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From Structure to Machine: Deleuze and


Guattaris Philosophy of Linguistics

Simone Aurora Universit degli studi di Padova

Abstract
This paper aims to consider the main features of the philosophy of
linguistics proposed by Deleuze and Guattari, which emerges from the
criticisms directed at what in A Thousand Plateaus they call postulates
of linguistics. The paper focuses on the transition from the Saussurean
concept of system and from the connected notion of structure to Deleuze
and Guattaris concept of machine. More precisely, the purpose of the
paper lies, on the one hand, in showing in which sense Deleuze and
Guattari claim that language is not a structure but a machine and why,
accordingly, they maintain that the mentioned postulates of linguistics
must be refused; on the other hand, the paper represents an attempt at
placing Deleuze and Guattaris position in the context of contemporary
linguistics.

Keywords: Deleuze, Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, machine,


linguistics, structuralism

I. Introduction
Deleuze and Guattari are not linguists.1 References to their writings
are not to be found in linguistics debates or on the broad scene of
studies in philosophy of language. Nevertheless, in the third chapter
of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari accomplish a veritable
piece of philosophy of linguistics.2 Whereas philosophy of language
is mainly concerned with issues regarding the nature of linguistic

Deleuze Studies 11.3 (2017): 405428


DOI: 10.3366/dls.2017.0274
Edinburgh University Press
www.euppublishing.com/dls
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meaning and reference, the expression philosophy of linguistics


denotes a specific branch of the philosophy of science that deals with
linguistics. Thus, general questions in the philosophy of linguistics
typically include the following: (1) what is language? (2) What are the
theoretical goals of Linguistics? (3) What forms should linguistic theories
take? (4) What counts as linguistic data? More specific topics cover
issues like, among others, language learnability, language change, the
competenceperformance distinction, the distinction between language
and dialect, and speech-act theories.
This paper aims to offer a first tentative assessment of Deleuze and
Guattaris position in the eyes of contemporary linguistics research,
providing a first general overview of some of the potential effects
of Deleuze and Guattaris philosophy of linguistics in the field of
linguistic research and, in this manner, trying to pave the way for an
interest in Deleuze and Guattaris ideas in the community of linguistics
scholars. However, the purpose of the paper is not primarily to advocate
Deleuze and Guattaris linguistic insights, but rather to make a more
modest contribution to the understanding of their position, showing the
dissimilarities and affinities that they maintain with some of the principal
viewpoints in the field of contemporary linguistics.
To this end, it is, in the first place, necessary to present the
linguistic approach, which Deleuze and Guattari explicitly oppose,
namely structural linguistics. It is indeed with the criticisms towards this
position that Deleuze and Guattari lay the foundation of their views and,
especially, of their concept of language as a machine.

II. Structural Linguistics


Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is generally considered as the
founding father of structural linguistics. In actual fact, although in his
most important work, published posthumously in 1916 under the title
Cours de linguistique gnrale (Course in General Linguistics), Saussure
uses the word structure very rarely and never in a technical sense his
linguistic theory nonetheless represents an essential break in the history
of modern linguistics and paves the way to twentieth-century structural
approaches to language.3 What is crucial in the Saussurean break is the
introduction of a systemic approach.
Indeed, according to Saussure, Language is a system of interde-
pendent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the
simultaneous presence of the others (Saussure 1959: 114; my emphasis)
and whose parts can and must all be considered in their synchronic
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From Structure to Machine 407

solidarity (87). Saussure also strongly affirms the priority of the system
over its parts. In fact, he writes:
to consider a term as simply the union of a certain sound with a certain
concept is grossly misleading. To define it in this way would isolate the term
from its system; it would mean assuming that one can start from the terms
and construct the system by adding them together when, on the contrary, it
is from the interdependent whole that one must start and through analysis
obtain its elements. (Saussure 1959: 113)

All linguistic signs are, according to Saussure, arbitrary. This means that
their semantic value is not determined or motivated by the things they
are the signs of, but rather by the relations of difference from other
signs embedded within the language system. As Roy Harris writes, The
essential feature of Saussures linguistic sign is that, being intrinsically
arbitrary, it can be defined only by contrast with co-existing signs of
the same nature, which together constitute a structured system (Harris
1986: x; my emphasis). This implies the endorsement of what has been
called the autonomist position (Bugarski 1999: 30), namely the view
according to which linguistics should be no longer subordinated to
philology, philosophy, sociology or some other discipline, but rather
considered as a self-contained science. In fact, the object of linguistics,
namely the system of language, can be studied, according to this view,
solely by means of a description of the differential relations between the
elements of the system, that is to say linguistic signs.
Indeed, Saussures definition of language presupposes the exclusion
of everything that is outside its organism or system (Saussure 1959:
20). In order to clarify this point, Saussure uses a well-known analogy,
comparing language to the game of chess:
The fact that the game passed from Persia to Europe is external; against that,
everything having to do with its system and rules is internal. If I use ivory
chessmen instead of wooden ones, the change has no effect on the system, but
if I decrease or increase the number of chessmen, this change has a profound
effect on the grammar of the game. (Saussure 1959: 223)

Therefore one must always distinguish between what is internal and


what is external. In each instance one can determine the nature of the
phenomenon by applying this rule: everything that changes the system
in any way is internal (Saussure 1959: 23). Accordingly, the science
of language must necessarily exclude all the non-linguistic variables
that can somehow be related to language, like ethnological, political,
institutional or geographical variables, since they are external variables
and, as such, they are completely ineffective for a definition of the
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forces that are permanently and universally at work in all languages


and for a deduction of the general laws to which all specific historical
phenomena can be reduced (6). This idea becomes particularly apparent
when considering Noam Chomskys scientific project.4 In Aspects of the
Theory of Syntax, for instance, Chomsky writes:

Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speakerlistener, in


a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language
perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as
memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors
(random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual
performance . . . This seems to me to have been the position of the founders
of modern general linguistics [Chomsky explicitly refers to Saussure], and no
cogent reason for modifying it has been offered. (Chomsky 1965: 34)5

