Saussure, Ferdinand de

views updated May 23 2018

Saussure, Ferdinand de



Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Swiss linguist, was the chief forerunner of structural linguistics. He was born in Geneva, where he received his secondary and university education. He was awarded his doctorate at Leipzig in 1880, taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris from 1881 to 1891, and taught subsequently at Geneva for the remainder of his career.

De Saussure’s fame rests almost exclusively on two works—his earliest, the Mémoire sur le systéme primitif des voyelles dans les langues indoeuropéennes (1879), and the posthumously published Cours de linguistique générale (1916). The Mémoire is a brilliant tour de force, whose basic method foreshadows the fundamental structuralist notion of language as an organized system, the central doctrine of de Saussure’s mature thought. [SeeLinguistics, article onthe field.]

In the Mémoire it is boldly hypothesized that certain apparently divergent aspects of the Indo-European system of vowel alternations (the socalled ablaut system, which still survives in English in such vowel changes as the present sing, the preterite sang, the past participle sung) can be explained in accordance with the dominant regularities, if one assumes that certain sounds had formerly existed and produced certain effects before being lost. While this theory of lost sounds, subsequently called laryngeals, was admired in de Saussure’s lifetime, the absence of any direct evidence for these sounds prevented its acceptance by scholars. After de Saussure’s death the main points of his doctrine regarding the Indo-European vowels received confirmation when a newly discovered Indo-European language, cuneiform Hit-tite, was shown to have an actual laryngeal consonant (h) in almost all the instances that one would expect to find it on the basis of de Saussure’s theory. In one variant or another, the laryngeal theory is now accepted by all Indo-European scholars.

A far wider influence was exercised by the Cours. This work is based on students’ notebooks of the three courses in general linguistics given by de Saussure at the University of Geneva in 1907, 1908-1909, and 1910-1911. Two of de Saussure’s leading disciples, Charles Bally and Albert Seche-haye, utilized these as their chief source in putting together the Cours. Given these circumstances of the book’s composition, it is not surprising that an extensive exegetical literature has arisen concerning the true nature of de Saussure’s doctrine. Godel (1957) published a considerable number of resumes and direct quotations from the notebooks and other unpublished sources, e.g., de Saussure’s class notes and letters. It is quite likely that in some instances “fruitful misunderstandings” of de Saussure’s ideas have exerted an influence on the development of European linguistic theory.

Language as signs . Language is a system of signs and as such forms the central part of a discipline—semiology—which takes the general study of signs as its subject matter. De Saussure thus anticipated the concept of general semiotics, found in the work of Charles Morris and others [seeSemantics and semiotics]. The sign has two indissoluble aspects, likened to the two sides of the same paper—the signifier (signifiant) and the signified (signifié). De Saussure felt the need for the double terminology because of the ambiguity of the word “sign” in common usage, which refers both to the relation (between a sign and what it designates) and to the physical sign vehicle. The signifier and the signified are, in thoroughgoing mentalistic fashion, the acoustic image and the concept respectively, not the physical sound and the thing meant. The relation between signifier and signified is arbitrary in the sense that any signifier can, in principle, be connected with any signified. Both of these elements are, abstracted from their functioning in signs, unstructured. Language is thus pure form.

Although arbitrary in the sense described above, the sign relation in any particular case is a historically imposed one about which the individual has no choice. It is a social fact that in a given community a particular sequence of sounds is connected with a particular concept. Simply because it is arbitrary, there is no reason to change it once established. One can argue the relative merits of monogamy or polygamy, but there is no rational basis for choosing between boeuf and Ochse as designations for “ox.” Because language is arbitrary and because there is no social awareness of its true nature, it is never subject to radical change.

