Michel Bréal

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Michel Bréal

Michel Jules Alfred Bréal (March 26, 1832 – Nov. 25, 1915) was a French philologist, and Professor of Comparative Grammar at the Collège de France, who is one of the founders of modern semantics.


  • There is another kind of studies which distinguished from the sometimes opposed to comparative grammar. It is known under the name of general or philosophical grammar , whose principles and observations were articulated by Port Royal and which deals with the relation of the form of language to the operations of the mind.
    • Michel Bréal (1886), cited in Jacek Juliusz Jadacki, Witold Strawiński. In the World of Signs: Essays in Honour of Professor Jerzy Pelc. 1998, p. 255
  • Historical grammar is now in a position to confirm or to refute.
    • Michel Bréal (1877), cited in Jacek Juliusz Jadacki, Witold Strawiński. In the World of Signs: Essays in Honour of Professor Jerzy Pelc. 1998, p. 256

Essai de semantique, 1897[edit]

Michel Bréal (1897) Essai de semantique. Science des significations, Hachette (Paris) ; Translated as Semantics: Studies in the Science of Meaning, by Henry Cust. London: W. Heinemann, 1900.

  • There is a constant succession of books on the subject of comparative grammar, for the use both of students and of the general public; yet it does not seem that we are offered what we really need. Language is full of lessons for those who know how to question it. Through all the centuries humanity has deposited in Language the acquisitions of material and moral life. But it must be approached from the side on which it appeals to the mind. If we limit ourselves to the changes of vowels and consonants, the study is reduced to the proportions of a merely secondary branch of acoustics and physiology; if we think it enough to enumerate the losses undergone *by the machinery of grammar, we give the impression of a building that is falling into ruins ; if we confine ourselves to vague theories on the origin of Language, we merely add an unprofitable chapter to the history of systems.
    • p. 1; lead paragraph
  • My intention was to give a general outline, to sketch a general division and, as it were, a provisional plan of a domain that has not been studied so far and which should be the result of work for many generations of linguists. The reader is therefore requested to consider this book a simple introduction to the science which I propose to call semantics.
  • We define law, using the word in the philosophic sense, as the constant relation discoverable in a series of phenomena.
    • p. 11
  • In that second part we propose to investigate how it happens that words, once created and endowed with a certain meaning, extend that meaning or contract it, transfer it from one group of notions on to another, raise its value or lower it, in a word — bring about changes. It is this second part that constitutes semantics, i.e. science of meaning.
  • The so-called pejorative tendency has yet another cause. It is in the nature of human malice to take pleasure in looking for a vice or a fault behind a quality. The French have the adjective prude, which had formerly a good and noble acceptation, since it is the feminine of preux. But the spirit of the narrators (perhaps also some feeling of rancour against the loftier virtues) turned this adjective aside towards the equivocal sense that it now bears. Words which refer to the relations of the sexes are especially exposed to changes of this kind. We remember what a noble signification amant and mattress still possessed in Corneille. But they are dethroned, as was Buhle in German. Here we see the inevitable results of a false delicacy ; honourable names are dishonoured by being given to things which are dishonourable.
    • p. 101; parly cited in: Geoffrey Hughes (2011). Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture. p. 11
  • In modern society, the meaning of words changes much more quickly than it did in antiquity or even in the recent past. This arises from the intermingling of social classes, the struggle of interests and opinions, the struggle of political parties and the variety of aspirations and tastes.
  • We must realize the extent to which it is necessary that our knowledge of language be based on history. Only history can impart to words that degree of precision which we need in order to understand them well.
  • Sometimes is a synonym which extends itself, and contrasts by just much the domain of its colleague. At other times it is an historical event which comes to modify and renew the vocabulary.
    • p. 113, cited in Alessandro Carlucci (2013), Gramsci and Languages: Unification, Diversity, Hegemony. p. 74

Quotes about Michel Bréal[edit]

  • Semantics (semasiology) is a branch of linguistics. The questions which are of particular interest in this connection are — with what is that branch of linguistics concerned, and in what does it see the distinction between itself and the semantic problems found in contemporary logic.
To begin with the term itself: it comes from the eminent French linguist Bréal and is genetically connected with linguistics. In the late 19th century Michel Bréal published his Essai de semantique. Science des significations.
In a footnote, Bréal explains the meaning of the term "semantics" — the science of meanings... 'denote', as opposed to phonetics, the science of speech sounds.
  • For Bréal, semantics was the science the subject matter of which was study of the cause and structure of the processes of changes in meanings of words: expansion and contraction of meanings, transfer of meanings, elevation and degradation of their value, etc.
Such a delineation of semantics as a branch of linguistics is maintained to this day, for all the differences between the various schools in linguistics. Such degree of uniformity is not confined to the definition of semantics alone. Not all authors give such a definition; some of them approach the issue from a different point of view as regards general classification... but all schools of linguistics engage in the study of the meanings of words and their changes. Thus all of them, in one way or another, engage in semantics as understood by Breal.
  • Breal too was set on marking out a new course for linguistics, but he was not disposed to dismiss the the achievements of his predecessors. Nor did he accept uncritically the tenets of the dominant linguistic schools. Though he was responsible for introducing comparative Indo-European grammar in France, he was opposed to its one-sided concern with phonetic change, to its tendency to treat language as an organism that is born, grows and declines, and to neglect of the basic, semantic and social functions of language. The idea that language was a phenomenon of nature struck him as perverse... Instead, he called for a science that would examine the meanings of words and grammatical categories, that would study the development of individual languages, and that would formulate the general laws of linguistic change.
    • Jacek Juliusz Jadacki, Witold Strawiński. In the World of Signs: Essays in Honour of Professor Jerzy Pelc. 1998, p. 255
  • Born 175 years ago in Landau, Palatinate, Michel Bréal is typically known as an outstanding linguist among experts – this is also indicated on the memorial plate at his birth place. This contribution, however, shows another Bréal: the man who provided the inspiration for the Olympic marathon in Athens 1896. Based on letters between Bréal and Pierre de Coubertin, who set up the Olympic Games by founding the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, the article traces the steps from the conceptualisation of the marathon to the first race in Athens in 1896.
    • Norbert Müller, "Michel Bréal (1832-1915)—The Man Behind the Idea of the Marathon." Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research. International Centre for Olympic Studies, 2008.

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