Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure

Overview
Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in linguistics
Linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 in the 20th century. He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics. However, most modern linguists and philosophers of language consider his ideas outdated.While Saussure's concepts—particularly semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

—have received little to no attention in modern linguistic textbooks, his ideas have significantly influenced the humanities
Humanities
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....

 and social sciences
Social sciences
Social science is the field of study concerned with society. "Social science" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to a plurality of fields outside of the natural sciences usually exclusive of the administrative or managerial sciences...

.

Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva
Geneva
Geneva In the national languages of Switzerland the city is known as Genf , Ginevra and Genevra is the second-most-populous city in Switzerland and is the most populous city of Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland...

 in 1857.
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Encyclopedia
Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in linguistics
Linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 in the 20th century. He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics. However, most modern linguists and philosophers of language consider his ideas outdated.While Saussure's concepts—particularly semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

—have received little to no attention in modern linguistic textbooks, his ideas have significantly influenced the humanities
Humanities
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....

 and social sciences
Social sciences
Social science is the field of study concerned with society. "Social science" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to a plurality of fields outside of the natural sciences usually exclusive of the administrative or managerial sciences...

.

Biography


Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva
Geneva
Geneva In the national languages of Switzerland the city is known as Genf , Ginevra and Genevra is the second-most-populous city in Switzerland and is the most populous city of Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland...

 in 1857. His father was Henri Louis Frédéric de Saussure, a mineralogist, entomologist, and taxonomist. Saussure showed signs of considerable talent and intellectual ability as early as the age of fourteen. After a year of studying Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

, Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

, Sanskrit
Sanskrit
Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

, and taking a variety of courses at the University of Geneva
University of Geneva
The University of Geneva is a public research university located in Geneva, Switzerland.It was founded in 1559 by John Calvin, as a theological seminary and law school. It remained focused on theology until the 17th century, when it became a center for Enlightenment scholarship. In 1873, it...

, he commenced graduate work at the University of Leipzig
University of Leipzig
The University of Leipzig , located in Leipzig in the Free State of Saxony, Germany, is one of the oldest universities in the world and the second-oldest university in Germany...

 in 1876. Two years later at 21, Saussure published a book entitled Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Dissertation on the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages). After this he studied for a year at Berlin
Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the genitive absolute
Genitive absolute
In Ancient Greek grammar, the genitive absolute is a grammatical construction consisting of a participle and often a noun which are both in the genitive case, very similar to the ablative absolute in Latin...

 in Sanskrit. He returned to Leipzig and was awarded his doctorate in 1880. Soon afterwards, he relocated to Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, where he would lecture on Sanskrit, Gothic and Old High German, and occasionally other subjects. He taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études
École pratique des hautes études
The École pratique des hautes études is a Grand Établissement in Paris, France. It is counted among France's most prestigious research and higher education institutions....

 for eleven years, during which he was named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor). When offered a professorship in Geneva in 1891, he returned. Saussure lectured on Sanskrit and Indo-European at the University of Geneva
University of Geneva
The University of Geneva is a public research university located in Geneva, Switzerland.It was founded in 1559 by John Calvin, as a theological seminary and law school. It remained focused on theology until the 17th century, when it became a center for Enlightenment scholarship. In 1873, it...

 for the remainder of his life. It was not until 1907 that Saussure began teaching the Course of General Linguistics, which he would offer three times, ending in the summer of 1911. He died in 1913 in Vufflens-le-Château
Vufflens-le-Château
Vufflens-le-Château is a municipality in the Swiss canton of Vaud, located in the district of Morges.-Geography:Vufflens-le-Château has an area, , of . Of this area, or 69.6% is used for agricultural purposes, while or 13.1% is forested...

, VD Switzerland.

Course in General Linguistics


Saussure's most influential work, Course in General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale), was published posthumously in 1916 by former students Charles Bally
Charles Bally
Charles Bally was a French linguist from the Geneva School. He lived from 1865 to 1947 and was, like Ferdinand de Saussure, from Switzerland. His parents were Jean Gabriel, a teacher, and Henriette, the owner of a cloth store...

 and Albert Sechehaye on the basis of notes taken from Saussure's lectures in Geneva. The Course became one of the seminal linguistics works of the 20th century, not primarily for the content (many of the ideas had been anticipated in the works of other 20th century linguists), but rather for the innovative approach that Saussure applied in discussing linguistic phenomena.

Its central notion is that language may be analyzed as a formal system
Formal system
In formal logic, a formal system consists of a formal language and a set of inference rules, used to derive an expression from one or more other premises that are antecedently supposed or derived . The axioms and rules may be called a deductive apparatus...

 of differential elements, apart from the messy dialectics of real-time production and comprehension. Examples of these elements include his notion of the linguistic sign
Sign (linguistics)
There are many models of the linguistic sign . A classic model is the one by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. According to him, language is made up of signs and every sign has two sides : the signifier , the "shape" of a word, its phonic component, i.e...

, which is composed of the signifier and the signified. Though the sign may also have a referent, Saussure took this last question to lie beyond the linguist's purview.

