Key Theories of Emile Benveniste

Born in Aleppo in 1902, Emile Benveniste was professor of linguistics at the Colle’ge de France from 1937 to 1969, when he was forced to retire due to ill-health, tragically caused by aphasia. He died in 1976. After being educated at the Sorbonne under Ferdinand de Saussure’s former pupil, Antoine Meillet, Benveniste’s early work in the 1930s continued Saussure’s interest in the history of Indo-European linguistic forms, particularly the status of names. Because of the specialist, technical nature of this early work, Benveniste was little known outside a relatively narrow circle of scholars. This situation changed with the publication of the first volume of his Problèmes de linguistique générale in 1966. A second volume appeared in 1974. The book brings together Benveniste’s most accessible writings of a period of more than twenty-five years, and looks at language as a linguistic and semiotic object, as an instrument of communication, as a social and cultural phenomenon, and as a vehicle of subjectivity.

Those Inspired by Benveniste

In the wake of this work, Benveniste became an important figure in the evolution of the structuralist tendency in the social sciences and humanities. Lacan, for instance, recognises in his Ecrits that it is Benveniste who deals a behaviourist interpretation a mortal blow with the insight that, unlike the communication of bees, human language is not a simple stimulus–response system. And Kristeva, for her part, has seen that Benveniste’s theory of pronouns – especially the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘you’ – or what is called the I–you polarity – is of fundamental importance for developing a dynamic conception of subjectivity. Roland Barthes, similarly, clearly saw Benveniste’s writings on the ‘middle voice’ of the verb as being of seminal importance for understanding the position of the writer today – the writer who now writes intransitively (middle voice).  More recently, Giorgio Agamben has made recourse to Benveniste’s theory of the subject of the enunciative act (e´nonciation) in order to formulate a theory of witnessing the impossibility of witnessing in relation to Auschwitz (Agamben 2002: 137–65).

Benveniste_backgroundE´nonciation (Act of Stating) and E´nonce´ (Statement)

In his work on pronouns, Benveniste developed a theory of the difference between the e’nonce´ (statement independent of context) and the e’nonciation (the act of stating tied to context). Given the phenomenon of ‘shifterisation’, as elaborated by Roman Jakobson, no meaning of an e´nonce´ containing pronouns and other markers of the shifter (such as ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘this’, ‘that’, etc.) can be understood without reference to context, equivalent here to the act of enunciation. Granted that it is difficult to give an example of an e`nonciation because in fact an e`nonce´ is always the necessary vehicle of any example (an example being an instance of a speech act taken out of its context), it is important to recognise that the subject in language is inseparable from its realisation. In other words, the subject is not equivalent to the status attributed to it in the formal, grammatical structure. In terms of the latter, the subject is always the fixed, static entity given in the e`nonce’. In sum, then, Benveniste’s insight is that any linguistics which wants todo justice to the dynamics of language must see it as a ‘discursive instance’ – as discourse, in short. Discourse is the enactment of language.


A key element of Benveniste’s theory of language as discourse is his theory of pronouns, and in particular, the theory of the I–you polarity. Grammatically, this polarity constitutes the first and second person pronouns, with he–she–it constituting the third person. Benveniste’s insight is that the third person functions as the condition of possibility of the first and second person; the third person is a ‘non-person’, a status revealed by the neutral voice of narration, or description – the voice of denotation. Kristeva, came to see this polarity as the key to understanding the dynamics of the subject–object (I = subject, you = object) relation in language. The upshot is that, now, the I–you polarity has meaning uniquely in relation to the present instance of discourse. As our author explains when discussing the ‘reality’ to which I or you refers:

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. (Benveniste 1971: 218)

You, for its part, is defined in the following 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 [Benveniste adds] refer to I and you as a category of language and are related to their position in language. (Benveniste 1971: 218)

More generally, Benveniste sees language as essentially a dialogue between two or more parties, unlike a signal system where there is no dialogue. Again, in language a message can be passed on to a third person, in contrast to a signal system where the ‘message’ goes no further than the receiver. Finally, human language is a form that makes possible an infinite variety of contents, while a simple communication system based on a signal is invariably limited to what is programmed (e.g. the signal system of bees relates exclusively to honey). An important implication deriving from these insights is that human language can be used in an ironical way, or in a way requiring the constant interpretation and reinterpretation of the potentially multiple meanings latent in the e´nonciation. This means that human language has an undeniable poetic and fictive side. Connected to this is the further implication that, qua e´nonciation, human language never repeats itself exactly, as is the case with a signal system.

Thought and Language

While he did not ever claim that thought and language were identical, Benveniste would not accept either the position of Hjelmslev, for whom thought was entirely separate from language. For his part, Benveniste pointed out that in practice it is impossible to separate thought from language for, at minimum, language must be the vehicle for thought. As Benveniste says, ‘whoever tries to grasp the proper framework of thought encounters only the categories of language’ (Benveniste 1971: 63).

