by C. George SANDULESCU, Monaco.

(This booklet was published by Colin Smythe of Gerrards Cross in 1991.)

0.            Epigraphs: 

(James Joyce,1922, Ulysses, 2.377.) History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.                                      

(Patrick  Campbell, 1950, ‘The Chatter of Clowns’.)   The word charade is derived from the Spanish charrada, the chatter of clowns. Beyond that, charades have no connection with any kind entertainment,living or dead.                               

              Thus, Ferdinand de Saussure gave his Cours de Linguistique Générale for the first time during the academic year 1906-1907, and faithful to a silence slogan, never published it in his lifetime. It was only published from the notes of his students, ten years later, in 1916;in spite of the  war, it received immediate attention, and gradually, it turned into by far the greatest landmark of theoretical linguistics of thepresent century.  However, according to testimonies, Saussure had started thinking intensely about the central ideas of his 1907 lectures as early as ten years before that date --  around 1897 – with a clear focus of attention in 1904 and 1905.  Of the four major issues discussed by him throughout his lectures – (a) synchrony versus diachrony, (b) sign theory, (c) systems theory, and (d) ‘langue et parole’ – the most important is without any doubt the first, as part of which he expresses his exclusive emphasis on the necessity of describing languages at one single given moment in time, preferably   the present one.  In consequence, it is more than certain that these theoretical topics, precisely in that order, were very much on his mind on Joyce’s initial Bloomsday...   Largely oversimplifying, the impact over the subsequent quarter of a century of his stand on those issues is reducible to two distinct statements:

                                      (a)  ‘History is a real nightmare’ (3)       

                                      (b)  ‘Linguists of all countries, awake!’  .

              Saussure’s  major achievement was the  largely irreversible switch in theoretical linguistics from a diachronic approach, the paragon of which was Giambattista Vico  and his Scienza Nuova (1744), to an exclusively synchronic approach, which was afterwards strongly reinforced in the thirties, forties and fifties.  (The other three major points made by Saussure about semiotics, systems theory, and ‘langue et parole’ fall outside the scope of this discussion.)  To cut a vast subject short, Saussure is not so much a linguist today:  he is rather a philosopher of linguistics. For there is a fundamental difference between the philosophy of language and the philosophy of linguistics:  one is, in Saussure’s terms again, a philosophy of the system, i.e, ‘la langue comme systeme’;  the other – of the meta-system. Thus, his major contribution to general linguistics is methodological in its essence:  how to view language from the most adequate angle is his supreme research task (‘une vision (a) comme système, (b) comme système à un moment donné, (c) comme fait social’).

          However, it must be mentioned in passing that Saussure becomes all-important  to Joyce studies with the publication of the 1984 Ulysses, quite Orwellian in both layout and theoretical approach:  the right-hand page is intended in that edition to give the synchronous, complete and perhaps – why not – definitive text, whereas the left-hand page carries a text which is labelled by Editor Gabler as ‘continuous’ and is wishfully considered ‘diachronic’.  However, the notion of a ‘diachronic text’ is theoretically impossible within any frame of reference which considers itself genuinely Saussurean. As was  stressed before,  Saussure’s theory refers to systems, not to linear structures, as is the case put forth by Hans Walter Gabler in his essay entitled ‘The Synchrony and Diachrony of Texts: Practice and Theory of the Critical Edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses’. The notion of diachronic linearization is totally  aberrant within any twentieth-century model of linguistic description. Within the context of this discussion, it is a real pity that Joyce scholars do not read Saussure: it is equally a pity that  twentieth-century linguists do not read Vico!

          The publication in 1933 of the book Language, written by Leonard Bloomfield, only managed to reinforce the above-discussed point, which had been already made by Saussure  right at the turn of the century. Even though he may have been little aware of Saussure, Bloomfield was indeed able to narrow it down to

        (a) ‘History has been a nightmare!’, and perhaps 

        (b) (cf FW 020.07) ‘Gutenmorg Linguists with your Saussure charter!’.

