The cerebral closet: Language as valeur and trésor in Saussure

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Abstract / Description of output

The economic metaphor of valeur plays a central role in the Cours de linguistique générale of Ferdinand de Saussure, which defines a language as a system of values. Much ink has been spilled in speculation over its possible sources, while relatively little attention has been given to another economic metaphor used by Saussure: that of language as a trésor, an ambiguous word which can refer either to valuables (in which valeur is stored) or to a container for valuables. Both meanings are apposite, since the metaphor arises in the context of discussing both what a language is and where it is located in the people who know it. This paper examines work in political economics and psychology that Saussure had encountered, and show how the metaphors become more meaningful in the light of what his predecessors maintained about the nature of economic value, and about how knowledge of language is stored – within the nervous-muscular system involved in language production, or in what Alexander Bain scorned as a “cerebral closet”. Also considered is Saussure’s position on the negotiation of value in parole and in diachrony, and how his views on the trésor in multiple brains compares and contrasts with present-day views of extended cognition and distributed language.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-61
Number of pages23
JournalSPELL: Swiss Papers in English Language and Literature
Publication statusPublished - 18 Nov 2016


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