Saussure attempted at various times in the 1880s and 1890s to write a book on general linguistic matters. Some of his manuscripts, including an unfinished essay discovered in 1996, were published in Writings in General Linguistics, though most of the material in this book had already been published in Engler's critical edition of the Course in 1967 and 1974. (TUFA)

Saussure's ideas had a major impact on the development of linguistic theory in the first half of the 20th century. Two currents of thought emerged independently of each other, one in Europe, the other in America. The results of each incorporated the basic notions of Saussurean thought in forming the central tenets of structural linguistics
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

.

Saussure posited that linguistic form is arbitrary, and therefore all languages function in a similar fashion. According to Saussure, a language is arbitrary because it is systematic in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Also, all languages have their own concepts and sound images (or signifieds and signifiers). Therefore, Saussure argues, languages have a relational conception of their elements: words and their meanings are defined by comparing and contrasting their meanings to one another. For instance, the sound images for and the conception of a book differ from the sound images for and the conception of a table. Languages are also arbitrary because of the nature of their linguistic elements: they are defined in terms of their function rather than in terms of their inherent qualities. Finally, he posits, language has a social nature in that it provides a larger context for analysis, determination, and realization of its structure.

In Europe, the most important work in this period of influence was done by the Prague School
Prague linguistic circle
The Prague school or the Prague linguistic circle was an influential group of literary critics and linguists in Prague. Its proponents developed methods of structuralist literary analysis during the years 1928–1939. It has had significant continuing influence on linguistics and semiotics...

. Most notably, Nikolay Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson
Roman Jakobson
Roman Osipovich Jakobson was a Russian linguist and literary theorist.As a pioneer of the structural analysis of language, which became the dominant trend of twentieth-century linguistics, Jakobson was among the most influential linguists of the century...

 headed the efforts of the Prague School in setting the course of phonological theory
Phonology
Phonology is, broadly speaking, the subdiscipline of linguistics concerned with the sounds of language. That is, it is the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken human language, or the field of linguistics studying this use...

 in the decades following 1940. Jakobson's universalizing structural-functional theory of phonology, based on a markedness
Markedness
Markedness is a specific kind of asymmetry relationship between elements of linguistic or conceptual structure. In a marked-unmarked relation, one term of an opposition is the broader, dominant one...

 hierarchy of distinctive features, was the first successful solution of a plane of linguistic analysis according to the Saussurean hypotheses. Elsewhere, Louis Hjelmslev
Louis Hjelmslev
Louis Hjelmslev was a Danish linguist whose ideas formed the basis of the Copenhagen School of linguistics. Born into an academic family , Hjelmslev studied comparative linguistics in Copenhagen, Prague and Paris...

 and the Copenhagen School
The Copenhagen school (Linguistics)
The Copenhagen School, officially the "Linguistic Circle of Copenhagen ", was a group of scholars dedicated to the study of structural linguistics founded by Louis Hjelmslev and Viggo Brøndal...

 proposed new interpretations of linguistics from structuralist theoretical frameworks.

In America, Saussure's ideas informed the distributionalism of Leonard Bloomfield
Leonard Bloomfield
Leonard Bloomfield was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and the 1940s. His influential textbook Language, published in 1933, presented a comprehensive description of American structural linguistics...

 and the post-Bloomfieldian structuralism of such scholars as Eugene Nida
Eugene Nida
Eugene A. Nida was the developer of the dynamic-equivalence Bible-translation theory.- Life :Nida was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on November 11, 1914...

, Bernard Bloch
Bernard Bloch
----Bernard Bloch, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., was an American linguist.He is one of the post-Bloomfieldian linguists.He taught at Brown University and Yale University.- Literary works :...

, George L. Trager
George L. Trager
George Leonard Trager was an American linguist. He was born March 22, 1906, in Newark, New Jersey; he died on August 31, 1992, in Pasadena, California...

, Rulon S. Wells III, Charles Hockett, and through Zellig Harris
Zellig Harris
Zellig Sabbettai Harris was a renowned American linguist, mathematical syntactician, and methodologist of science. Originally a Semiticist, he is best known for his work in structural linguistics and discourse analysis and for the discovery of transformational structure in language...

 and the young Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

. In addition to Chomsky's theory of Transformational grammar
Transformational grammar
In linguistics, a transformational grammar or transformational-generative grammar is a generative grammar, especially of a natural language, that has been developed in the Chomskyan tradition of phrase structure grammars...

, other contemporary developments of structuralism included Kenneth Pike's theory of tagmemics
Tagmemics
Tagmemics is a linguistic theory developed by Kenneth L. Pike in his book Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, 3 vol. . It was primarily designed to assist linguists to efficiently extract coherent descriptions out of corpora of field work data...

, Sidney Lamb's theory of stratificational grammar, and Michael Silverstein
Michael Silverstein
Michael Silverstein is a professor of anthropology, linguistics, and psychology at the University of Chicago. He is a theoretician of semiotics and linguistic anthropology. Over the course of his career he has drawn together research on linguistic pragmatics, sociolinguistics, language ideology,...

