Skip to main content

Linguistics and Psychoanalysis


In 1890 the "science of language" had not yet become "general linguistics," the "fundamental science" of the humanities it would become following the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Philologists studied scripta (written traces) and the history of languages but not their origins or that of the original language (Ursprache ), a search that was felt to be irrelevant to the science of language, according to the first article of the bylaws of the Société linguistique de Paris, composed in 1866.

From the point of view of linguistics, Hans Sperber's article on the "sexual origins of language" (1912) was more an application of Freudian theory than a form of linguistic research.Émile Benveniste's rebuttal of Carl Abel's claims about the opposite meanings of words ("Über den Gegensinn der Urworte," 1885) starts from the same point: The discursive use of the euphemism or antiphrasis does not justify this claim. Moreover, there is no primitive language as far as linguists are concerned. Language is a system of signs, articulated through a process of differentiation, that organizes the first representation of the world by and for the speaking subject. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the distinction "langage/langue "language as spoken versus language as systemused by de Saussure in his classes and published in the Course on General Linguistics after his death (1916), was not widely known.

Some philologists, however, became interested in spoken language, in everyday words, in the nature of the "system" or internal structure of language (langue ). By collecting slips of the tongue, Rudolf Meringer (1895) attempted to determine the laws of evolution and the internal operation of Sprachorganismus (the organism of language), comparing it to Freud's "language apparatus" (1891b). Freud borrowed eight examples from Meringer's corpus, including the opening and closing remarks of the president of parliament (1901b). Meringer failed to be amused (1907) by Freud's admiration for the quoted text. Freud in return wrote an ironic comment (1910e), distancing himself from Meringer on the basis of their divergent understanding of slips of the tongue. The two men held different points of view: Meringer prefigured the Saussurian break entailing the internal synchronic description of the structure of languages (that is, at the time of spoken use). His insistence on speech (parole )which revealed the underlying structureimplied an emphasis on orality, the primary characteristic of languages.

De Saussure thus gave the world approximately five thousand languages and rejected the notion of "primitive" languages, which were languages with no written tradition. According to de Saussure, a language should be considered a highly organized structure, a "system of internal relations," whose elements were arbitrary and differential and could be analyzed along two different axes: the paradigmatic (or associative) axis, the axis of elements that were "absent"; and the syntagmatic axis, the axis of elements that were "present." These elements were defined in negative terms: "In language there is only difference." On the plane of sound as well as on the plane of meaning, each element is what the others are not (this was de Saussure's concept of "value"). The axis of the spoken chain can be used to postulate the temporal linearity of the sound (or acoustic) aspect of signs, that is, the "linearity of the signifier." A language is, thus, a set of articulatory, acoustic, and representative (or symbolic) conventions that are socially imposed on the speaker, a Weltanschauung, a treasure deposited in the individual by the mass of speakers.

The same position is found in the work ofÉdouard Pichon (linguist and psychoanalyst, founding member of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society, then its president in 1938), from whom Jacques Lacan borrowed the idea of "foreclosure" (Verwerfung ). From de Saussure's work, Lacan derived the concepts of the "treasure of signifiers," the unconscious structured as a language, and the condition of the unconscious. From Roman Jakobson (1963) he derived the concepts of metaphor (paradigmatic) and metonymy (syntagmatic), and reworked the concepts of condensation and displacement. Lacan also borrowed from de Saussure the idea of the arbitrariness of the sign and its duality: signified and signifier. The signified is the mental image, the concept; the signifier the acoustic image (or phonetic form). This relationship is reversed and hierarchized in Lacan (S/s) with an extreme (non-linguistic) expansion of the signifier.

Saussurian arbitrarinesswhich is what makes his work so originaldoes not refer to the lack of motivation between object and sign (word) (Sache/Zeichen ) discussed in Plato's Cratylus, but to the absence of a one-to-one relation between elements of the system of signifieds and signifiers. The concept of "double articulation" (Martinet, 1960/1964) demonstrates this: for linguists no meaning can be attributed to a phoneme or letter, something a linguist shaped by psychoanalysis like Ivan Fonagy (1970) rejects. For Fonagy, for example, language and unconscious, language and drive, are contiguous.