However, according to Saussure, linguistics must be understood only


as a part of a new and more general science, A science that studies the
life of signs within society (Saussure 1959: 16) which Saussure names
Semiology. Indeed, language is basically a system of signs that express
ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet
of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc. (16).
Thus, Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology;
the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and
the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of
anthropological facts (16).
Still, according to Saussure, language is the most important of all
these systems (Saussure 1959: 16). This is mainly because language
is the only system capable of translating the codes of all the other
semiological systems into its own code. In this sense, Saussure writes,
linguistics can become the master-pattern for all branches of semiology
although language is only one particular semiological system (68).
Thus, language must be considered, at least within the structuralist
framework, as the most fundamental and powerful semiological system
and linguistics represents, therefore, the most important and basic
semiological science. The acknowledgement of the privileged position of
linguistics has become commonplace within the structuralist tradition. In
a 1945 essay, Lanalyse structurale en linguistique et en anthropologie,
the French anthropologist and leading exponent of structuralism
Claude Lvi-Strauss, writes, for instance, that Linguistics occupies
a special place among the social sciences (Lvi-Strauss 1963: 31)
and even predicts that Structural linguistics will certainly play the
same renovating role with respect to the social sciences that nuclear
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From Structure to Machine 409

physics, for example, has played for the physical sciences (Lvi-Strauss
1963: 33).

III. From Structure to Machine


In 1971 Flix Guattari published a paper entitled Machine et structure
(Machine and Structure), which Franois Dosse conveniently suggests
renaming Machine against Structure (Dosse 2010: 223). This text,
where the concept of machine is introduced, is also the first text in which
Guattari refers to Deleuze, more precisely to Difference and Repetition
and to The Logic of Sense. In the latter text, published in 1969, Deleuze
had proposed three minimal conditions for a structure in general
(Deleuze 1990: 50). As Franois Dosse remarks, Taking Deleuzes theses
as his starting point, Guattari felt the need to use the idea of machine
to introduce the differentiating element that reintroduced events and
movement (Dosse 2010: 224) or, in other words, that broke with the
atemporal synchrony of the structure and with its alleged self-sufficiency.
Indeed, in contrast to structure, Temporalization penetrates the machine
on all sides, so much so that the emergence of the machine marks
a date, a change, different from a structural representation (Guattari
1984: 112), in other words, a change that is not deducible from the laws
governing the structure.
While the first two conditions distinguished by Deleuze are along the
lines of classical formulations of structuralism, the third is instead quite
unorthodox since, as Guattari explicitly claims in Machine et structure,
it relates . . . exclusively to the order of the machine (Guattari 1984:
111) to the extent that it already forces the concept of structure into that
of machine.
In the first place, Deleuze writes, There must be at least two
heterogeneous series, one of which shall be determined as signifying
[signifiant] and the other as signified [signifie] (Deleuze 1990:
50). As we have already seen, language can be described, according
to Saussure, as a system of linguistic signs. For Saussure, a linguistic
sign can be defined as the combination of a concept and a sound-
image (Saussure 1959: 67), for instance the concept of a tree and the
psychological sound-image connected to it. Saussure then replaces the
terms concept and sound-image with the terms signified [signifie]
and signifier [signifiant], respectively. In the English translation, the
Saussurean term signifier clearly corresponds to the term signifying
in the quotation from Deleuze. In the original French text, however,
Deleuzes terminology exactly mirrors Saussures wording. The first
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410 Simone Aurora

minimal condition for a structure in general is then that there must be a


set of concepts, that is a series of signified elements, namely of elements
which have a meaning, and a set of psychological sound-images, namely
a series of signifying elements, that is of arbitrary and formal elements
which have no meaning outside their relation to a concept. Indeed, a
single series never suffices to form a structure (Deleuze 1990: 50).
In the second place, Deleuze writes, Each of these series [must
be] constituted by terms which exist only through the relations they
maintain with one another (Deleuze 1990: 50). Indeed, to paraphrase
Saussure, the two series are intimately united, and each recalls the other
(Saussure 1959: 66). In actual fact, the elements of a signified series could
not exist without the elements of the signifying series and the elements of
the signifying series would have no meaning if not connected with their
signified counterpart. In Saussures words, Whether we take the signified
or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before
the linguistic system (Saussure 1959: 120), that is to say outside the web
of their mutual structural relations.
Finally, according to Deleuze, there is a third minimal condition for
a structure in general. This is Deleuzes unorthodox condition, which
breaks with the structuralist concept of structure and paves the way to
the notion of machine. It states the following:
The two heterogeneous series [of a structure] converge toward a paradoxical
element, which is their differentiator . . . [this] has the function of
articulating the two series to one another, of reflecting them in one another,
of making them communicate, coexist, and be ramified. (Deleuze 1990: 501)

In order to function, a structure needs something that is not included


in the structure itself and that can be defined as paradoxical, in the
sense that it is not subjected to the logic of the structure in which it
occurs. Paradoxical, in other words, here does not designate something
self-contradictory. In fact, in The Logic of Sense, the synonym for
paradoxical is not senseless or absurd, but rather aleatory, namely
something depending on chance and, therefore, unpredictable and not
deducible from a law (see Deleuze 1990: 103, 166, 174).
Language always needs an extra-linguistic element in order to
function. We can think, for instance, of Saussures concept of the
arbitrariness of linguistic sign. Indeed, according to Saussure, The bond
between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary (Saussure 1959: 67).
For example:
The idea of sister is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of
sounds s--r which serves as its signifier in French; that it could be represented
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From Structure to Machine 411

equally by just any other sequence is proved by differences among languages


and by the very existence of different languages. (Saussure 1959: 678)