          Supporting evidence of the long-range impact of the Saussure ‘Synchronic’ turn-of-century  statement came from scholars who  may have never read him, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf. His articles – he never published a single book – stretching over a period of fifteen years, roughly between 1925 and 1941, managed to set up a new and fascinating – very Vico-like – branch of linguistics: namely, the theory that the structure of a language tends to condition the ways in which a speaker of that language thinks, thus establishing a clear correlation between Thought, Language, and Reality.  Whorf’s approach gradually came to be known as Semantic Relativity (or the Whorfian Hypothesis), and propounds the idea that, as has been said, the internal organizationof widely different languages necessarily leads the speakers of those languages to view the world in different ways. The very important thing about Whorf, however, is that he manages to make his point without resorting to history. He, too, clearly implies,  more on the method side, that

                                        ‘History would be a nightmare!’

          By the middle of the century, with Saussure far behind, the existence was established of ‘mainstream’ linguistics, overwhelmingly characterized by its being synchronic, i.e. history-free. This had been stated silently on Joyce’s initial Bloomsday, then publicly early in 1907, and ‘gutenmorgly’ in 1916; then, of course, ‘intuitively’ endorsed by both Bloomfield and Whorf. The setting up of mainstream linguistics simultaneously and inevitably led to the existence by its side of non-mainstream trends, and that was the basket   historical, or evolutionary, studies of language, quite of the Vico type, were relegated to. The emphasis was from then on exclusively placed on the present-day (the extreme case being recorded immediately after World War II of a book of American grammar exclusively based on the analysis of thousands of telephone conversations).  The other cause that emphasized the mainstream nature of current research was the gradual, but profound, realization of linguists in most countries that they could in no way account satisfactorily and with scientific rigour for the complex phenomenon of language change.

            Change in language can be described: it cannot be thoroughly explained, or minutely accounted for. It may well be that Saussure had sensed or intuited that problem too fifty years or so before scientific rigour in linguistics became what it is now.  That is indeed the heaviest blow dealt at  Vico studies within the context of language theories: for central to Vico’s approach to language and history is the philosophical category of accurate and plausible reconstruction and reconstructibility of past change. Vico’s main tenet, which is ‘only connect, especially at word level, across time, and without methodological ceiling!’, is of course more than vulnerable within the mid-20th-century theoretical frame of reference. It is the lack of Wissenschaflichkeit of the operation that ultimately led to the relegationof ‘change studies’ to non-mainstream linguistics;  this relegation took place gradually in the years prior to World War II, but always deriving its strength from the central Saussure statement to the effect that the passing of time triggers the passing from one language system to another. In this sense, James Joyce was one of the last great minds to capitalize greatly from the process of ‘reading Skeat by the hour’.

          Then came the ‘angry young men’ of the mid-fifties: not only on the British stage, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for the philosophy of language, and linguistics.  For it is in 1957 (cf Kingsley Amis’s novel   Lucky Jim, published in 1954 (and filmed in 1957!), John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, produced in 1956, and Sheila Delaney’s kitchen sink drama A Taste of Honey), produced in 1958 – all these three  ‘angers’ happening in London, England... –  that Noam Chomsky (a name invariably pronounced [homski] by Roman Jakobson!) publishes Syntactic Structures,  the little book that contributed so much to upsetting things in language studies by setting other things up. Still another Angry Young Man ? (It is perhaps quite worthy of note that John Osborne, the ‘Father’ of the Angry Young Men, was only one year and five days younger than Chomski himself.)

           N. Chomsky focused, exclusively and absolutely, on syntax, brushing aside – in 1957 with formidable vigour and panache both the study of meaning and the totality of studies of historical change.He was the first after Saussure to be able to shout loud and clear – though quite in line with Saussure – but far more to the point

                                       ‘History had been a nightmare!’.  

