The structuralist dialectic between langue – the structure of language or “ideal” language – and parole – language as it is used in day-to-day life – is a key point of contention for me. This is especially the case given its relationship to both structuralist and post-structuralist concepts of social organization, and the debate over structure vs. agency. In my linguistics classes in both anthropology and traditional linguistics as an undergrad, I was often confused about the relationship between these two aspects of language. The question that always came to my mind was, where and how does langue exist? Discussions and readings in class often seem to treat it as an almost ethereal thing that shapes language from afar. There are those, of course, who treat langue as a function of neurology – the structure of our brains dictates the structure of language. However, this doesn’t seem to me to account for the diversity of languages and the various ways that language is used in day-to-day life (parole). It is possible – I would grant even probable – that the structure of the human brain has some effect upon the structure of language, but it is not sufficient to explain it.
So if langue doesn’t exist in the brain, and it is not an ethereal thing, then where does it exist? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t exist apart from all of the instances of language use – in our daily conversations, in our writings, on the media, and so on. It exists also in books of grammar and vocabulary that we use to teach children proper english. In other words, to the extent that langue exists, it is an emergent property of all of those verbalized interactions that happen in parole. Furthermore, it exists in the nature of words themselves – words resist our attempts to transform them or place them in an improper context, and at the same time they facilitate certain transformations and alternate contexts. In other words, the structure of language is the assemblage of agencies (human and non-human) that contribute to its construction.
However, it is important for me to recognize that, although the structure is composed by and of these agencies, it does not encompass them (this is what Levi refers to as the strange mereology). Instead, the structure stands alongside all of these other agencies as an agency itself – one among many. There is, therefore, no point at which we can grasp langue – no singular piece of the structure that we can identify as its core. Rather, it is a complex assemblage that is also itself a part of that assemblage. Emergent properties don’t encompass or totalize their parts, they stand alongside of them. This is true, too, of social structures. They only exist in the myriad interactions between agencies (both human and non-human) that compose them, and, once they are composed, they do not totalize the other beings, they stand beside them as a new agency that in some ways influences and shapes the others. As a result, the question is not one of structure vs. agency, but of the complex arrangement of agencies and how they alter and affect one another.