Émile Benveniste (French: [bɛ̃venist]; 27 March 1902 – 3
October 1976) was a French structural linguist and semiotician. He is
best known for his work on
Indo-European languages and his critical
reformulation of the linguistic paradigm established by Ferdinand de
3 Publications translated to English
4 Selected works
Benveniste was born in Aleppo,
Ottoman Syria to a
Sephardi family. His father sent him to Marseilles to undertake
rabbinical studies, but his exceptional abilities were noted by
Sylvain Lévi who introduced him to Antoine Meillet.
Initially studying under Meillet, a former student of Saussure, at the
Sorbonne, he began teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études
and was elected to the Collège de
France a decade later in 1937 as
professor of linguistics. By this time he had already begun his
investigation into the status of names within the history of
Indo-European linguistic forms. He held his seat at the Collège de
France until 1969 when he retired due to deteriorating health, after
he suffered a stroke that left him aphasic. However, he served as
the first President of the International Association for Semiotic
Studies from 1969 to 1972.
Benveniste died in Paris, aged 74.
At the start of his career, his highly specialised and technical work
limited his influence to a small circle of scholars. In the late
thirties, he aroused some controversy for challenging the influential
Saussurian notion of the sign, that posited a binary distinction
between the phonic shape of any given word (signifier) and the idea
associated with it (signified). Saussure argued that the relationship
between the two was psychological, and purely arbitrary. Benveniste
challenged this model in his Nature du signe linguistique.
The publication of his monumental text, Problèmes de linguistique
générale or Problems in General Linguistics, would elevate his
position to much wider recognition. The two volumes of this work
appeared in 1966 and 1974 respectively. The book exhibits not only
scientific rigour but also a lucid style accessible to the layman,
consisting of various writings culled from a period of more than
twenty-five years. In Chapter 5, Animal Communication and Human
Language, Benveniste repudiated behaviourist linguistic
interpretations by demonstrating that human speech, unlike the
so-called languages of bees and other animals, cannot be merely
reduced to a stimulus-response system.
The I–you polarity is another important development explored in the
text. The third person acts under the conditions of possibility of
this polarity between the first and second persons. Narration and
description illustrate this.
"I signifies "the person who is uttering the present instance of the
discourse containing I." This instance is unique by definition and has
validity only in its uniqueness ... I can only be identified by the
instance of discourse that contains it and by that alone."
You, on the other hand, is defined in this way:
"by introducing the situation of "address," we obtain a symmetrical
definition for you as "the individual spoken to in the present
instance of discourse containing the linguistic instance of you."
These definitions refer to I and you as a category of language and are
related to their position in language." — from Problems in General
A pivotal concept in Benveniste's work is the distinction between the
énoncé and the énonciation, which grew out of his study on
pronouns. The énoncé is the statement independent of context,
whereas the énonciation is the act of stating as tied to context. In
essence, this distinction moved Benveniste to see language itself as a
"discursive instance", i.e., fundamentally as discourse. This
discourse is, in turn, the actual utilisation, the very enactment, of
One of the founders of structuralism, Roland Barthes, attended
Benveniste's seminars at École Pratique.
Pierre Bourdieu was
instrumental in publishing Benveniste's other major work, Vocabulaire
des Institutions Indo-Européennes in his series Le Sens commun at
Les Éditions de Minuit (1969). The title is
misleading: it is not a “vocabulary”, but rather a comprehensive
and comparative analysis of key social behaviors and institutions
across Germanic, Romance-speaking, Greco-Roman, and Indo-Iranian
cultures, using the words (vocables) that denote them as points of
entry. It makes use of philology, anthropology, phenomenology and
sociology. A number of contemporary French philosophers (e.g., Barbara
Cassin, Nicole Loraux, Philippe-Joseph Salazar, François Jullien,
Marc Crépon) have often referred to Benveniste's Vocabulaire and are
inspired by his methodology and the distinction he draws between
meaning (signification) and what is referred to (désignation).
Jacques Derrida's famous work on "hospitality, the Other, the
enemy" is an explicit "gloss" on Benveniste's ground-breaking study
of host/hostility/hospitality in the Vocabulary.
Publications translated to English
1969: Indo-European language and society, translated by Elizabeth
Palmer. London: Faber and Faber 1973. ISBN 0-87024-250-4.
1966-1974: Problems in general linguistics, translated by Mary
Elizabeth Meek, 2 vols. Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami, P
1971. ISBN 0-87024-132-X.
Hittite et indo-européen : études comparatives
Indo-European language and society
Les infinitifs avestiques
Langue, discours, société
Origines de la formation des noms en indo-européen
The Persian religion, according to the chief Greek texts
Problèmes de linguistique générale
Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes
Inscriptions de bactriane extraits
^ Calvert Watkins, 'L'Apport d'Emile Benveniste à la grammaire
comparée,' in E. Benveniste aujourd'hui, Actes du Colloque
International du C.N.R.S. Université François Rabelais Tours, 28 -
30 septembre 1983 Vol. 2 Peeters Publishers, 1984 pp.3-11 p.3-
^ Emile Benveniste, 'Nature du signe linguistique,' in Acta
linguistica 1939, 1 pp.23–29.
^ Jacques Derrida, De l'hospitalité, (avec Anne Dufourmantelle),
^ E. Benveniste, le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes,
Les Editions de Minuit vol.1, 1969 pp.87-101.
Gérard Dessons, Émile Benveniste : L'invention du discours, In
Press, 2006. (in French)
ISNI: 0000 0001 2120 9418
BNF: cb122921890 (data)