Saussures thesis of the arbitrariness of sign is not simply a version


of conventionalism. Indeed, according to Saussure, although the
linguistic sign is arbitrary, it is impossible for anyone to change it.
The arbitrariness of sign means that, first, there is no rational or
motivated connection between signified and signifier and, second, that
this connection results solely from the web of relations embedded in
the system of language. However, if one wants to follow Deleuze
and Guattaris argument, one must claim, against Saussure, that the
arbitrary nature of linguistic sign implies exactly the opposite, namely
the existence of something which is external to language and which does
not depend on its structural laws. Indeed, the fact that the link between
the idea of sister and the succession of sounds s--r could be represented
by any other sequence, as proved by differences among languages,
appears to show that this link is not due to mere linguistic divergences,
but rather to the contingent and broad context in which different
languages have been established. Otherwise, why should the linguistic
systems of English and French express the same idea through different
signifiers? In other terms, Saussure seems to merely presuppose the
existence of different linguistic systems but not to explain it. Moreover,
by excluding from the field of linguistics everything which is external to
language, Saussure seems to make such an explanation even impossible.
Thus, according to Deleuze and Guattari, the arbitrariness of the
linguistic sign involves the action of something external to language,
something radically contingent and, therefore, completely unpredictable.
It is this paradoxical element that makes the functioning of language
possible. Deleuze names this paradoxical and aleatory element event. In
The Logic of Sense, Deleuze explicitly writes that Events make language
possible (Deleuze 1990: 181). An event is something which happens
outside a given structure and which is nonetheless capable of causing
effects on the working of the structure. With regard to the structure
on which it is effective, the event is always unpredictable, external,
contingent and uncontrollable.
We can define the concept of machine precisely as the combination
between a structure and the non-structural or paradoxical elements
which are connected to it, namely between a structure and the events
that make the structure work.
On the basis of this shift from the model of structure to the model of
machine, I think that it is possible to define a sort of Prolegomena to
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Deleuze and Guattaris linguistics, grounded on the refusal of what in


the fourth chapter of A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari call,
with a certain degree of arbitrariness, the four postulates of linguistics.6

IV. The Postulates of Machinic Linguistics


Language Is Not Informational or Communicational
The first postulate of linguistics to which Deleuze and Guattari refer
states the following: language is informational and communicational.
Consequently, the first postulate of Deleuze and Guattaris linguistics
states exactly the opposite, namely that language is not informational
or communicational.7 What is at stake here is probably the most
fundamental question of the entire science of language, that is to
say the question of the very nature of language. In this respect,
contemporary linguistics seems to offer primarily two kinds of answer: a
formalist one which we can mainly trace back to Noam Chomskys
approach and a functionalist one such as, for instance, the one
involved in Michael Hallidays highly influential systemic functional
linguistics.
According to Chomskys view:
There is no reason to believe . . . that language essentially serves instrumental
ends, or that the essential purpose of language is communication, as is
often said, at least if we mean by communication something like transmitting
information or inducing belief. (Chomsky 1979: 87)8

To make this point clearer, Chomsky proposes the following analogy:


To be sure, the heart has a function: to pump blood. One may sensibly say
that the structure of the heart is determined by that function. But suppose
we ask the ontogenetic question: How does our heart become what it is?
How does it grow in the individual from the embryo to its final form in the
mature organism? The answer is not functional: the heart does not develop in
the individual because it would be useful to carry out a certain function, but
rather because the genetic program determines that it will develop as it does.
(Chomsky 1979: 86)

On the contrary, as Halliday writes in a 1973 essay, according to the


functionalist perspective:
The internal organization of natural language can best be explained in the
light of the social functions which language has evolved to serve. Language is
as it is because of what it has to do. Only, the relation between language
function and language structure will appear less directly, and in more
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From Structure to Machine 413

complex ways, in the fully developed adult system than in childrens language.
(Halliday 2004: 309)

From this point of view, Deleuze and Guattaris position seems to


be a variation of the functionalist approach to language. Incidentally,
in a 1972 conversation with Catherine Backs-Clment they explicitly
remark: Were strict functionalists: what were interested in is how
something works, functions finding the machine (Deleuze 1995:
212). However, not only do they share with Chomsky a radical cri-
tique of the alleged informative and communicative nature of language,
which is a typical idea of functionalist theories,9 but they basically
reduce the manifoldness of linguistic functions identified by functional
linguists to a unique macro-function, namely the order-word function,
which corresponds to the regulatory function in Hallidays wording,
that is the use of language to control the behaviour of others, to manip-
ulate the persons in the environment the do as I tell you function
(Halliday 2004: 306). Indeed, according to Deleuze and Guattari, The
elementary unit of language the statement is the order-word (Deleuze
and Guattari 1987: 76) and Language is made not to be believed but
to be obeyed, and to compel obedience (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:
76). As a first consideration, it is important to remark that, with the
term order-word, Deleuze and Guattari do not refer to a particular
category of explicit statements (for example, in the imperative), but,
rather, to the relation of every word or every statement to implicit
presuppositions (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 79). Thus, order-words
concern every act that is linked to statements by a social obligation
(Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 79). However, since Every statement
displays this link, directly or indirectly . . . [t]he only possible definition
of language is the set of all order-words, implicit presuppositions, or
speech acts current in a language at a given moment (Deleuze and
Guattari 1987: 79). As Labov points out, for instance, a daughter must
usually mitigate her request when speaking with her mother; indeed,
to say to her mother Come home right now! would be violating a
strong social constraint, although a mother can easily say this to her
daughter (Labov 1972: 257). The exact degree of mitigation, Labov
writes further, and the way in which the request is executed involve a
number of variables: age, socioeconomic class, relative status of speaker
and listener, and the form of the preceding utterance (Labov 1972:
257). Thus, according to Deleuze and Guattari, language must be under-
stood as a machine, to the extent that it combines the formal elements of
its structure with a set of implicit non-linguistic presuppositions, namely
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414 Simone Aurora