And all the other bright boys after him, and ever since, have followed suit (to such an extent that one of the MIT courses dealing with the description of non-generative theories had, with due benediction from above, been nicknamed ‘The Bad Guys’). It must also be said by way of digression that for Chomsky language is not ‘un fait social’, as it is most firmly for Saussure: for Chomsky, linguistics is only and merely a branch of ‘theoretical psychology’, a statement liable to undermine the sociological and primarily communicative foundations of language. It is curious to notice that neither Vico, especially in his joint definition of philosophy and philology (1744: para.429), nor Chomsky (1957, and 1965) need make use of the terms Diachrony and Synchrony, and indeed, they do not: the former because he places himself within an approach which is exclusively diachronic; the latter because his approach is exclusively synchronic ( it was only Saussure who had been a hybrid in his time). In other words, when Vico was alive and writing, the opposition between synchronic and diachronic had not yet emerged:  everything was historical and evolutionary; whereas in Chomsky’s time the opposition had long since ceased to be meaningful within mainstream linguistics.  Ferdinand de Saussure had done his work in silence, exile, and cunning (even to the extent of leaving to others the task of writing his book for him!), and the second term of the opposition – that of diachronic – had been erased out of existence (the news of that phenomenon coming mainly from America before, during, and after the Great Depression)...  In point of actual fact, Vico’s complete definition of philology should really be ‘the diachronic study of human words’...but then, why human ?

          In 1938, right on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, the philosopher Charles Morris had stated, in the wake of Charles Sanders Peirce, and, probably, quite independently of Saussure, that a semiotic system was necessarily made up of three components:

                    (a) Syntactics (dealing with  unit, or item, arrangement);

                    (b) Semantics (dealing with unit meaning); and finally,

                    (c) Pragmatics (dealing with Unit Beaming).

                    ‘Semantics is reborn’  

within a totally history-free approach.   Not only that they repudiate,  – in the wake of Chomsky – the Vico-type diachrony, but which is far more serious, by virtue of their more than exclusive emphasis on sentence semantics, they manage to push the Stephen Ullmann type of word semantics definitively out of existence within mainstream linguistics.  It is around the same date – in the early sixties – that Joseph Greenberg publishes the results of team research dealing with the universals of language. It is Greenberg of them all who perhaps comes closest to Vico in being the first in late twentieth-century linguistics to take into account a wide, wide range of languages, the way Vico did (for, after his Ph.D., Chomsky never dealt with anything else but English!).  Greenberg practically retains within the scope of his research absolutely all the living languages of the world. But then, his method is derived from Chomsky’s theory, and ultimately from Saussure  (though no American, except Jakobson, ever even alludes to him!): he, and more than three-quarters of his fellow-researchers, look at all languages (irrespective of genetic affiliation) at one single moment in time – usually the present moment (4). Further, they look at what all these languages have in common, never at what they have different: viz., it is the synchronic universals that are being taken into account, not the diachronic differentials.  The notion of language universals is now a household term in present-day linguistics, though not at all thanks to Vico; however, the notion of language differentials – essentially what both Vico and Joyce were primarily interested in – continues to be sheer heresy.  This is ultimately explainable by two facts: first that the practical aim of the theory of universals is to obtain a universal grammar, and secondly, that semantics still remains subservient to syntax.

          In 1967, H. Paul Grice gives his famous William James lectures at Harvard, one of which is entitled ‘Logic and Conversation’.  Very much like Saussure, Grice is reluctant to publish the text, and for eight solid years it circulates underground, in mimeographed form, among the academics – linguists and philosophers alike. It is published only in 1975. The essay in question is concerned neither with syntax, nor with semantics: instead, it brings the issue to the heart of all Modern Fiction,as it establishes pragmatics as a major branch of language studies, and gives pride of place to conversation, and the complex relation between successive speakers.  With Grice in 1967 – or is it 1975? –

          ‘pragmatics (as envisaged by Morris) is born for the first time ever’.