The same was true for Pichon, the author, with Jacques Damourette, of a voluminous grammar text and a large number of articles. It was Pichon who created the concepts of pensée-langage, which reflects the separation of form and content, and sexuisemblance, which reflects the connection between gender and sex. His work on negation (1928) and the grammatical person (1938), criticized by Benveniste as too "psychological," serves as the premise for the concept of the "shifter" in Jakobson's work, and research on "enunciation" for Benveniste. Among linguists, including contemporary linguists who speak of the (re)introduction of the subject into their field (through pragmatics, the analysis of meaning or discourse), the subject is always (or almost always) a controlling intentional subject. The failure to identify intentionality, moreover, is what ended the Saussurian analysis of anagrams (the search for a proper name burieddisseminatedin the poetic chain), although they can be understood as a search for an unconscious subject.

This conscious and controlling subject marks the difference between linguistics and psychoanalysis. Here, their epistemological terrain is distinct. Linguists and psychoanalysts apprehend the same words in different ways. Linguists first try to describe languages and construct a scientific theory of their workings. Their concern is one of generalized objectivity, which could be described as an Aristotelian approach. Consequently, they attempt to eliminate any subjectivity, while psychoanalysts acknowledge it as part of the process of association. The analysts' goal is not to put forth a theory of language but of the unconscious. This is why there are so many differences between the two fields in spite of the many borrowings by psychoanalysts from linguists (philologists for Freud) in the first half of the twentieth century.

Today, however, the situation is reversing itself, and some psychoanalysts consider the near "assimilation" of the mental apparatus to the language apparatus to be a failure (Green, 1984, 1989). Moreover, the number of linguists and semiologists who acknowledge the influence of psychoanalytic theory in the humanities is growing. For example, research on the contiguity between these two fields (Michel Arrivé, Jean-Claude Milner) has been conducted by linguists who have undergone analysis or who are analysts themselves; they have introduced psychoanalytic ideas into research on sign systems, writing, enunciation, modes of text analysis, meaning, and so forth. Links between the fields exist despite the fact that their founders never met. Freud may have seen de Saussure's name quoted by Meringer; de Saussure may have seen Freud's in a report on The Interpretation of Dreams written by one of his colleagues at the University of Geneva (Théodore Flournoy). And although Freud never read de Saussure, it is certain that he heard him referred to as the "father" and author of the Course of General Linguistics. For one of Freud's patients was Raymond de Saussure, the son of Ferdinand, and Freud wrote a preface to Raymond's The Psychoanalytic Method (1922), where his father's book is mentioned.

Anne-Marie Houdebine

See also: Language and disturbances of language.


Abel, Carl. (1885).Über den Gegensinn der Urworte. Sprachwissenschaftliche Abhandungen, pp. 313-367.

Arrivé, Michel. (1994). Langage et psychanalyse, lingistique et inconscient: Freud, Saussure, Pichon, Lacan. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Fonagy, Ivan. (1970). Les Bases pulsionnelles de la phonation. Revue française de psychanalyse, 34 (1), 101-136.

Green, André. (1984). Le langage dans la psychanalyse. In Green, André, Diatkine, René, Jabes, Edmond, Fain, Michel, and Fonagy, Ivan, Langages. Paris: Belles Letres.

. (1989). Pulsion de mort, narcissisme négatif, fonction désobjectalisante. In his La pulsion de mort. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Jakobson, Roman. (1963). Essais de linguistique générale. Paris: Minuit.

Martinet, André. (1964). Elements of General Linguistics (Elizabeth Palmer, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1960)

Meringer, Rudolf, and Mayer, Carl. (1895). Versprechen und verlesen: Eine psychologisch-linguistiche studie. Stuttgart: Göschense Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Milner, Jean-Claude. (1978). L'amour de la langue. Paris: Seuil.

Pichon,Édouard. (1928). Position du problème de l'adaptation réciproque entre la société et les psychismes exceptionnels. Revue française de psychanalyse, 2 (1), 135-170.

. (1938). La personne et la personnalité vuesà la lumière de la pensée idiomatique française. Revue française de psychanalyse, 10 (3), 447-461.

Pichon, Edouard, and Damourette, Jacques. (1925). La grammaire en tant que mode d'exploration de l'Inconscient. L'Évolution psychiatrique, 1, 237-257.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1983). Course in general linguistics. (Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, Ed.; Roy Harris, Trans.). London: Duckworth. (Original work published 1916)

Sperber, Hans. (1912).Über den Einfluss sexueller Momente auf Enstehung und Entwicklung der Sprache. Imago, 1 (5), 405-453.

Further Reading

Harris, Adrienne. (1995). Introduction: Symposium on psychoanalysis and linguistics. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 5, 615-618.

Holland, Norman. (1999). Cognitive linguistics. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 80, 357-364.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Linguistics and Psychoanalysis." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . 21 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Linguistics and Psychoanalysis." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . (August 21, 2018).

"Linguistics and Psychoanalysis." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.