongs to neither state: only states matters.
In a game of chess any particular position has the unique characteristic of being freed from all antecedent positions; the route used in arriving there makes absolutely no difference; one who has followed the entire match has no advantage over the curious party who comes up at a critical moment to inspect the site of the game; to describe this arrangement, it is perfectly useless to recall what had just happened ten seconds previously. All this is equally applicable to language and sharpens the radical distinction between diachrony and synchony. Speaking operates only on a language-state, and the changes that intervene between states have no place in either state.
At only one point is the comparison weak: the chess player intends to bring about a shift and thereby to exert an action on the system, whereas language premeditates nothing. The pieces of language are shifted--or rather modified--spontaneously and fortuitously. [cf the umlat in grammar and in speech, functioning equally.] In order to make the game of chess seem at every point like the functioning of language, we would have to imagine an unconscious or unintelligent player. This sole difference, however, makes the comparison even more instructive by showing the absolute necessity of making the a distinction between the two classes of phenomena in linguistics. For if diachronic facts cannot be reduced to the synchronic system which they condition when the change is intentional, all the more will they resist when they set a blind force against the organization of a system of signs.
* Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy, Mark C. Taylor, ed. (Univ of Chicago, 1986).