From the day of its foundation, in 1866, the Societé Linguistique de Paris let it be known that it wouldn't accept papers claiming to explain how human language had originated. The savants felt they had a right to be spared the at best ignorant and at worst lunatic theorizing of those who believed they had an answer to this seductively remote question.
Historical linguistics had become a subject reserved for those who dealt in facts, and the extra-historical matter of language's origins could be left aside, exciting for sure when addressed by a Rousseau or a Herder, futile when addressed by madmen or amateurs led on by the new fashion for thinking in evolutionary terms.
The situation wasn't promising therefore for the man whose theorizing was, it's safe to say, the most lunatic of all, so strange indeed as to have been cherished now for more than a century, whether as an example of what André Breton called the "humour of reception", which is when we laugh at something that wasn't intended to be funny, or as a crucial resource in the study of linguistic misapprehension. This was Jean-Pierre Brisset, a respectably colourless individual until quite near the end of his life, but who was then taken up, for a joke, by a few heartless sophisticates in Paris and has never been altogether lost to intellectual view in France since. And now he is once more resurgent, as the subject of two large French volumes and a slim English monograph. The Oeuvres completes contains every last, strange word that Brisset ever published (at his own expense, needless to say); Jean-Pierre Brisset, Prince des penseurs, inventeur, grammairien et prophete contains Marc Décimo's graceful short Life of the man, his own formidably intricate and successful analyses of his writings, along with commentaries written in the past by such as Michel Foucault or Raymond Queneau, and exhaustive bibliographies. All Puns Intended is an alert, comprehensive study of Brisset's method and its implications, which makes a good case for taking him at least half seriously, but is spoilt by its author's laying of his own self-satisfied wordplay on top of the far more suggestive wordplay he is engaged with.
Brisset was by birth (in 1837) a country boy, who left school early, went to Paris to become a pâtissier, got nothing out of cakes, joined the army in time for the Crimea, fought against the Austrians at Magenta, and then against the Prussians in 1870, was twice captured and twice wounded - the second time in the head, which some have believed could explain his later extravagance of mind. He left the army, taught French in Germany briefly, re-enlisted as an officer, resigned his commission and, from 1879 on, worked as a supervisor on the railways. He had been a good soldier, and he was a model railwayman; there was no hint during the working day of the oddity of what he was up to after hours.
Brisset's first publication, of 1871, was a booklet demonstrating the most efficient way of teaching people to swim, if need be with the help of his own patented - and sadly unsaleable - invention, of an inflatable ceinture-calecon, or pair of airbags. So modest and practical a beginning might not seem to anticipate his future researches into the origins of language and of the human species. Not so, however. The swimming stroke he taught was the breast stroke, which, as generations of instructors must have pointed out to their waterborne pupils, is the one by which frogs have long got about so reliably. And frogs were to be the natural link with Brisset's linguistics, since it was in pondside conversation with these mythopoeic amphibians that he had his prime insight into how human language arose.
The frog, is, at a guess, the one creature whose characteristic call is spelt out in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after the form found for it by Aristophanes, Ancient Greek frogs went, in the ODQ's transliteration, "brekekekex coax, coax". Brisset's nineteenth-century French frogs went, more curtly, "coa, coa" - "coasser" is the standard French verb meaning "to croak". This gurgled monotone would have struck all but a rarely attuned listener as thin evidence on which to conclude that frogs were the earliest language-users. Brisset, however, was rarely attuned, so taken up with the acoustic aspect of language that he accorded it an all-embracing precedence over the semantic. What he heard the frogs coming out with was not the meaningless - to a human ear -"coa", but the common interrogative pronoun, quoi? In his own charming account: "Un jour que nous observions ces jolies petites bêtes, en répetant nous-même ce cri: coac, 1'une d'elles nous répondit, les yeux interrogateurs et brillants, par deux ou trois fois: Coac. II nous était clair qu'elle disait: quoi que tu dis?" The fact that frogs turned out to speak what was easily recognizable as French seems at no point to have fazed Brisset, and since the original human language has willy-nilly to be universal, all other known languages must be capable of being derived from French, which was pleasing news for a Frenchman.
