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Coseriu's legacy


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Manuel Casado Velarde

Full Professor emeritus of the University of Navarra and researcher main project 'Public discourse' of Institute for Culture and Society from 2010 to 2019

July 27, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eugenio Coseriu, the greatest linguist, for many, of the second half of the 20th century. Born in Romania, in a now Moldavian city, exiled to Italy fleeing communism, he was, in addition to being a linguist and language theorist, a multilingual Romanist scholar, a profound connoisseur of languages and classical thought, a humanist of the kind that no longer exists. His roots in the Slavic world, together with his later grafting into the Hispanic world and his knowledge of languages from different families, immunized him against a widespread linguistic ailment: contemplating the reality of human language through Anglo-Saxon monolingualism.

Professor at the University of the Republic of Uruguay from 1951 to 1958, he developed his thinking in Montevideo and from there he deployed an intellectual activity that left a deep mark on the science of language. In years when Saussure's structuralism dominated linguistics, he was able to qualify the Genevan master and widen the frontiers of academic work, already in the fifties, anticipating what would later become the wide field of the analysis of speech and pragmatics. His genius as a linguist was soon appreciated at international congresses. And in 1963 the University of Tübingen recovered him for Europe at a time when not only soccer players but also scholars were being imported from those American countries, as Gregorio Salvador wrote in these pages.

Nothing linguistic was alien to Coseriu. His more than four hundred publications - to which must be added several hundred unpublished works - range from the Philosophy of language, the history of linguistics, the sociology of language, idiomatic correction, linguistic change, semantics, syntax, phonetics and phonology, dialectology, American Spanish, to name but a few fields.

His ethical guideline , in the investigation of everything he dealt with, was always that of "telling it like it is", using the famous Platonic motto. Such a slogan entails an indeclinable commitment, since it presupposes the existence of a truth and the possibility of expressing it. And he was able to maintain this approach in an intellectual environment in which relativism prevailed. This underlying realism is inseparable, in Coseriu, from two other backbone principles of his conception of language. The first is his idea of human speech as a free and finalistic activity, rooted in classical humanism, although much reviled by the dominant approaches in broad sectors of the West. And secondly, the principle of trust. To speak is to trust: on the one hand, that the speaker will do so coherently and truthfully, however difficult some politicians may make it for us today; and on the other, that the listener will become position of what the speaker says, even if he or she does not manage to express literally and precisely everything he or she wants to say. This principle of trust contrasts with the ubiquitous 'principle of suspicion', dominant in the humanistic research from Marx, Freud and Nietzsche onwards, and its continuators in the task of deconstructing language.

The University of Zurich has just held a congress on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, under the degree scroll 'Coseriu's linguistics: origin and topicality'. The topicality of Coseriu's ideas is due precisely not to the fact that he wanted to innovate and be ahead of his time, but to the fact that he always had an attentive ear for what speakers, as such, knew about language, in order to transfer to a reflective plane what we intuitively already know when we speak. And it also lies in the fact that all speculation about what is properly human must start from what has already been said by those who have thought seriously about it before. Again, the principle of trust. That is why his works have as rule to begin by knowing what has already been said, by weighing the tradition. That is why his ideas, more than current, and therefore, it could be said, ephemeral, are timeless; they transcend fashions, since they are based on those obscure certainties of experience, which we must try to clarify in order to convert them into science. A science, by the way, that has nothing to envy -nor to imitate- those of nature, lacking in its basis that original knowledge that the human being possesses about his cultural creations.

Although he mastered many languages, Coseriu's work is mainly in Spanish, language to which he entrusted the transmission of his rich intellectual bequest . And also language to which he dedicated many of his works. His reflections on idiomatic correctness and linguistic norms have established doctrine. Even at the risk of preaching in the desert -he was aware of the disdain for the rules that prevailed and still prevails in the Hispanic community, especially in the Spanish one- he defended idiomatic exemplarity and respect for the rules as an intrinsic ethical principle of all human activity, including the freest of all, the game, unthinkable without the corresponding rules, because the opposite of the rules is not freedom, but barbarism, as he liked to say, quoting Ortega.

Eugenio Coseriu, whose ideas are the subject of study and application in fields as far away as Japanese or Amerindian languages, remains today a reference of scientific excellence. His terminological distinctions in a topic as multifaceted as language are widely accepted in the linguistic community. With his description of the complexity of human speech, he managed to design a general map of this reality that is so familiar and mysterious to us. challenge His numerous disciples face the challenge of not betraying the master's genius by continuing to develop his ideas and apply them to the ever new questions posed by the investigation of language. Linguists of the present century will do well to take into account the thinking of the master from Tübingen.