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Émile Benveniste

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Émile Benveniste

Émile Benveniste
Born 27 May 1902
Aleppo, Ottoman Empire
Died 3 October 1976 (aged 74)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Occupation Linguist

Émile Benveniste (French: ; 27 May 1902 – 3 October 1976) was a French structural linguist and semiotician.

He is best known for his work on Indo-European languages and his expansion of the linguistic paradigm established by Ferdinand de Saussure. Initially studying under Antoine 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. However, he served as the first President of the International Association for Semiotic Studies from 1969 to 1972.

Benveniste was born in Aleppo, Aleppo Vilayet, Ottoman Syria. At the start of his career, his highly specialised and technical work limited his influence to a small circle of scholars. 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 refutes 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 Linguistics

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 language.

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 radical publisher 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 (Chapter 7) (Jacques Derrida, On Hospitality, 2000).

Benveniste died in Paris, aged 74.

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.

Selected works

  • 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


  • Gérard Dessons, Émile Benveniste : L'invention du discours, In Press, 2006. (French)
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