with the social context in which language necessarily works.10 Indeed,


for Deleuze and Guattari, enunciation has always an essentially social
character.
Such an understanding of the nature of language clearly challenges
structuralism, since the latter ties the system of language to the
understanding of an ideal individual, in which the structure of language
could be perfectly determined, and social factors to actual individuals as
speakers (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 524). On the contrary, according
to Deleuze and Guattari, There is no individual enunciation and not
even a subject of enunciation, no significance independent of dominant
significations, nor is there subjectification independent of an established
order of subjection, since both depend on the nature and transmission
of order-words, that is of statements, in a given social field (79).
Every statement reflects the semiotic order which rules the social field
in which the subject speaks. Hence, every statement implies first and
foremost the transmission of a semiotic order and of a social grammar
and, in this sense, every statement constitutes an order-word, to the
extent that it entails the imposition of a code of social conduct. The
compulsory education machine, for instance, does not communicate
information; it imposes upon the child semiotic coordinates possessing
all of the dual foundations of grammar (masculine-feminine,11 singular-
plural, noun-verb, subject of the statement-subject of enunciation, etc.)
(756).12 However, this is not to deny that language is a means of
communication and information, but rather that language is primarily a
means of communication and information. Indeed, according to Deleuze
and Guattari, information is only the strict minimum necessary for
the emission, transmission, and observation of orders as commands
(76). Communication is always functional for the transmission of
social obligations and information serves only to specify the order:
One must be just informed enough not to confuse Fire! with
Fore! (76).
Such views seem to challenge dominant Chomskyan-style reconstruc-
tions of the process of language acquisition in young children. Indeed,
according to this framework, For children, acquiring a language is
an effortless achievement that occurs . . . without explicit teaching,
. . . on the basis of positive evidence (i.e., what they hear) . . . under
varying circumstances, and in a limited amount of time, . . . , and
finally, in identical ways across different languages (Guasti 2002: 23).
Hence, adults impositions or corrections, namely what is usually called
negative evidence, seem to have, if any, relatively little influence on
childrens language acquisition. As Guasti claims:
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From Structure to Machine 415

although the question is still much debated, the general conclusion is that
negative evidence is not provided to all children on all occasions, is generally
noisy, and is not sufficient . . . Thus, negative evidence is not a reliable
source of information. Children have the best chance to succeed in acquiring
language by relying on positive evidence, the utterances they hear around
them. (Guasti 2002: 23)

On closer inspection, however, these last considerations seem not to


contradict Deleuze and Guattaris argument. Indeed, as we have already
seen, order-words are not limited to explicit commands, for example
expressed in the form of imperatives, or to plain impositions, like
for instance adults corrections of childrens language. In other words,
positive evidence still represents, in the eyes of Deleuze and Guattari, a
form of social imposition, albeit implicit.
From this point of view, Deleuze and Guattaris analyses can be
considered as a radicalised version of what have been called within
that field of research inaugurated by Lakoff 1975 and known as
Language and Gender the dominance approach. Although the studies
related to this field of research are mainly concerned with descriptions
of language at the phenomenal level, I believe that they are fully
compatible with Deleuze and Guattaris general linguistic insights and
that the latter could profitably function as a theoretical framework
for the former. Indeed, as Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet
summarise, Analysts associated with a dominance framework generally
argue . . . that differences between womens and mens speech arise
because of male dominance over women and persist in order to keep
women subordinated to men (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2003:
2). Deleuze and Guattari thus radicalise and expand the dominance
approach, implicitly following a suggestion made by William M. OBarr
and Bowman K. Atkins in their influential 1980 essay Womens
Language or Powerless Language?, according to which Gender
meanings draw on other social meanings (OBarr and Atkins 1998:
386). Indeed, if usual inquiries run by supporters of the dominance
approach are, despite some explicit and programmatic claims, typically
gender-focused, Deleuze and Guattaris investigations rather take into
account power relations in all their various instantiations within
a given social field.13 Thus, according to Deleuze and Guattari, it
is not simply that to quote the title of an important book by
Dale Spender (1985) man made language but rather that, more
precisely, language is constantly made by those who hold power,
that is to say at least in Western cultures and societies by average
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416 Simone Aurora

adult-white-heterosexual-European-male-speaking a standard language


[individuals] (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 105).
It is in this sense that, according to Deleuze and Guattari, pragmatics,
as the subfield of linguistics which studies the way in which context
influences the meaning and the structure of statements and that requires
a consideration of how speakers organize what they want to say in
accordance with who theyre talking to, where, when, and under what
circumstances (Yule 1996: 3) must be primarily understood as a
politics of language.14 In this respect, Deleuze and Guattaris position
shows many affinities with the approach initiated by Norman Fairclough
at the end of the 1970s and known as critical discourse analysis. Indeed,
as Fairclough writes:

By critical discourse analysis I mean discourse analysis which aims


to systematically explore often opaque relationships of causality and
determination between (a) discursive practices, events and texts, and (b) wider
social and cultural structures, relations and processes; to investigate how
such practices, events and texts arise out of and are ideologically shaped
by relations of power and struggles over power . . . In referring to opacity,
I am suggesting that such linkages between discourse, ideology and power
may well be unclear to those involved, and more generally that our social
practice is bound up with causes and effects which may not be at all apparent.
(Fairclough 1995: 1323)

Whereas in Saussurean and, more generally, in formal and autonomist


approaches, a privilege is granted to the study of langue the
abstract system of language with its differential internal relations to
the detriment of the parole the concrete instance of the usage of
language Deleuze and Guattari aim, on the contrary, to develop a
linguistics of speech or better, as we shall see, of the collective
assemblage of enunciation, focused on the usage of language and
on the mostly implicit and usually opaque social and political
investments which necessarily underlie every speech-act. Hence, It is
impossible, they write, to maintain the distinction between language
and speech because speech can no longer be defined simply as the
extrinsic and individual use of a primary signification or the variable
application of a preexisting syntax, like in formalist approaches.
Quite the opposite, they write further on the basis of their radical
functionalism, the meaning and syntax of language can no longer be
defined independently of the speech acts they presuppose (Deleuze
and Guattari 1987: 81). Pragmatics, then, becomes the presupposition
behind all of the other dimensions [semantics, syntax, phonology, and
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From Structure to Machine 417

so on] and insinuates itself into everything (78), so much so that


linguistics is nothing without a pragmatics to define the effectuation
of the condition of possibility of language and the usage of linguistic
elements (85).

