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Language in the Mind: An Introduction to Guillaume's Theory
Walter Hirtle

Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007

CA $85.00, 273 pp., ISBN 978-0-7735-3263-2

Reviewed by Dennis Philps


The purpose of Walter Hirtle’s book, which comprises an introduction, sixteen chapters,1 a glossary, notes, a bibliography and an index, is, in the words of the author, “to introduce Guillaume’s theory of language to the English-speaking reader, illustrating and supporting it with examples drawn from contemporary English.” The content has benefited from lengthy discussions with students and colleagues at the Fonds Guillaume (Laval University, Quebec City)—and indeed the book is dedicated to one of the latter, the illustrious Roch Valin. Apart from Hirtle’s own “Lessons on the English Verb: No Expression without Representation,” published by McGill-Queen’s in 2007, a few months before “Language in the Mind,” very few books in English have attempted this task until now. One is Foundations for a Science of Language (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, vol. 31, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1984), a translation by Walter Hirtle and John Hewson of parts of one of Guillaume’s major works, Principes de linguistique théorique (Presses de l’Université Laval / Klincksieck 1973), while another is The English Infinitive by Patrick Duffley (London and New York, Longman, 1992).

Language in the Mind begins by bringing out the originality of Guillaume’s work against the backdrop of the French linguistics tradition at the beginning of the twentieth century (An Obscure Life: 1883-1960, Guillaume and the Nineteenth Century, Guillaume’s Innovations, Guillaume Today), and continues, in chapter 2, with an account of his work against the backdrop of structural linguistics in Europe and the USA (Langue and Competence: Saussure and Chomsky), comparing this with Guillaume’s own approach (Language-as-a-Potential, Using the Ability, The Challenge: Thinking about Language as a Process). Hirtle provides the following diagram to illustrate the Guillaumian view of language as a three-phase act carried out every time one speaks:


discourse 1 tongue

These first two chapters argue and demonstrate that Guillaume’s thought differs substantially from that of many other linguists, in that he sees language not only as a reality, but also (and perhaps most importantly) as a potential situated upstream from speech acts actually carried out by a given speaker. In chapter 3, Hirtle introduces his basic postulate, which is that “for each speaker language is a potential (tongue) permitting innumerable actualizations (discourse) and that, as a potential, language is somehow systematic” [31]. He goes on to delineate Guillaume’s originality, which lies in the fact that he is probably the only linguist to have spent his career on developing a theory of the word, rather than a theory of syntax (Which Comes First: the Sentence or the Word? The Fundamental Units of Language, From Message to Meaning). The author reminds the reader that Guillaume distinguished between particular experience on the one hand, and meaning, its linguistic representation on the other (no expression without representation—the subtitle of Hirtle’s “Lessons on the English Verb”). He also expounds Guillaume’s view of the morpheme as a permanent means of representing something in the intended message, a view which requires that the linguist describe its meaning potential.  

Chapter 4 is devoted to a study of the relation between meaning and the representation of experience. In a section on usage vs. grammar rules concerning the meaning potential of the -ø and -s morphemes (e.g. a means of power transmission, I am friends with him, to sue for damages), the author broaches the thorny subject of polysemy already alluded to in the previous chapter. In psychomechanics, the relation between potential and actual provides for a single, unitary meaning from which derive various senses in discourse. In chapter 5, the discussion of polysemy and the -ø and -s morphemes, e.g. (-ø) Salmon migrate (‘generic’), They caught some salmon yesterday (‘plural’, ‘more than one’), Someone gave us a salmon (‘singular’), broadens out into a critique of the notion of ‘system’ in Guillaume’s work (Meaning and Polysemy, From Morpheme to System, etc.). In chapter 6, Hirtle presents the method of analysis adopted by psychosystematics, including operative time [91] and positional analysis [92], and shows how the method can handle the data by reconstructing the system and providing an explanation for the observed effects.

Chapter 7 introduces Hirtle’s conception of the substantive as a system of subsystems, following Guillaume’s approach, which consists in working back from observed usage in an attempt to identify and understand the underlying system. It begins with a discussion of gender, and evokes the Guillaumian distinction between ‘fictive’ gender as expressed by adjectives and determiners (e.g., in French, the determiner in la chaise and le fauteuil), and ‘real’ gender as expressed by the substantive (e.g., in French, berger / bergère). It also deals with case, pointing out that in expressions such as the girl’s school, -’s is considered by some scholars to be a ‘genitive’ case in contemporary English, although this inflection is not related to the substantive in the same way as other grammatical morphology. For instance, in the president of the university’s car, it is at the end of the noun phrase, and so can hardly be considered an inflection of the substantive designating the possessor. Other topics addressed include the substantive and lexical matter, and the relation between ideogenesis (notional ideation) and morphogenesis (structural ideation).