From the formal nature of the components of the linguistic sign further important conclusions follow. Thus, in the case of the signifier, it is not the particular physical nature of the sound that counts but merely the fact that one sound is distinct from another. A favorite Saussurean simile likens language to a chess game. If the knight is replaced by a different kind of physical object it makes no difference to the game as long as the object is distinct from the other pieces. But if the rules for moving the knight are modified, then the system of chess has been modified in its very nature. This distinction is one aspect of a central Saussurean dichotomy, that between language (langue) and speech (parole). Phonetics in its physical aspect belongs to the latter. Likewise in grammar, we have a network of two types of relations, the syntagmatic, the relation between elements which actually occur together in the chain of speech—e.g., a verb and its object—and the paradigmatic, the relation of a present element to one which is not there but has the potentiality of appearance in place of the one chosen. Thus, in the sentence “Black is a color,” “white” is a paradigmatic associate of “black,” while “is a” constitutes a syntagmatic relation.

The grammar of a language (langue) is the set of these two types of relations: it is a social product, never perfect in the individual but only in the mass of speakers (masse parlante). The way individuals actually construct sentences by using langue constitutes parole. Within langue it is the position within the system that counts, not the physical realization. Thus a grammatical category may even be signaled by nothing (zéro), provided it has a particular place in a network of relations, e.g., the absence of an ending in the genitive plural of feminine nouns in Czech such as žen (“of women”) is significant when it is opposed to the nominative plural, ženy. To be is to be related.

Synchronic and diachronic study of language . Another dichotomy of fundamental importance in de Saussure’s thought is that between the synchronic study of language as a state and the diachronic study of language as change through time [seeLinguistics, article onhistorical linguistics]. These now current terms are terminological inventions of de Saussure. The insistence on the separation of synchronic and diachronic and the emphasis on synchronic states, not only as worthy autonomous subjects for investigation but even as having a certain priority, were perhaps de Saussure’s most revolutionary ideas. Linguistics in its recognizably modern form arose in the early nineteenth century as a historical discipline, and de Saussure was the first to state clearly the viewpoint of modern structuralism—that language studied in a single time plane constitutes a systematic set of relations that can be studied without reference to the historic process by which these have come to be what they are. Thus, to revert to de Saussure’s figure of the chess game, the man who has seen the entire game up to a particular point has no advantage over the newly arrived bystander in understanding the existing position.

In spite of differences in detail, structuralism in linguistics is fundamentally allied with functionalism in social science generally and is part of the same intellectual movement. In the case of de Saussure, his notion of langue, a social phenomenon imposed on the individual, brings him closest to the social functionalism of Durkheim. Although Durkheim cited language as an ideal example of a social institution, there is apparently no evidence of any direct influence of either man on the other.

The posthumous influence of de Saussure’s ideas in general linguistics was enormous, particularly on the Continent. His work was most directly continued by the so-called Geneva school, which included among its leading figures Albert Sechehaye, Charles Bally, Robert Godel, and Henri Frei and which sponsored the journal Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure (from 1941 to the present). The glossematic approach developed by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmsler was founded on Saussurean concepts. De Saussure exercised a more diffuse influence on the chief European structuralist school, that of Prague, by which he was looked upon as a leading pioneer of structuralism in linguistics.

Joseph H. Greenberg


1879 Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes. Leipzig: Teubner.

(1916) 1959 Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library. → First published posthumously as Cours de linguistique générale.


Benveniste, É. 1962 “Structure” en linguistique. Pages 31-39 in Colloque sur le mot structure, Paris, 1959, Sens et usages du terme structure dans les sciences humaines et sociales. Janua linguarum. Series minor, no. 16. The Hague: Mouton.

Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure. → Published in Geneva by Droz since 1941.

Frei, Henri 1947 La linguistique saussurienne à Genéve depuis 1939. Word 3:107-109.

Godel, Robert 1957 Les sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure. Geneva: Droz.

Wells, Rulon S. 1947 De Saussure’s System of Linguistics. Word 3:1-31.

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.

Saussure, Ferdinand de

views updated Jun 08 2018

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1857–1913) Swiss linguist, founder of modern linguistics. Saussure delivered (1907–11) a series of lectures at the University of Geneva, which were published posthumously (1916) as Course in General Linguistics. For Saussure, language was a system of signs whose meaning is defined by their relationship to each other. His work laid the foundation for structuralism and semiotics.

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