There Cannot Be an Abstract Machine of Language that Does Not


Appeal to Any Extrinsic Factor
Deleuze and Guattari replace the notions of subject of the statement
and subject of enunciation with the concept of collective assemblage
of enunciation. There are no individual statements, they write in the
second chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, there never are. Indeed,
Every statement is the product of a machinic assemblage (Deleuze
and Guattari 1987: 37) insofar as it involves the combination of
linguistic structure and of a multiplicity of implicit non-linguistic
presuppositions, that is events or what Deleuze and Guattari also call
incorporeal transformations. Individual enunciation thus gives way to
a collective enunciation. Every speech-act, far from being individual, is
intrinsically social, since it is the outcome of an assemblage of collective
and impersonal elements which are inaccessible to the speaker: the
phonological, syntactical and semantical elements of a specific language,
on the one hand, and the extra-linguistic scenario in which speech-acts
occur, on the other hand.
Thus, language can be basically described as a network composed
solely by sets of what William Labov one of the few linguists positively
mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari calls sociolinguistic variables.
According to Labov, a sociolinguistic variable is a linguistic variable
which is correlated with some non-linguistic variable of the social
context: of the speaker, the addressee, the audience, the setting, etc.
(Labov 1972: 237). In fact, Linguistic structure [must] include . . .
the orderly differentiation of speakers and styles through rules which
govern variation in the speech community since Linguistic and social
factors are closely interrelated in the development of language change
(Weinreich et al. 1968: 188).
Moreover, according to Deleuze and Guattari, we must distinguish
between the actions and passions affecting bodies, on the one hand, and
acts which instead, on the other hand, are only non-corporeal attributes
of a statement. Deleuze and Guattari give many examples of what is to
be understood under the concept of incorporeal attribute or incorporeal
transformation. For instance:
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418 Simone Aurora

In an airplane hijacking, the threat of a hijacker brandishing a revolver is


obviously an action; so is the execution of the hostages, if it occurs. But the
transformation of the passengers into hostages, and of the plane-body into
a prison-body, is an instantaneous incorporeal transformation. (Deleuze and
Guattari 1987: 81)

Collective assemblages of enunciation designate exactly this relation


between statements in this case the hijackers threat and the incor-
poreal transformations or non-corporeal attributes they express here
the transformation of the passengers into hostages and of the plane into
a prison (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 81). Thus, the second postulate
of Deleuze and Guattaris linguistics says, in direct opposition to the
Saussurean exclusion of external linguistics and to Chomskyan-style
linguistics, that there cannot be an abstract system of language that does
not appeal to any extrinsic factor. According to Deleuze and Guattari,
structuralism fails exactly to understand language in terms of a machine.
Indeed, a true abstract machine pertains to an assemblage in its entirety
. . . . This means that content cannot be a mere signified nor expression
a mere signifier, rather, both are variables of the assemblage, which
are determined by the interplay between linguistic and non-linguistic
elements. Thus, It is language that depends on the abstract machine, not
the reverse (91). Far from being a homogeneous system, language must
therefore always and necessarily be described as a heterogeneous system
or in the words of Weinreich, Labov and Herzog as a differentiated
system. In fact, as William Dwight Whitney, who can be considered as
a forerunner of the sociolinguistic approach, wrote in 1867:
Speech is not a personal possession, but a social; it belongs not to the
individual, but to the member of society . . . Man speaks, then, primarily,
not in order to think, but in order to impart his thought. His social needs, his
social instincts, force him to expression. A solitary man would never frame a
language. (Whitney 1973: 404; my emphasis)

There Are No Constants or Universals of Language that Enable Us


to Define It as a Homogeneous System
The third postulate, which states that there are no constants or universals
of language that enable us to define it as a homogeneous system,
probably represents the most radical, although problematic, criticism
of linguistics and, especially, of structural linguistics to be found in
A Thousand Plateaus. In fact, as William Croft writes, although it
[constitutes] by no means a necessary fact or universally-held opinion
. . . [t]here is broad agreement that there do exist a substantial number
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From Structure to Machine 419

of universals that hold of all languages (Croft 2002: 45). As Deleuze


and Guattari recall, The question of structural invariants . . . is essential
to linguistics. It is what allows linguistics to claim a basis in pure
scientificity, to be nothing but science, safe from any supposedly external
or pragmatic factor (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 92).
The refusal of the concept of linguistic constant or universal is
problematic insofar as it seems to go against a great amount of empirical
evidence.15 As a matter of fact, as Roman Jakobson writes in a 1958
essay, the rich experience of the science of languages permits us to
uncover constants which will hardly be degraded to near-constants, that
is to mere rules of high statistical probability. Indeed, There are, for
instance, languages lacking syllables with initial vowels and/or syllables
with final consonants, but there are no languages devoid of syllables with
initial consonants or of syllables with final vowels (Jakobson 1962b:
526). Jakobson admits the possibility that constants might turn out to
be only near-constants, namely rules of high probability and, in turn,
uniformity only a near-uniformity. However, according to Jakobson,
this possibility can be explained by the fact that we simply lack empirical
data. No doubt, he writes, a more exact and exhaustive description of
the languages of the world will complete, correct, and perfect the code
of general laws (526). Yet, this lack of data is still a huge problem in
contemporary typological research and makes previsions such as those
given by Jakobson far from being certain.
In an important article from 2009, Nicholas Evans and Stephen C.
Levinson critically observe:

Somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 distinct languages are spoken today . . .
Less than 10% of these languages have decent descriptions (full grammars
and dictionaries). Consequently, nearly all generalizations about what is
possible in human languages are based on a maximal 500 languages
sample (in practice, usually much smaller Greenbergs famous universals of
language were based on 30), and almost every new language description still
guarantees substantial surprises . . . If we project back through time, there
have probably been at least half a million human languages . . . so what we
now have is a non-random sample of less than 2% of the full range of human
linguistic diversity. (Evans and Levinson 2009: 432)16

Contrary to Jakobsons claims, for Deleuze and Guattari the


possibility of near-constants and near-uniformity does not relate to
a quaestio facti but to a quaestio juris. In this respect, Deleuze and
Guattari follow what Martin Joos has called the American tradition in
linguistics, according to which as Joos briefly summarises in a famous
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420 Simone Aurora

passage dated 1957 languages could differ from each other without
limit and in unpredictable ways so that a language could be described
better without any preexistent scheme of what a language must be
(Joos 1966: 96). More significantly, Deleuze and Guattaris analyses
can be considered as the forerunner at least from a theoretical point
of view of the radical criticism of linguistic universals involved in the
already quoted recent article by Evans and Levinson, which can in turn
also be seen as a new outcome of the American tradition. Indeed,
echoing Jooss quoted passage, Evans and Levinson write that languages
differ so fundamentally from one another at every level of description
(sound, grammar, lexicon, meaning) that it is very hard to find any single
structural property they share (Evans and Levinson 2009: 429). In their
article, they provide a list of features that all languages are supposed
to have, the so-called linguistic universals, and then show that actually
none of these uncontroversial facts are true of all languages (Evans
and Levinson 2009: 430).17 Evans and Levinson obviously make no
reference to Deleuze and Guattari. However, it is noteworthy that in
their article they speak of the cognitive system, of which language is
a mere component, in terms not dissimilar to Deleuze and Guattaris
wording. They actually write:

On this new view, cognition is less like the proverbial toolbox of ready-made
tools than a machine tool, capable of manufacturing special tools for special
jobs. The wider the variety of tools that can be made, the more powerful
the underlying mechanisms have to be. Culture provides the impetus for
new tools of many different kinds whether calculating, playing the piano,
reading right to left, or speaking Arabic. (Evans and Levinson 2009: 447; my
emphasis)

If language, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, is not a structure but a


machine of which structure is a mere component, we must therefore
claim that language is not universal, or even general, but singular
(Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 100), to the extent that it is always related
to non-linguistic presuppositions, unpredictable events and incorporeal
transformations. Thus, it has, not invariable or obligatory rules, but
optional rules that ceaselessly vary with the variation itself, as in a
game in which each move changes the rules (100). Thus, there are no
absolute universals but, at most, only statistical universals or strong
tendencies.18 This is due to the fact that, according to Deleuze and
Guattari, there are as many statements as there are effectuations and
there is no reason to say that the variables are merely situational, and
that the statement remains constant in principle (94). Indeed, if we take
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From Structure to Machine 421

as an example the statement I swear!, it is possible to say, so Deleuze


and Guattari write, that It is a different statement depending on whether
it is said by a child to his or her father, by a man in love to his loved one,
or by a witness before the court (94). Moreover:
In the course of a single day, an individual repeatedly passes from language
to language. He successively speaks as father to son and as a boss; to his
lover, he speaks an infantilized language; while sleeping he is plunged into an
oniric discourse, then abruptly returns to a professional language when the
telephone rings. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 94)

Of course, one can always maintain that all these languages are actually
no more than variations of the same language, but such an answer
represents, in the eyes of Deleuze and Guattari, a mere (political)
prejudice, as the next paragraph will show.

It Is Impossible to Define a Homogeneous System that Is Not Still


or Already Affected by a Regulated, Continuous, Immanent Process
of Variation
The last postulate of linguistics addressed by Deleuze and Guattari,
states that language can be scientifically studied only under the
conditions of a standard or major language. Following Edward Finegans
definition, we can identify as standard:
the variety used by a group of people in their public discoursenewspapers,
radio broadcasts, political speeches, college and university lectures, and so
on. In other words, we could identify as standard the variety used for certain
activities or in certain situations. Alternatively, we could identify as standard
the variety that has undergone a process of standardization, by which it is
organized for description in grammars and dictionaries and encoded in such
reference works. (Finegan 2012: 13)

In his 1931 paper on Phonemic Notes on Standard Slovak, for


instance, Jakobson writes that he is concerned solely with the standard
language, that is with those elements which have been incorporated
into the normative textbooks and codified as a set of valid orthoepic
prescriptions, that is of rules of correct pronunciation within a specific
oral tradition, and that he therefore leaves aside such questions as how
large is the number of educated individuals who consistently observe the
literary norm and how widespread are the deviations therefrom, i.e., the
dialectal variants of the standard language (Jakobson 1962a: 221).
Deleuze and Guattari completely reject this distinction between
standard and non-standard language, by claiming that this distinction
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422 Simone Aurora

