Paul Jules Antoine Meillet
11 November 1866
|Died||21 September 1936 (aged 69)|
|Alma mater||University of Paris|
|Institutions||Collège de France, Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales,|
|Comparative Linguistics, Armenian linguistics, Philology|
|Epithets in Homer, Meillet's law|
Paul Jules Antoine Meillet (French: [twan m?j?]; 11 November 1866 Moulins, France - 21 September 1936 Châteaumeillant, France) was one of the most important French linguists of the early 20th century. He began his studies at the Sorbonne University, where he was influenced by Michel Bréal, Ferdinand de Saussure and the members of the L'Année Sociologique. In 1890, he was part of a research trip to the Caucasus, where he studied the Armenian language. After his return, de Saussure had gone back to Geneva so he continued the series of lectures on comparative linguistics that the Swiss linguist had given.
Meillet completed his doctorate, Research on the Use of the Genitive-Accusative in Old Slavonic, in 1897. In 1902, he took a chair in Armenian at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales and took under his wing Hrachia Adjarian, who would become the founder of modern Armenian dialectology. In 1905, he was elected to the Collège de France, where he taught on the history and structure of Indo-European languages. One of his most-quoted statements is that "anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant". He worked closely with linguists Paul Pelliot and Robert Gauthiot.
Today Meillet is remembered as the mentor of an entire generation of linguists and philologists, who would become central to French linguistics in the twentieth century, such as Émile Benveniste, Georges Dumézil, and André Martinet.
Today, Meillet is known for his contribution to historical linguistics. He is notable for having coined the formalized the concept of grammaticalisation (influential but still controversial today) to denote what he viewed as the process of innovation by which autonomous words ended up as "grammatical agents". Subsequent to the further development and popularization of the concept by Jerzy Kury?owicz and further development in the late 20th century, it would become a significant element of functionalist linguistics.
At the Sorbonne, from 1924, Meillet supervised Milman Parry. In 1923, a year before Parry began his studies with Meillet, the latter wrote the following (which, in the first of his two French theses, Parry quotes):
Homeric epic is entirely composed of formulae handed down from poet to poet. An examination of any passage will quickly reveal that it is made up of lines and fragments of lines which are reproduced word for word in one or several other passages. Even those lines of which the parts happen not to recur in any other passage have the same formulaic character, and it is doubtless pure chance that they are not attested elsewhere.
Meillet offered the opinion that oral-formulaic composition might be a distinctive feature of orally transmitted epics (which the Iliad was said to be). He suggested to Parry that he observe the mechanics of a living oral tradition to confirm whether that suggestion was valid; he also introduced Parry to the Slovenian scholar Matija Murko, who had written extensively about the heroic epic tradition in Serbo-Croatian and particularly in Bosnia with the help of phonograph recordings. From Parry's resulting research in Bosnia, the records of which are now housed at Harvard University, he and his student Albert Lord revolutionized Homeric scholarship.
Meillet supported the use of an international auxiliary language. In his book La Ricerca della Lingua Perfetta nella Cultura Europea ("The Pursuit of the Perfect Language in the Culture of Europe"), Umberto Eco cites Meillet as saying, "Any kind of theoretical discussion is useless, Esperanto is functioning". In addition, Meillet was a consultant with the International Auxiliary Language Association, which presented Interlingua in 1951.