Had the Neogrammarians spoken Wolof or Basaa…
A reply to Ngué Um
In this response article to Emmanuel Ngué Um’s piece published in Language, Culture and Society, I examine Ngué Um’s thesis that structural linguistics has no reality in the African context, which he presents in the form of a critique of Saussure and Western linguistics. Ngué Um imagines Saussure as a (native) speaker of an African language, who would have refrained from theorizing languages the way he did, namely as theoretical fictions, if only he had received a formation in linguistic anthropology. Against this, I argue that we must assess Saussurean thinking as part of the history of linguistics, i.e., in its proper historical context, and acknowledge that linguistics as we know it is the product of Western metaphysics. Saussure just carried forward the intellectual legacy of which he was a product. Ngué Um wishes to adapt Saussurean linguistics to the contemporary linguistic world and make it a fit for the postcolonial and posthuman paradigms. However, the notions of langue and parole have a precise function in Saussure’s theorizing, and it is questionable whether a decolonial linguistics should approach the African linguistic experience based on any of the Western metaphysical concepts. Doing so will, arguably, lead to a watered-down version of metaphysics and to a not fully emancipated southern linguistic theory.
Keywords: history of linguistics, Saussure, decolonial linguistics, lay linguistic experience, langue-parole , languages as entities
Published online: 10 March 2022
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