de Saussure, Ferdinand

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ferdinand de Saussure

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) is generally recognized as the creator of the modern theory of structuralism and the father of modern linguistics. His best-known book, A Course in General Linguistics, was published posthumously in 1916. The book transformed 19th-century comparative and historical philology into 20th-century contemporary linguistics.

Born into Scientific Family

Ferdinand de Saussure was born on November 26, 1857, in Geneva, Switzerland, to a family with a long history of contributions to the sciences. A bright and eager student, de Saussure showed an early promise in the area of languages and learned Sanskrit, Greek, German, Latin, French, and English. He had a mentor, the eminent linguist Adolphe Pictet, who encouraged the young man in his growing passion for languages.

Inclined to follow his ancestors' footsteps into the physical sciences, he began attending the prestigious University of Geneva in 1875 to study chemistry and physics. However, by 1876 he had returned to the study of linguistics. De Saussure studied at the University of Berlin from 1878 to 1879 and then enrolled at the University of Leipzig to study comparative grammar and Indo-European languages. He published his first full-length book, Memoire sur le systeme primitive des voyelles dans les langues indo-europeennes (Thesis on the original system of vowels in Indo-European Languages), in 1878. Hailed by critics as a brilliant work, the book launched de Saussure's reputation as a new expert, contributing as it did to the field of comparative linguistics. The work also revealed an important discovery in the area of Indo-European languages that came to be known as de Saussure's laryngeal theory, which explained perplexing characteristics of some of the world's oldest languages. The theory would not enjoy widespread acceptance until the mid-20th century.

De Saussure also published Remarques de grammaire et de phonetique (Comments on Grammar and Phonetics) in 1878. He completed his doctoral dissertation, on the use of the absolute genitive in Sanskrit, and finished summa cum laude at the University of Leipzig in 1880.

Began Professional Career as Linguist

De Saussure's first professional work in his field was as a teacher at the École Practique des Hautes Études in Paris. He taught numerous languages there, including Lithuanian and Persian, which he had added to his immense repertoire. Meanwhile, he became an active member of the Linguistic Society of Paris and served as its secretary in 1882. He remained at the École Practique for 10 years, finally leaving in 1891 to accept a new position as professor of Indo-European languages and comparative grammar at the University of Geneva.

Historical records indicate that de Saussure had a great fear of publishing any of his studies until they were proven absolutely accurate. Thus, many of his works were not released during his lifetime and many of his theories have been explained in books by other authors. According to Robert Godel in an essay in Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, de Saussure was also said to be "terrified" when in 1906 the University of Geneva asked him to teach a course on linguistics, believing himself unequal to the job. Godel explained that de Saussure "did not feel up to the task, and had no desire to wrestle with the problems once more. However, he undertook what he believed to be his duty."

Course Notes Became Classic Linguistics Book

Between 1906 and 1911, de Saussure taught his course in general linguistics three times, remaining at the school until 1912. The class would become the basis for his classic and influential A Course in General Linguistics, which was published in 1916—three years after his death. Edited entirely by two of his students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, and based on de Saussure's class notes, the book received good reviews. However, the editors have been criticized for failing to show how their professor's ideas evolved and for not making clear that de Saussure rarely believed his innovative concepts to be fully formed.

Further controversy over the book has been generated by scholars who cite evidence that de Saussure was strongly influenced by his academic peers, W. D. Whitney and Michel Breal, suggesting that de Saussure's theories were not as original as they were once believed to be. Nevertheless, A Course in General Linguistics has become recognized as the basis of the modern theory of structuralism, and it established de Saussure as a founder of modern linguistics. Roy Harris, who published a 1983 translation of the Course, wrote in its introduction that the book is undoubtedly "one of the most far-reaching works concerning the study of cultural activities to have been published at any time since the Renaissance."

Proposed Revolutionary Theory of

A Course in General Linguistics sets out de Saussure's idea of language as a system of signs that evolves constantly, in which particular words do not have meaning. Rather, he explained, meaning happens only when people agree that a certain sound combination indicates an object or idea. This agreement, then, creates a "sign" for the object or idea. De Saussure believed that such signs comprise two parts: the signifier (what it sounds or looks like in vocal or graphic form) and the signified (the object the signifier represents). The relationship between the two parts of the sign, he explained, is hazy and the parts can be impossible to separate because of their arbitrary relationship. In other words, the representation of an object does not define it, and the relationship between signs changes constantly.

De Saussure argued that these signs "are unrelated to what they designate, and that therefore a cannot designate anything without the aid of b and vice versa, or in other words, that both have value only by the differences between them, or that neither has value, in any of its constituents, except through this same network of forever negative differences." One of the main tenets of the book was that often implicit agreement of meaning occurs at all levels of language, and that in order to achieve successful communication, speakers must be able to distinguish between both nuances of meaning and signs.

Explained Science of Language

Another relationship de Saussure examined in his book was that of langue and parole, in which langue is the conception of language as more than a system of names without social meaning and parole is simply the graphic or vocal manifestation of an utterance. A further dichotomy that he discusses is synchronic versus diachronic linguistics, where the former entails the study of language at a certain point and the latter looks at the changing state of language over time. After de Saussure's work became public, linguists, who had traditionally studied language from a historical (diachronic) perspective, were more inclined to experiment with synchronic studies. De Saussure had believed strongly in the value of the synchronic perspective for its ability to facilitate the analysis of language as more than a series of descriptive changes.

