La phrase expliquée aux sourds-muets

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Abbé Sicard is the inventor of a highly uncommon method for syntactic pars­ing, originally intended for his “deaf-mute” students. The pur­pose of this method was to lay bare the logical structure of a sentence by means of a cipher mapping its constituents to numerical values. This “numerical analysis of proposition”, which Sicard described as a “theory-practice”, substituted a combinatorial system based on numerical values for the traditional metalanguage of grammatical functions. Outlandish as it may seem at first sight, Sicard’s project did achieve a fair amount of success at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, to such extent that its applica­tion to general teaching was envisaged. In this paper, my primary interest will be in the discrepancy between, on the one hand, a theoretical analysis of propositions which relies on the existence of a copula and claims to provide a syntax for the “language of gestures” (“langage mimique”), and, on the other hand, the fact that the language of Sicard’s deaf students presents no functional analog of a copula. As a con­sequence, Sicard’s analysis met with the open resistance from teachers of specia­lized schools for the deaf. This opposition found additional support in obser­vations made by orientalists, and their objections eventually helped undermine the univer­salist assumptions which characterized dogmatic versions of Grammaire Générale.


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