BENVENISTE Émile—linguist and philosopher of language, continuator of F. de Saussure’s structuralism, b. in 1902, d. in 1976. He attended A. Meillet’s lectures at l’École pratique des Hautes Études. In the 1930s he worked with J. Kuryłowicz. In 1937 he became a professor of the Collège de France, and in 1959 he became a member of PAN [Polish Academy of the Sciences].
He devoted his major works to the comparative grammar of Indo-European languages and general linguistics: Essai de grammaire sogolienne (P 1929); Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen (P 1935, 19734); Noms d’agent et noms d’action en indo-européen (P 1948); Problémes de linguistique générale (P 1966); Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (P 1969); Problèmes du language (P 1970).
In Problèmes, Benveniste basically assumed de Saussure’s structuralism, but he argued with de Saussure’s thesis that the link between the signifying element (le signifiant) and the signified element (la signifié) is arbitrary. This link is not accidental but necessary. If one consistently follows Saussure and accepts that the signifying element is the concept, e.g., the concept “le boeuf” (bull), and the signified element is the phonetic pattern, e.g., “böf”, then one should reject Saussure’s argumentation that appeals to the arbitrary character of the connection of name with object. According to Benveniste, the acoustic image “böf” and the concept “le boeuf” are functionally two sides of one reality.
Benveniste stated that the source of subjectivity in language is the way in which pronouns function, which do not have any defined meaning according to lexicons and take on their meaning only in the context of use. There is a basic difference between the functions of personal pronouns in the first and second person—the deictic use, and in the third person—the anaphoric use. Benveniste emphasized that language should be understood not only as a certain collection of signs and the rules for connecting them (the basic units of language are phonemes, sememes, etc.), but at the same time it should be understood as a certain activity manifested each time in communication or conversation (the units of language are propositions).
In Problèmes Benveniste discussed many topics in the philosophy of language, including the nature of the linguistic sign, the characteristic features of human language, correlations between the categories of language and conceptual categories, and the role of language in the study of the unconscious. Linguistic relativists (A. Graham) regard Benveniste as the author of the thesis that Aristotle’s categories were relative to the Greek language—these categories do not occur in reality, but are a projection of certain linguistic categories present in the Greek language.
In Vocabulaire, Benveniste rejected the prevailing method for the comparative study of Indo-European languages. He did not confine himself to chronology, but distinguished certain synchronic structures and investigated their diachrony. He studied the formation and organization of the vocabulary of institutions in the areas of economy, relations of affinity, society, political authority, law, and religion. He distinguished in this regard three functions of vocabulary corresponding to three castes: priests, soldiers, and farmers.
J. Kristeva, Épistémologie de la linguistique. Hommage Émile Benveniste, P 1971; Émile Benveniste aujourd’hui. Actes du Colloque international du C. N. R. S. Université François Rabelias, Tours 28–30 septembre 1983, I–II, P 1984; A. C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao, La Salle 1989; Benveniste et la linguistique de la parole, Kleineidam 1995; Krąpiec Dz [Works] XIII; É. Gilson, L’être et l’essence, P 1948, 19722 (Byt i istota [Being and essence], Wwa 1963); idem, Linguistique et philosophie, P 1969 (Lingwistyka a filozofia [Linguistics and philosophy], Wwa 1975).