Thus, by implication, and quite in keeping with the Viconian cycles, Grice negates history, not unlike Peter in the Bible (Matt. 26.34):

                          ‘History would inevitably have been a nightmare!’.

          It further represents the rejection of both word- and sentence-linguistics, and the orientation of the theory towards discourse, and more particularly question-and-answer Analysis. For in addition to laying the foundations for the first time ever of pragmatics, philosopher H. Paul Grice manages, through a slender paper which stayed unpublished for eight years, the astonishing feat of overruling Chomsky:  in fact, he shifted the focus of theoretical attention from the sentence onto a unit of linguistic analysis larger than the sentence, namely that of Discourse (which is, potentially and strictly relationally, defined as a ‘multi-sentence’).

          Discourse is a conglomerate of sentences in exactly the same way a casual conversation, a short story, or even a full-fledged novel, say, Ulysses or Finnegans Wake for that matter, are conglomerates of sentences. And discourse is a theoretical construct Giambattista Vico never even dreamt of coping with. Further, it is a language unit which proves for the moment to be totally intractable historically.

          The latest major development occurs in 1985: Pieter A.M. Seuren of Oxford publishes a 500-page book devoted to discourse semantics, thereby reinforcing the emergence of discourse analysis as an independent branch of linguistics, which is vigorously pushing its way towards mainstream research. It starts another Viconian cycle, coming closer than ever perhaps to a rigorous analysis of experimental fictional prose (5).  Having completed a set of symmetrical Viconian cycles, the three components of which were predicted by Charles Morris as early as 1938,  theoretical linguistics is now ready for the post-1984 Ricorso. Though it is true that Vico’s contribution  to current linguistic theory remains yet to be made, it is equally true that cyclic development is omnipresent within the meta-system, as has been amply demonstrated above.

          Having so far defined Vico’s philosophy of language as exclusively diachronic, and late twentieth-century linguistics as exclusively synchronic, I wish to launch the idea at this stage that James Joyce’s approach to language was neither synchronic nor diachronic, but rather panchronic, cutting right across the Saussurean opposition.  Ferdinand de Saussure does use the term panchronic:

(1969 : 135)  En linguistique comme dans les jeux d’echecs, il y a des regles qui survivent a tous les evenements.  Mais ... des qu’on parle de faits particuliers et tangibles,   il n’y a pas de point de vue panchronique.                                                           

          The brief discussion then concludes with the linguist’s final verdict:

Le point de vue panchronique n’atteint jamais les faits particuliers de la langue.  

          It is at this very point that Joyce achieves the unenvisageable in his Finnegans Wake: the cancellation of the distinction between the particular and the general, obtained by means of a radical reassessment of the relation between Type and Token, carries with it the fundamental modification in the balance between what is synchronic, and what is diachronic. Everything in Joyce’s use of language becomes diachronically synchronic, with the reverse being also valid. What Joyce was actually doing with language decidedly as a non-philosopher, but most certainly as a consummate artist, could perhaps be more adequately accommodated in  Whorf’s theoretical model, on the next-to-impossible condition that the approach is supplemented by  a historical-cum-evolutionary component. For Joyce’s major achievement in Finnegans Wake is that by adopting a panchronical attitude towards language (and the use of language), he manages to transcend not only the synchrony/diachrony opposition, but also, more importantly, the phenomenon of language change. All languages change: not Finnegans Wake! The words therein almost cease to be human: it is at this point that Vico was quite right when he spoke about ‘human words’ in his conjoined definition of philosophy and philology...

