Structure, mentality, society, civilisation: The four linguistics of Antoine Meillet

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Abstract

Nowadays the name of Antoine Meillet (1866-1936) is mainly associated with his textbooks of Indo-European comparative linguistics, his work on Slavic languages and Armenian, and his leadership of a ‘Paris school’ in which the great linguists of the next generation were trained. Yet we should not lose sight of his important contributions to synchronic linguistics, including the analysis of French. With his novel concept of ‘grammaticalisation’ in a 1912 article, where the key examples are drawn from French, showed the impossibility of a strict separation of analytical categories, and more generally between synchrony and diachrony. In other studies he claims that a speaker of French conceives of an object differently from how an ancient Roman did, because of the structure of Latin and French grammar; that the movement of vocabulary items from a specific genre (such as the argot of sailors) into general usage is the principal driver of the social evolution of a language, and that a quasi-feudal hierarchy exists amongst words according to their origins; that in Europe there are only four ‘languages of civilisation’, in the face of which other European languages are destined to disappear. Although Meillet played a cardinal role in the development of the linguistic structuralism of the first half of the 20th century, he kept a certain distance from the movement, and this reserve, which he passed on to his students (with certain exceptions), clarifies certain aspects of the particular character of French linguistics.
Translated title of the contributionStructure, mentality, society, civilisation: The four linguistics of Antoine Meillet
Original languageFrench
Title of host publication7e Congrès Mondial de Linguistique Française
Subtitle of host publicationCMLF 2020
Number of pages12
Volume78
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sep 2020

Keywords

  • Antoine Meillet
  • history of linguistics
  • structuralism
  • history of sociolinguistics
  • French linguistics

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