Despite his outstanding contributions to his field, de Saussure has been criticized for narrowing his studies to the social aspects of language, omitting the ability of people to manipulate and create new meanings. However, his application of science to his examination of the nature of language has had impacts on a wide range of areas related to linguistics, including contemporary literary theory; deconstructionism (a theory of literary criticism that asserts that words can only refer to other words and that tries to show how statements about any words subvert their own meaning); and structuralism (a method of analyzing a word by contrasting its basic structures in a system of binary opposition).

De Saussure is regarded by many as the creator of the modern theory of structuralism, to which his langue and parole ideas are integral. He believed that a word's meaning is based less on the object it refers to and more on its structure. In simpler terms, he suggested that when a person chooses a word, he does so in the context of having had the chance to choose other words. This adds another dimension to the chosen word's meaning, since humans instinctively base a word's meaning on its difference from the other words not chosen. De Saussure's theories on this subject, which flew in the face of the positivist research method of his day, laid the foundations for the structuralist schools in both social theory and linguistics.

Although by studying languages he at first seemed to have veered off the path established for him by his scientific ancestors, de Saussure was and still is widely regarded as a scientist. He perceived linguistics as a branch of science that he dubbed semiology (the theory and study of signs and symbols) and, through his Course, encouraged other linguists to view language not "as an organism developing of its own accord, but … as a product of the collective mind of a linguistic community."

De Saussure died from cancer at age 56 on February 22, 1913. Filling the void that de Saussure's dislike of publishing and early death caused, many of his works have been released posthumously, including Recueil des publications scientifiques (1921), Manoscritti di Harvard (1994), Phonetique (1995), Linguistik und Semiologie (1997), Ecrits de linguistique generale (2002), and Theorie de sonantes: Il manoscritto de Ginevra (2002).


Contemporary Authors, Vol. 168, The Gale Group, 1999.

de Saussure, Ferdinand, Course in General Linguistics, translation, introduction, and annotation by Roy Harris, edited by Bally and Sechehaye and Riedlinger, Duckworth, 1983.

Malmkjaer, Kirsten, ed., The Linguistics Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2002.


Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, Vol. 38, 1984; Vol. 39, 1985.


"Saussure, Ferdinand de," Internet Archive website, (December 27, 2003).

Saussure, Ferdinand de

views updated May 29 2018

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1857–1913) A Swiss linguist who is generally considered to have been the founder of modern structural linguistics and, therefore, the grandfather of structuralism. The revolutionary nature of Saussure's work only became clear somewhat fortuitously when, three years after his death, some of his former students published a book based upon notes they had taken in the course of his lectures. This is the text that has come down to us as The Course in General Linguistics.

According to the traditional representational theory, language consists of humanly created and ceaselessly modified symbols which name, and so may be understood more or less complicatedly and problematically to stand for, the things and happenings that humans wish to talk about.

Saussure deploys two sets of oppositions (langue versus parole and synchronic versus diachronic) in order to demarcate a rather different object of study: that is, not the diachronics (historical changes or dynamics) of parole (language in use), but the synchronics (system of relationships) of langue—or, the socially embedded, structural and tangible aspects of language, that explain its persistence and hence its capacity to serve as a medium of communication.

What persists, and how, is specified and explained by two further sets of oppositions: signified versus signifier, and syntagmatic versus associative (the latter of which is today usually termed paradigmatic). A ‘signifier’ is a differentiated graphic or sound image. A ‘signified’ is a differentiated item of thought or a mental image (note, not the thing or happening that the image might be about, which is commonly termed ‘the referent’). Together, signifier and signified produce a ‘sign’, which according to Saussure is an ‘unmotivated’ or arbitrary combination which is the product of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations specific to a particular language. In this context, a syntagmatic relationship unites elements present in a speech chain, whereas paradigmatic relationships unite terms in a mnemonic series. Thus, in the syntagm (or sentence) ‘I'm cold’, the word ‘cold’ has a syntagmatic relationship with ‘I'm’, but a paradigmatic relationship with the words ‘cool’, ‘chilly’, and ‘freezing’. To elaborate this thesis further, we may note that a sign gains value or meaning syntagmatically according to its linear position in discourse, for example as determined by grammar; it also gains value paradigmatically according to what signs could have been substituted for it but were not (as determined, for example, by the nature of a particular lexicon).

In sum, for Saussure languages do not consist of individually created and recreated representations, but rather of signs that are the product of extra-individual structures or systems of differences (such as alphabets, grammars, and lexicons). This displacement of the individual from the centre of concern in the analysis of so manifestly social a phenomenon as language is the move that initiated the so-called structuralist revolution. As a result, there remains no better or more essential introduction to this revolution than Saussure's Course. Sadly, however, a large number of sociological advocates as well as critics of structuralism appear never to have read it, with the result that their writings are replete with confusions, especially over what is meant by the term ‘signified’. See also SEMIOLOGY.

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