            Having focused almost exclusively on the synchronic/diachronic distinction, which radically separates Vico from present-day linguistic theories, the present discussion remains merely a very introductory one: for it is the essence of panchronism as embodied in Joyce’s later work that constitutes the substance of the  discussion. His debt to Giambattista Vico is immense, but it is by no means as straightforward (particularly for the more than many Joyce scholars who have no – or next to no – languages other than their own!) as many may assume. This study has only pointed to just one of the major stumbling-blocks: let us provisionally label this only one item,  the ‘Time-in-the-Weltanschauung’.


                                        N O T E S  

1.       Quite the opposite of E.M.Forster’s Only Connect, this epigraph by Anglo-Irish humourist Patrick Campbell  is intended to change the false impression given by Vico whenever he discusses etymologies (e.g. Paragraphs 370, 379, 386, etc) to the effect that the process of going back in time via etymologizing is obviously open-ended. It is not. The essence of this epigraph could be technically paraphrased as follows:

Beyond synchronic state N, x has no connection with any kind of y, be it on grounds p or q.

            This should almost be taken as an axiom, the main function of which is to avert the dangers of over-etymologizing;  Vico does not seem to have been aware of such dangers, which are not – in the last analysis – so very remote from Wittgenstein’s ‘We cannot think what we cannot think’ (Tractatus, 5.61).    

2.       The philosophy of language is, obviously, quite distinct from thephilosophy of  linguistics: whereas Vico deals overwhelmingly with the philosophy of language, the main focus of the present study is on the philosophy of linguistics.  Joyce himself was inherently interested in neither: he only paid attention to what fired his imagination as an artist.                                                                              

3.          ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, is Stephen Dedalus’s epiphany-like memorable statement uttered in the third episode of Ulyssesat 2.377, the one concluding the introductory part. The extent to which the phrase is applicable to Joyce himself should be viewed in the light of the panchronic discussionas sketched in  the last but one paragraph of this study.      

4.          Starting from D.P. Verene’s discussion of Vico’s philosophy of the imagination, it is worth stressing that the Viconian definition ‘every metaphor is a fable in brief’ (Paragraph 404) is a diachronic universal.      

5.       This argumentation is built on the future-oriented assumption that language studies and literature studies are one, just as they were in the time of Vico and Saussure: the present chasm between them, artificially created by the advent of the generative approach, does not seem to be long-lasting. Proof  thereof is the sustained interest in discourse and text. Properly oriented Joyce studies may indeed complete the Viconian circle.      


Bloomfield, L. 1933. Language.    Holt: New York.  

Campbell, Patrick.‘The Chatter of Clowns’, in: A Short Trot with a Cultured Mind.  

Chomsky,N. 1957.          Syntactic Structures. Mouton : The Hague.  

Chomsky,N. 1965.Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.M.I.T.Press.  

Gabler, H.-W. 1981/1984. ‘The Synchrony and Diachrony of Texts: Practice and Theory of the Critical Edition of  James Joyce’s Ulysses, in: TEXT, Transactions of the Society for textual  Scholarship, Vol. for 1981, pp.305-326.  

Greenberg,J.H.ed.  1966.   Universals of Language. M.I.T. Press.  

Grice, H.P. 1967/1975. ‘Logic and Conversation’ in: Syntax and Semantics, vol. III, ed. P.Cole and J.L. Morgan. Academic Press: New York.  

Katz, J.A. & J.A.Fodor. 1963.‘The Structure of a Semantic Theory’, Language 39. 

Morris, C.   1938. Foundations of the Theory of Signs. Univ. of Chicago Press.  

Rossi-Landi, F.  1974.   Ideologies of Linguistic Relativity. Mouton: The Hague.  

Saussure, F.        1916.     Cours de Linguistique Generale. Payot : Paris.  

Seuren,P.                         1985. Discourse Semantics. Blackwell: Oxford.  

Ullmann,S. (Istvan)          1951.          Principles of Semantics. Blackwell: Oxford.  

Vico, G.                           1744/1948/1984.Scienza Nuova.

Whorf, B.L.                     1956.  Language, Thought and Reality. M.I.T. Press.