World Report

Saussurism in Korea

By Yong-Ho Choi & Hyun-Kwon Kim

It is paradoxically both too late and somewhat premature to discuss the place of Saussurism in the Korean intellectual landscape. Too late, because the early Saussurean linguistic paradigm has been overcome, in Korea as elsewhere in the world, by generativism, pragmatism and cognitivism; premature, because the 1990s have witnessed a renaissance of Saussurean studies. It seems that this renewed interest has only started and the full extent of its impact cannot yet be fully assessed.

Although it is difficult to retrace with precision the beginnings of modern linguistics in Korea, there is no doubt that Saussure was among the very first western linguists who influenced Korean scholars. As B.-H. Kim (1996) recalls, “Just after the first world war, Saussure was the best known linguist. In 1953, Saussure still represented linguistics itself for Korean students” (13) The reason was that the Course had been translated into Japanese and the interpretation of Sausure’s theory by the Japanese linguist Hideo Kobayashi was very influential in Japan. Actually, Sung-Do Kim (1991) thinks that Saussure might have been known in Korea as early as 1930 when Kobayashi came to teach at the Imperial University of Kyung Sung (now National University of Seoul). The visibility of Saussure’s theory was certainly enhanced in the 1930s by the fact that it was at the center of a heated controversy between Koyabashi, who defended the notion of “langue” as a “social fact”, and his rival Modoki Tokieda, whose theory of language process contended that language resulted from essentially individual activities. Both linguists made a part of their careers in Korea in the same university and around the same time.

Linguistics began to be taught in departments of Korean Language and Literature where Korean was described from a structuralist point of view. The first Introduction to Linguistics (Wung He 1963) was inspired by Saussurean notions such as “langue” and “parole”, “synchrony” and “diachrony”, “arbitrariness”, “value”. Wung He also makes reference to Saussure’s contemporaries and followers such as Meillet, Bally, Trubetzkoy and Hjelmslev. The Course is quoted 52 times in the book, which, incidentally, was republished ten times. It should be noted however that Wung He strives to achieve an original theoretical position by bringing the Saussurean dichotomies into complementary oppositions, along the Asian model of the Yin and theYang.

After the Korean war, cultural exchanges with the United States intensified in the 1960s and American linguistics, essentially the generativist theory of Chomsky, spread in Korea as in many other countries. European linguistics took the back seat. It must be underlined that until the the early 1990s, the Course was taken at face value by those Korean linguists who had maintained an interest in Saussure’s ideas. Wung He was of course aware of the conditions in which the Course had been published but did not consider its reconstruction problematic. The critical works of Godel and Engler were known but not to the point of leading to questioning the Saussurean doxa. Byung-Ki Jean who defended a thesis on the principle of Saussurean duality in 1985, after ten years of research, quotes Godel, but Engler only in passing, and ignores Wunderli and Jäger. He seems to take at face value the text of the Course and to look at the intensive philological work which was applied to it with suspiscion.

Two translations of the Course into Korean are available. The first one was done in 1973 by O.K.Oh the other by S.Y. Choi in 1990. There is unfortunately little difference between the two since neither has seriously taken into account the Saussurean scholarship that has contextualized the text of the Course over the last fifty years. However, it should be noted that they used different translating strategies for the challenging distinction “signifiant / signifié”: the former follows the Japanese way and renders it respectively as “passive sign / active sign”, whereas the latter uses “expression of the sign / contents of the sign” as do the Chinese translations.

A bibliograhy of Saussurean studies was published in 1999 by the Korean Linguistics Society (Y.-H. Choi & B.-K. Jean, eds.). It interestingly shows a marked increase in the number of relevant publications since 1990. The last decade saw some eighty publications including three books dealing exclusively with Saussure by Bang-Han Kim (1998), Sung-Do Kim (1999) and Yong-Ho Choi (2002). This renaissance of saussurology can be explained by a certain decline in the interest for Chomsky’s theories, by the excessive technologization of the cognitive sciences and by the search for a new linguistic paradigm. Although most of the critical and philological works on Saussure are not yet readily accessible in Korean translations, the renewal of Saussurism in Europe seems to have percolated through the publications of scholars who completed their doctoral or post-doctoral studies in France. Sung Do Kim makes an intensive use of Saussure’s manuscripts in his exploration of the saussurean logos and muthos, and Yong Ho Choi focuses on the role of time in the linguistic conceptualisations of Saussure’s structuralism. Hyun-Kwon Kim and Yong-Ho Choi have recently been entrusted with the task of editing a series devoted to Saussurean studies. Obviously, the critical reception of Saussure in Korea is only starting.