is purely political and has nothing to do with linguistics. In fact,


standard language is simply the language variety which has undergone
a process of standardisation and which has, in this way, acquired
a legal or quasi-legal status; moreover, standard language frequently
tends to coincide, according to Deleuze and Guattari, with a major
language, namely with the language variety spoken by a dominant
social group.19 Thus, The scientific enterprise of extracting constants
and constant relations is always coupled with the political enterprise
of imposing them on speakers and transmitting order-words (Deleuze
and Guattari 1987: 101). For Deleuze and Guattari, then, there is no
point in separating a language from the semiotic machine in which
it works. Hence, in its positive formulation, the last postulate of
Deleuze Guattaris linguistics claims that it is impossible to define a
homogeneous system that is not still or already affected by a regulated,
continuous, immanent process of variation (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:
103). It is impossible to define a standard structure of a given language,
regardless of the network of non-linguistic implicit presuppositions,
events and incorporeal transformations which constantly influence this
language. Indeed, there are not . . . two kinds of languages, namely
a standard and a non-standard language, but two possible treatments
of the same language (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 103). From a
purely linguistic point of view, there is no point in considering, for
instance, British English as standard English and the so-called Black
English merely as a deviation from standard English. This distinction
is only a political distinction, by which language is homogenized,
centralized, standardized, becoming a language of power, a major or
dominant language (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 101). Such claims echo
the famous 1945 assertion by Max Weinreich remarkably originally
expressed in Yiddish, a minority language according to which A
language is a dialect with an army and navy (Weinreich 1945:
13). In fact, as Lecercle notes, the standardisation process is where
scientific langue is most blatantly the creation of a rapport de forces,
the imposition of markers of power (Lecercle 2002: 89). Indeed,
Forming grammatically correct sentences is for the normal individual
the prerequisite for any submission to social laws. No one is supposed
to be ignorant of grammaticality; those who are belong in special
institutions20 (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 101). Thus, The unity of
language is fundamentally political (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 101).
Hence, language is not a neutral structure, which can be scientifically
isolated in order to be studied, but rather a machine, that is a map
of the network of all the intertwined linguistic and non-linguistic
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From Structure to Machine 423

variables that come into play in a given social field at a given


moment.
As a matter of fact, Deleuze and Guattari write:
if a language such as British English or American English is major on a world
scale, it is necessarily worked upon by all the minorities of the world, using
very diverse procedures of variation. Take the way Gaelic and Irish English
set English in variation. Or the way Black English and any number of ghetto
languages set American English in variation, to the point that New York is
virtually a city without a language. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 1023)

Accordingly, there cannot be something like a standard language or a


standard English, but only a map of, so to say, English-effects, that is of
the various combinations (British English, Black English, Irish English)
produced by the constant working of the machine of language.21
As Jack Chambers and Peter Trudgill write, The term language
. . . is from a linguistic point of view a relatively non-technical term
(Chambers and Trudgill 2004: 5). They therefore suggest instead the use
of the term variety which seems to be consistent with Deleuze and
Guattaris extended use of the term variation in order to be able to
refer to any particular kind of language, like for instance Yorkshire
English, Leeds English or even middle-class Leeds English (Chambers
and Trudgill 2004: 5). Thus, Deleuze and Guattari sum up, there
is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only
a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There
is, furthermore, no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a
homogeneous linguistic community (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 7).

V. Conclusions
Deleuze and Guattaris reflections on language are for the most part
consistent with some of the major trends in contemporary linguistic
research, like functionalism, sociolinguistics, dialectology and gender
linguistics. On this point, I must therefore disagree with Therese
Grishams claim, according to which Deleuze and Guattaris treatment
of linguistics, although continuous with the history of the discipline,
cannot be evaluated using the objects, issues, and methods proper to
the discipline itself (Grisham 1991: 36). On the contrary, I believe that
Deleuze and Guattaris investigations can be fully utilised by linguists
with an interest in the theoretical and methodological foundations of
the discipline, since their inquiry takes account of central issues in the
field of linguistics.
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424 Simone Aurora

In addition, and more interestingly, Deleuze and Guattaris analyses


also present traits of novelty:

1. They introduce a new vocabulary (machine, collective assemblage


of enunciation, event, non-corporeal transformation), which
derives for the most part from the substitution of the concept of
structure with the notion of machine and which may prove to
be useful for a more precise description of the phenomenon of
language from a functionalist, sociolinguistic or pragmatic point
of view.
2. In explicit opposition to Chomskys approach, they support
a functionalist view, yet refusing the privilege conceded by
most functional linguists to communication and reducing the
manifoldness of linguistic functions identified by functionalists to
a unique macro-function, namely the regulatory function or, in
Deleuze and Guattaris words, the order-word function.
3. They generalise what has been called, in gender linguistics, the
dominance approach, by extending it far beyond gender into the
general sphere of power relations, considered in all their various
instantiations in a given social field.
4. They radicalise the sociolinguistic concept of language as a
differentiated system, by challenging the legitimacy of the idea
of a neutral and isolated linguistic structure and maintaining the
necessary coextensivity of linguistic and social structure. Anyway,
it is necessary to remark that from a classical sociolinguistic
standpoint, Deleuze and Guattaris theses would sound too
extreme. In Sociolinguistic Patterns, for instance, Labov explicitly
remarks that:

In speaking of the role of social factors influencing linguistic evolution,


it is important not to overestimate the amount of contact or overlap
between social values and the structure of language. Linguistic and
social structure are by no means coextensive. The great majority of
linguistic rules are quite remote from any social value. (Labov 1972:
251)

5. Finally, they develop a radical criticism of linguistic universals


that although it could appear quite implausible in 1980, the
year A Thousand Plateaus was published foreruns by about
thirty years current and, apparently unprecedented, attacks on the
validity of the theory of linguistic universals, like those brought on
by Evans and Levinson in their 2009 article.
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From Structure to Machine 425

