Saussure, Ferdinand de (1857–1913)

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Swiss linguist.

Ferdinand-Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 26 November 1857. He studied at the University of Geneva and subsequently at the University of Leipzig. In 1878, while still a student, he published Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Memoir on the primitive system of vowels in the Indo-European languages). This work proposed a highly original solution to a complicated problem in comparative philology and gained him an early reputation among specialists in the field of language studies.

In 1880 he moved to Paris and for ten years taught at the École des Hautes Études. In 1891 he returned to Geneva on being appointed to a professorial post at the university. The lectures on general linguistics, on which Saussure's main claim to fame rests, were courses delivered to students in the years 1907–1911. They remained unedited at Saussure's death in 1913, but his students' notes were collated, amalgamated, and published as a single book three years later by two of Saussure's colleagues, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. This was the celebrated Cours de linguistique gé-nérale (Course in general linguistics), which was to become for many scholars the authoritative statement of the theoretical basis of modern linguistics as an academic discipline.

Given the circumstances surrounding the post-humous publication, it is hardly surprising that questions have been raised about the extent of editorial intervention in the shaping and content of the text. The editors themselves queried whether Saussure would have approved. But in spite of misgivings, Saussure's name has remained firmly attached to the main doctrines set out in the text first published in 1916. These may be summarized as follows.

  1. Autonomy of linguistics. Saussure was concerned to establish that linguistics, though closely connected to anthropology, sociology, psychology, and physiology, was nevertheless an independent discipline with its own aims and methods. The program of this independent discipline, according to Saussure, comprised (i) the description and history of all known languages, (ii) investigating the forces universally and permanently operative in all languages and establishing general laws that would explain all particular linguistic phenomena, and (iii) defining linguistics itself.
  2. Primacy of speech. Saussure regarded linguistics as dealing essentially with human speech. Writing, for him, was not a linguistic phenomenon, but a different and subsidiary form of communication, having as its function the representation of speech.
  3. Langue and parole. The disciplinary autonomy of linguistics was based on distinguishing clearly between la langue, the collective speech system of the community, and la parole, the practical use of this system by individuals. For Saussure, the former took priority over the latter. Although he promised his students lectures on la parole, these lectures were never given. What we have in the Cours is almost exclusively concerned with la langue.
  4. Synchrony and diachrony. Saussure insisted on separating the study of the language system as existing at a given point in time (synchrony) with the study of changes that might intervene over a period of time (diachrony). He regarded the confusion of synchronic with diachronic facts as one of the main weaknesses of language studies in his day.
  5. The linguistic sign. Saussurean linguistics recognized only two axioms. The first was the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign and the second was its linearity. What Saussure understood by "absolute arbitrariness" was the total lack of connection between the form (signifiant) of the sign and its meaning (signifié), though he also recognized "relative arbitrariness" in cases where components of a sign are independently meaningful (as in nineteen = nine + ten). For Saussure, both signifiant and signifié were psychological in character. As regards linearity, Saussure assumed that every utterance consists of a single chain of sound in which all items are sequenced one by one in an arrangement of simple concatenation. Linearity is the basis of "syntagmatic" (as distinct from "associative") relations. Associative relations are based on similarity of form or meaning. Thus in Fish swim, fish and swim combine syntagmatically, while fish and, say, herring, are related associatively (in this instance, semantically). Both axioms are essential to Saussure's conception of linguistic analysis.
  6. Semiology. Saussure envisaged linguistics as one part of a more comprehensive study of the life of signs in society, which he termed sémiologie (often misleadingly translated into English as "semiotics").
  7. Structuralism. Although Saussure never used this term himself, his view of each langue as a homogeneous, self-contained whole, within which all units are defined solely by their mutual relations, was often called "structuralist." It became extremely influential after his death not only in linguistics but also in anthropology, literary studies, and other fields.

Later interpreters picked out particular elements in Saussure's teaching that suited their own agenda, while ignoring the rest. Literary and artistic theorists seized on the doctrine of arbitrariness and used it to validate forms of literature and visual art that would otherwise have been dismissed as worthless, even degenerate. Many of Pablo Picasso's paintings and James Joyce's "unreadable" novel Finnegans Wake (1939) are examples. As late as 1965, Joseph Kosuth used Saussurean underpinnings to present a controversial tripartite exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It comprised a chair, a photograph of the chair, and a blown-up image of the text of a dictionary entry for the word chair. In psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) achieved notoriety by claiming that the unconscious was structured in the arbitrary manner of a language. This claim rescued Sigmund Freud (and others) from the necessity of explaining the logic of the connection between patients' symptoms and the meanings attributed to them by the analyst. Perhaps the most striking use of Saussure was in the field of anthropology. There Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) invented a whole discipline ("structural anthropology") dedicated to the idea that a society's culture consists of many systems (kinship, costume, cuisine, myths, etc.), each of which is structured like a language and can be analyzed accordingly. Most of these applications would almost certainly have surprised and possibly dismayed Saussure.

See alsoBarthes, Roland; Semiotics.


Primary Sources

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Translated by Roy Harris. London, 1983. Translation of Cours de linguistique générale, 2nd ed. A critical edition of the French text, giving variants from the students' notes, was published by Rudolf Engler (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1968).

Secondary Sources

Culler, Jonathan. Saussure. 2nd ed. London, 1986.

Harris, Roy. Saussure and His Interpreters. 2nd ed. Edinburgh, 2003.

Roy Harris