Coa/quoi can serve as Brisset's founding homophone or paronym, on which his extraordinary theory of language was to be erected. This theory was paronymic to a maniacal degree. There were seemingly no French words or phrases into which he couldn't, by tweaking the syntax if need be and as it were respelling them, read the new meanings that he required, in his construction of a historical anthropology all his own. If you had Brisset's ear for picking up double entendres, it was relatively simple to trace the primordial passage out of the batrachian and into the human condition, when the evidence for it was glaringly apparent in the word-forms of spoken French. It had struck him about frogs that there is no telling by looking at them what gender they are, from which he concluded that as they began to evolve - and what more logical than that a creature which had already changed from a sperm-like tadpole should change again, into a human being? -they were intrigued by the appearance on their bodies of a burgeoning sexual organ. What more natural again than that they should greet it with the words: "Je ne sais ce que c'est", or verb sap, "Jeune sexe est". Thus equipped, with sexual organs and the words to go with them, they were off down the path of verbal creation, whose direction for the by all accounts celibate Brisset was invariably settled by the urgings of the ancestral frog-man's libido: "Je sais que c'est bien. Je ou jeu sexe est bien. Le premier jeu était le sexe. De là vient la passion du jeu. Le prudent cachait son jeu. Le pronom je désigne ainsi le sexe et quand je parle, c'est un sexe, un membre viril de 1'Eternel Dieu qui agit par sa volonté ou sa permission."
The introduction of the Everlasting into the evolutionary scheme may seem redundant, but Brisset believed that his system had been authorized literally from above, when he felt Jesus fall first on and then into him in the street one day, empowering him uniquely to reveal to humanity secrets of its foundation that had long lain hidden. The key to the system, the "great law", was that "Toutes les idées enoncées avec des sons semblables ont une même origine et se rapportent toutes, dans leur principe, a un même objet." One virtuoso demonstration of how this law worked runs as follows:
Les dents, la bouche.
Les dents, là, bouchent.
Les dents la bouchent.
L'aidant la bouche.
Lait dans la bouche.
Laid dans la bouche.
Laides en la bouche.
L'aide en la bouche.
Les dans la bouche.
L'est dans la bouche.
L'est dam le à bouche.
Les dents-là bouche.
The bottom two transformations in this imaginative list are less than transparent. The first must be read as "II est un dam [mal] ici à la bouche": in other words "I have a toothache"; the second as "Bouche [cache] ces dents-là" or "shut your mouth". And as if all that weren't enough, Brisset then inverts the two terms of his paradigm and leads us through the teeming possibilities of "la bouche, les dents": "la bouche 1'aidant", etc, etc.
Reading more than a few pages at a time of this kind of thing is wearisome, as you wait for your eventual reward in the inspired and quotable moments where it acquires what might be called attitude: as when the word "l'écrivain" mutates into "l'écrit vain"; or the phrase "c'est épouvantable" is recast as "cet époux vend la table" (a terrible thing to do because tables carry the food); or "la bonne grammaire" equates to "la bonne grand'mere", because "elle parle selon la voix du peuple qui est la voix et aussi la voie de Dieu". Brisset's oeuvre well repays the attention of linguists like Marc Décimo, on the other hand, because the associative process which is compulsively at work there affects us all to a greater or lesser extent when we resort to language, whether we are for puns, like Walter Redfern, or against them. Decimo shows how Brisset's divagations can be made, by close and intelligent examination, to yield troubling insights into his psycho-sexual complexes and even into his politics - whose furious egalitarian-ism may be put down to the humiliations he had endured at the hands of the unworthies earlier set in authority over him.
Brisset took himself very seriously as a theorist of human origins and didn't realize that he was being humiliated on the grand scale in 1913, when a young Jules Romains and others who had got wind of his obscure publications voted him "Prince des Penseurs", well ahead of his one rival in the ballot, Henri Bergson. Brisset was invited up to Paris and was naively delighted by the fuss that was made of him, the cod speeches, the banquet, the satirical newspaper coverage, supposing it to mark the public recognition he was sure his discovery had merited.
Instead, he had begun a little early on his posthumous career as a fou litteraire, classifiable according to taste as a figure of fun or as an inspired contributor to our knowledge of how language functions in all of us, sane and insane alike.
TLS January 18 2002


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