Revising Saussure and Semiotic Systems

Although a strong advocate of the importance of Saussure for the history of modern semiotics and linguistics, Benveniste also recognised the need to modify Saussure’s theory, in particular in terms of the relationship Saussure drew between linguistics and semiotics. Linguistics, Saussure said in the Course in General Linguistics, would one day be subsumed by semiotics, the discipline which studies signsystems. Such a prediction, Benveniste recognised, needs to be carefully thought through. In doing this, Benveniste notes that linguistic systems such as Morse code, Braille or sign language for the deaf and dumb can be translated between themselves, while semiotic systems are characterised by their non-redundance and therefore are not mutually translatable. As our author explains, ‘there is no ‘‘synonymy’’ between semiotic systems; one cannot ‘‘say the same thing’’ through speech and through music, which are systems each having a different basis’ (Benveniste 1974: 53). Again, two semiotic systems may well have the same constituent base and yet still be mutually untranslatable – such as, to cite Benveniste, the red in the traffic code and the red in the French tricolore. Consequently, Benveniste concludes, there is no single system of signs which would transcend all other systems; the possibility of an all-embracing semiotics which would include linguistics is therefore greatly reduced. The reverse is perhaps much more likely, namely that the linguistic system is the basis of translation of all semiotic systems.

Semiotics, Semantics and Society

Further to his analysis of the difference between the semiotic and the linguistic systems is Benveniste’s discussion of the difference between the semiotic and the semantic dimensions of language. The semiotic (le se´miotique) dimension is the mode of significance proper to the sign. Fundamentally, the semiotic exists when it is recognised. It is independent of any reference. The semantic aspect, on the other hand, is to be understood, rather than recognised. As a result, it is entirely referential and engendered by discourse. Benveniste also became influential during the 1960s with his writings about the nature of language. Like Le´vi-Strauss, he pointed out that language is constitutive of the social order, rather than the other way round. Furthermore, it was Benveniste who showed that language’s unique and paradoxical aspect in its social setting is its status as a super-individual instrument which can be objectified (hence linguistics), and which, as an instance of discourse, is constitutive of individuality. Indeed, the I–you polarity implies that the individual and society are no longer contradictory terms; for there is no individuality without language and no language independently of a community of speakers. Although Benveniste recognised that it is perfectly possible to study the history of national languages – just as it is possible to study the history of societies – it is not possible to study the history of language as such, or the history of society as such, because it is only within language and society that history is possible.

For humanity, language (langue) and society are unconscious realities. . . . Both are always inherited, and we cannot imagine in the exercise of language and in the practice of society that, at this fundamental level, there could ever have been a beginning to either of them. Neither can be changed by human will. (Benveniste 1971: 72)

Consequently, important changes certainly occur within social institutions, but the social bond itself does not change; similarly, the designations of language can change, but not the language system. This, Benveniste tried to impress upon those who, like Freud in some of his writings, would explain language and society at the level of ontogenesis. The risk is that the ‘primitive’ form (of society, language, culture) is made to serve as an explanation for the more advanced form. In this sense, ‘primitive’ societies were deemed by Rousseau, and certain anthropologists who were influenced by him, to be the ‘childhood’ of mankind, and so hold the key to a knowledge of the foundations of Western society. Benveniste, in 1956, to his credit, demonstrated that Freud, too, was not free of the temptation to call upon an ontogenesis in order to explain dream, primal words and language in general. Benveniste’s response is to point out that: confusions seem to have arisen in Freud from his constant recourse to ‘origins’: origins of art, of religion, of society, of language. . . . He was constantly transposing what seemed to him to be ‘primitive’ in man into an original primitivism, for it was indeed into the history of this world that he projected what we could call a chronology of the human psyche. (see Benveniste 1971: 72) By drawing attention to the risks involved in allowing ontogenesis to have a strong influence in social theory, Benveniste shows himself to be one of those who opened the way towards a structuralist (and later post-structuralist) approach to the analysis and interpretation of social phenomena. He showed conclusively that language has no origin precisely because it is a system. There can, therefore, be no primitive language. Language changes, but it does not progress. Linguistically, every natural language without exception is complex and highly differentiated. With Benveniste, then, the ethnocentrism of early ethnography is dealt a significant blow.


Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

1. Agamben, Giorgio (2002), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans, Daniel Heller-Roazen, New York: Zone Books.
2. Benveniste, E´ mile (1971), Problems in General Linguistics. trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek, Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, ‘Miami Linguistics Series No. 8’.
—— (1974), Proble`mes de linguistique ge´ne´rale, Vol 2, Paris: Gallimard, TEL.


Benveniste’s Major Writings
(1994) Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-europe´ennes 2: Pouvoir, droit, religion,
Paris: Minuit.
(1987) Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-europe´ennes 1: E ´ conomie, parente´, socie
´te´, Paris: Minuit.
(1974) Proble`mes de linguistique ge´ne´rale, Vol 2, Paris: Gallimard, TEL.
(1973) Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Elizabeth Palmer, London:
Faber & Faber, ‘Studies in General Linguistics Series’.
(1971 [1966]) Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek,
Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, ‘Miami Linguistics
Series No. 8’. Trans. of Vol. 1 of Proble`mes de linguistique ge´ne´rale, Paris:
Gallimard, TEL.
(1966) Titres et noms propres en iranien ancien, Paris: Klincksieck, ‘Travaux de
l’Institut d’Etudes Iraniennes de l’Universite´ de Paris, I’.
(1948) Noms d’agent et noms d’action en indo-europe´en, Paris: A. Maisonneuve.
(1935) Origines de la formation des noms en indo-europe´en, Paris: A. Maisonneuve.
(1935) Les Infinitifs avestiques, Paris: A. Maisonneuve.


Categories: Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Semiotics, Structuralism

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  1. Key Theories of Giorgio Agamben – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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