In chapter 8, the substantive and the system of the parts of speech is discussed. The first section deals with the relation between noun and adjective, which involves carrying over an ‘import’ of meaning to a ‘support’ of meaning, an example of Guillaume’s theory of incidence (< Lat. incidens ‘falling upon’). For Guillaume, the adjective is a word providing the conditions for external incidence, whereas the substantive is a word providing the conditions for internal incidence. The second section deals with the way in which a substantive noun names. For Hirtle, the lexeme of a particular substantive consists not only of a lexical matter or concept—its ‘comprehension’—, but also of the concept’s range of applicability—its ‘extension.’ He states that a noun’s extension must be seen as something dynamic, a potential for actualizing the particular extent or scope required by the intended message: “whether we use horse to represent a single individual, a type of horse or the species itself, this referent is always characterized as having the nature of ‘horse,’ as belonging to the category and so as part of the word’s extension” [123]. In order to denote that portion of the extension thus actualized in any given use, Guillaume uses the term ‘extensity,’ defined as a variable of discourse, whereas extension is a constant of ‘tongue’ (Hirtle’s translation for langue in psychomechanics). It can therefore be said that a substantive names by actualizing its comprehension to represent the nature of something in the intended message, and then applying this representation to its extensity. This chapter also covers the relation between internal and external incidence, the noun as a ‘space word,’ the adverb and the predicative parts of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb), the transpredicative parts of speech (grammatical or ‘function’ words), and the underlying system characterizing these parts of speech, as diagrammed below.


The following chapters are more specific in nature. Chapter 9 contains an analysis of some and any and the potential meaning underlying their relation, namely the possibility of a movement through the field of quantity that can be intercepted at the point best corresponding to what is being represented (concisely put, any ‘hypothetical’ vs. some ‘real,’ any = contractive movement vs. some expansive movement). In chapter 10, the verb system is explored: chronogenisis, the mental operation of constructing the time image expressed by a verb, tense and mood, tense and aspect (immanent / transcendent), and a final section on tense as involving a dual representation of time: event time and universe time. In chapter 11, the problem of the auxiliaries is broached: are they verbs or not, what is the status of do, what is the system underlying do, be, and have, and how do we consider these primary auxiliaries in the light of the distinction between predicative and transpredicative, as do, be, and have can be used both as full verbs and as auxiliaries. Chapter 12 examines verb compounds in their ordinary uses: the simple form vs. have + past participle, e.g. in Did you run all the way home? / Have you run all the way home?, the simple form vs. be + present participle, e.g. in When I arrived they had dinner vs. When I arrived they were having dinner, and the simple form vs. do + infinitive, e.g. in He likes pumpkin pie / He does like pumpkin pie.

Chapter 13 deals with the noun phrase and its operational syntax as well as with the articles in an attempt to show that the relation between substantive and article is not exactly the same as that between substantive and determiners like some and any, while chapter 14 addresses the problems posed by concord, discord and the incidence of verb to subject. Among the facts for which Hirtle proposes an explanation are those exemplified in This company are superbly managed, Each of you owe $100, Three rooms is enough, and Bread and butter are nourishing vs. Bread and butter is nourishing. Chapter 15 addresses two fundamental questions which go beyond the bounds of traditional linguistics: can we think without language, and can we speak without thinking; it also dwells on the relation between language and the faculty of thought, and that between language and experience. Hirtle remarks that in his attempt to understand the relation between thought and language, Guillaume saw the constructed  state of language as “the work of the mind’s inherent systematizing power and at the same time as an indication of what is to be undertaken to continue this construction and increase the mind’s ability to cope with experience.” He adds that this is how Guillaume understood the insight of the philosopher Delacroix: “thought makes language while being made by language” [235]. Finally, in the concluding chapter (16), Hirtle asserts that “it is to Guillaume’s credit that he was among the first to attempt to trace observable items of speech step by step back to their mental origins” [241], and suggests, correctly in my opinion, that prospects for further exploration of Guillaume’s theory of psychomechanics are not without pitfalls.

As a conclusion, it may be said that the field of the psychomechanics of language has until now been lacking in serious, dependable studies on (and in) English, given that much of the early groundwork was done on (and in) French, Guillaume’s native tongue. Hirtle’s work rests on a life-long study of psychomechanics, as can be observed throughthe papers he has published in linguistics, grammar teaching, and the like. The author is one of the few ‘Anglo-Saxon’ linguists to have attained a deep understanding of the workings of psychomechanics and to have succeeded in rendering Guillaume’s profound and sometimes abstruse thought accessible to non French-speaking readers. The author’s methodology is naturally inspired, and indeed validated, by that of Guillaume, to which he adds his own, personal touch resulting from his ongoing commitment to psychomechanics and to the teaching of English. Despite the great complexity of the task it sets itself, Language in the Mind brooks little criticism in respect of its structure, its content, or its scope: the arguments presented are cogently set out, copiously illustrated, often from the author’s own corpus, and persuasive. Expressed in French, c’est un ouvrage qui fera date.

1. Contents:
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Language and the Ability to Speak
Chapter 3: Words, Words, Words
Chapter 4: Meaning: Representing Experience
Chapter 5: A System for Representing
Chapter 6: The Method of Analysis in Psychosystematics
Chapter 7: The Substantive: A System of Subsystems
Chapter 8: The Substantive and the System of the Parts of Speech
Chapter 9: Some and Any
Chapter 10: The System of the Verb
Chapter 11: Auxiliaries: How Do They Help?
Chapter 12: The Proof of the Pudding
Chapter 13: The Noun Phrase
Chapter 14: Concord, Discord, and the Incidence of Verb to Subject
Chapter 15: Thought and Language
Chapter 16: Conclusion



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