Notes
1. A first version of this paper was presented at the seventh International Deleuze
Studies Conference Models, Machines and Memories, held in Istanbul from
14 to 16 July 2014. I would like to thank Dr Lorenzo Cigana and Federico
Aurora for having read and discussed a first draft of the paper. However, the
responsibility for the content is mine alone.
2. In point of fact, A Thousand Plateaus does not follow the usual partition
in chapters and is instead divided into plateaus. Although this decision is
full of philosophical meaning, the paper will not take this issue into further
consideration.
3. The Course was indeed drawn up by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye from
student notes on lectures given by Saussure at the University of Geneva between
1907 and 1911. For an attempt, based solely on authentic source materials, to
call into question the pertinence of ascribing to Saussure this founding role, see
Stawarska 2015. Anyway, it is undeniable that the reception of Saussure was
largely based on the Course and that this text has been regarded as the Great
Book of structural linguistics.
4. The legitimacy of considering Chomskyan linguistics as internal to the
structuralist tradition initiated by Saussure represents a debated issue. See,
for instance, Koerner 1976; Matthews 2003. Anyway, Deleuze and Guattari
basically regard their criticisms toward structural linguistics as equally directed
to both Saussure and Chomsky. See, for instance, Deleuze and Guattari 1987:
524: The same paradox recurs from Saussure to Chomsky.
5. Weinreich, Labov and Herzog comment on the quoted passage from Chomsky
as follows: Procedures for overcoming the actual observed diversity of speech
behaviour are not suggested any more than in the work of Paul or Bloomfield;
in harmony with Saussure, but more explicitly, Chomsky declares such diversity
to be theoretically irrelevant (Weinreich et al. 1968: 125).
6. In fact, although Deleuze and Guattari are inclined to assign a general validity to
their analyses, these should be mainly limited to the structuralist paradigm and
to Chomskyan-style linguistics.
7. For a more extensive treatment of this first postulate, see Aurora 2012.
8. This is the only book of Chomsky explicitly cited in A Thousand Plateaus,
although the work of the American linguist plays a pivotal role in Deleuze and
Guattaris treatment of linguistics.
9. As Mitsou Ronat notes, in the opinion of functionalists everything in language
must contribute to communication . . . and inversely, nothing is linguistic
which does not contribute to communication (Chomsky 1979: 85). Supporters
of another crucial contemporary approach in linguistics, namely Cognitive
Linguistics, also hold the same views on the nature of language. In fact,
according to this standpoint, language shows two main functions, the symbolic
function and the interactive function. The first can be defined as the function
to express thoughts and ideas. That is, language encodes and externalises our
thoughts. The way language does this is by using symbols (Evans and Green
2006: 6); the second can be described as the function to get our ideas across,
in other words to communicate. This involves a process of transmission by the
speaker, and decoding and interpretation by the hearer, processes that involve
the construction of rich conceptualisations (Evans and Green 2006: 9).
10. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari do not advocate a form of anything goes in
language. On the contrary, they wish to describe a system, but a system
of variations, characterised by partial dependency, maxims that are used as
guidelines and meant to be flouted, rather than rules that look very much like
laws of nature (Lecercle 2002: 96).
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426 Simone Aurora

11. Having learnt the language of a patriarchal society, Dale Spender writes in a
1980 essay, we have learnt to classify and manage the world in accordance
with patriarchal order and to preclude many possibilities for alternative ways of
making sense of the world (Spender 1985: 3).
12. In this case, Deleuze and Guattaris formulation seems to be wrong or at
least misleading. Indeed, as shown by typological studies, grammar has not
necessarily dual foundations. If we look, for instance, at gender, we must
acknowledge that a language may have two or more . . . genders (Corbett 1999:
1). In the Zande language, which has about 700,000 speakers throughout the
states of Zaire, Sudan and Central African Republic, for example, there are four
genders, namely masculine, feminine, animal and neuter. The first two genders
are straightforward: nouns denoting male humans are of masculine gender . . .
Feminines are similar. The one minor complication is that for small children the
pronoun for animals is used (14). Even if we limit ourselves to Indo-European
languages, on which Deleuze and Guattaris analyses seem to be based, we
find a quite complex picture: Indeed, Many Indo-European languages show
gender (some with three genders, others having reduced the number to two); a
few have lost gender, while others, notably the Slavonic group, are introducing
new subgenders (2). However, despite their unhappy formulation, Deleuze and
Guattaris thesis is simply that grammar, whatever its structure may be, always
reflects and imposes power relations within a given social field.
13. In fact, as Therese Grisham points out, In [their] scheme, the category of gender
would be one among many limitative types of incorporeal transformation . . .
(Grisham 1991: 52).
14. More precisely, the term pragmatics covers both context-dependent aspects of
language structure and principles of language usage and understanding that have
nothing or little to do with linguistic structure (Levinson 1983: 9).
15. Deleuze and Guattaris refusal of linguistic universals is part of a philosophical
criticism of universals in general. See, for instance, Deleuze 1995: 145: There
are no such things as universals . . . there are only processes, sometimes unifying,
subjectifying, rationalizing, but just processes all the same.
16. A few pages later, Evans and Levinson add: not to mention those [languages]
yet to come (Evans and Levinson 2009: 439).
17. For the list of proposed substantive universals supposedly common to all
languages, see Box 1 Every language has X, doesnt it? in Evans and Levinson
2009: 431.
18. The claims of Universal Grammar . . . are either empirically false, unfalsifiable,
or misleading in that they refer to tendencies rather than strict universals.
Thus, Structural differences should . . . be accepted for what they are, and
integrated into a new approach . . . that places diversity at centre stage (Evans
and Levinson 2009: 429). For a general and critical discussion of the theses
supported by Evans and Levinson, see the twenty-four commentaries and the
authors respective replies at the end of their article.
19. In this sense, Deleuze and Guattaris notion of major language seems to be close
to the sociolinguistic notion of dominant language. See, for instance, Patrick
2010: 1767: Dominant language varieties include official and national forms
of language and globally dominant languages that are legitimized within and
across states and institutions . . . and through their association with particular
forms of political, economic and social power.
20. Deleuze and Guattari here refer to Chomskys notion of grammaticality,
that Describes a well-formed sequence of words, one conforming to rules
of syntax (Fromkin et al. 2011: 580). Thus, ungrammaticality does not
coincide with incorrectness in the sense of prescriptive grammars. A typical
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From Structure to Machine 427

Chomskyan example of an agrammatical sentence is Furiously sleep ideas


green colorless, whereas Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is grammatical,
although senseless. See Chomsky 2002: 15.
21. Thus, according to Deleuze and Guattari, all we can do is map the variations,
chart the heterogeneous currents of language (Lecercle 2002: 89). In this respect,
Deleuze and Guattaris claims are perfectly consistent with the basic premises
of dialectology. See, for instance, Chambers and Trudgill 2004: 3: standard
English, for example, is just as much a dialect as any other form of English . . .
it does not make any kind of sense to suppose that any one dialect is in any way
linguistically superior to any other.

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