's work.

Laryngeal theory


While a student, Saussure published an important work in Indo-European
Indo-European studies
Indo-European studies is a field of linguistics dealing with Indo-European languages, both current and extinct. Its goal is to amass information about the hypothetical proto-language from which all of these languages are descended, a language dubbed Proto-Indo-European , and its speakers, the...

 philology
Philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

 that proposed the existence of ghosts in Proto-Indo-European
Proto-Indo-European language
The Proto-Indo-European language is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans...

 called sonant coefficients. The Scandinavian scholar Hermann Möller
Hermann Möller
Hermann Möller was a Danish linguist noted for his work in favor of a genetic relationship between the Indo-European and Semitic language families and his version of the laryngeal theory....

 suggested that these might actually be laryngeal consonants, leading to what is now known as the laryngeal theory
Laryngeal theory
The laryngeal theory is a generally accepted theory of historical linguistics which proposes the existence of one, or a set of three , consonant sounds termed "laryngeals" that appear in most current reconstructions of the Proto-Indo-European language...

. It has been argued that the problem Saussure encountered, of trying to explain how he was able to make systematic and predictive hypotheses from known linguistic data to unknown linguistic data, stimulated his development of structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

. Saussure's predictions about the existence of primate coefficients/laryngeals and their evolution proved a resounding success when the Hittite texts
Hittite texts
The corpus of texts written in the Hittite language is indexed by the Catalogue des Textes Hittites...

 were discovered and deciphered, some 50 years later.

Later critics


By the latter half of the 20th century, many of Saussure's ideas were under heavy criticism. His linguistic ideas are considered important in their time, but outdated and superseded by developments such as cognitive linguistics
Cognitive linguistics
In linguistics, cognitive linguistics refers to the branch of linguistics that interprets language in terms of the concepts, sometimes universal, sometimes specific to a particular tongue, which underlie its forms...

. In 1972, Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

 described Saussurean linguistics as an "impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language," while in 1984, Marcus Mitchell declared that Saussurean linguistics were "fundamentally inadequate to process the full range of natural language
Natural language
In the philosophy of language, a natural language is any language which arises in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the innate facility for language possessed by the human intellect. A natural language is typically used for communication, and may be spoken, signed, or written...

 [and furthermore were] held by no current researchers, to my knowledge." The field of linguistics shifted its focus from Saussurean single-word analysis to analysis of whole sentences. Holland notes that up to the 1950s Saussure enjoyed some legitimacy in linguistics, but with the cognitive revolution
Cognitive revolution
The cognitive revolution is the name for an intellectual movement in the 1950s that began what are known collectively as the cognitive sciences. It began in the modern context of greater interdisciplinary communication and research...

 which began in 1957, Chomsky had "decisively refuted Saussure." She writes: "Much of Chomsky's work is not accepted by other linguists . . . I am not asking you to accept Chomsky's own linguistics, however. My point is simply that Chomsky's work rendered Saussure's linguistics, indeed much of post-Saussurean linguistics, obsolete. I am not claiming that Chomsky is right, only that Chomsky has proven that Saussure is wrong. Linguists who reject Chomsky claim to be going beyond Chomsky, or they cling to phrase-structure grammars. They are not turning back to Saussure."

Semiotics


Saussure is one of the founding fathers of semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

. His concept of the sign/signifier/signified/referent forms the core of the field.

Influence outside linguistics


The principles and methods employed by structuralism were later adapted by French Intellectuals in diverse fields, such as Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes
Roland Gérard Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism, social theory, Marxism, anthropology and...

, Jacques Lacan
Jacques Lacan
Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis and philosophy, and has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud". Giving yearly seminars in Paris from 1953 to 1981, Lacan influenced France's...

, and Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called, along with James George Frazer, the "father of modern anthropology"....

. Such scholars took influence from Saussure's ideas in their own areas of study (literary studies/philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, respectively). However, their analogous interpretations of Saussure's linguistic theories led to proclamations of the end of structuralism in those two disciplines.

Saussure is the subject of The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields is the principal creative outlet of singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt...

’ song "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure" on their 1999 album 69 Love Songs
69 Love Songs
69 Love Songs is a three-volume concept album by The Magnetic Fields released in 1999. As its title indicates, the album is composed of 69 love songs, all written by Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt.-Conception and live performance:...

.

Works

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. (2002) Écrits de linguistique générale (edition prepared by Simon Bouquet and Rudolf Engler), Paris: Gallimard. ISBN 2-07-076116-9. English translation: Writings in General Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2006) ISBN 0-19-926144-X.
    • This volume, which consists mostly of material previously published by Engler, includes an attempt at reconstructing a text from a set of Saussure's manuscript pages headed "The Double Essence of Language", found in 1996 in Geneva. These pages contain ideas already familiar to Saussure scholars, both from Engler's critical edition of the Course and from another unfinished book manuscript of Saussure's, published in 1995 by Maria Pia Marchese (Phonétique: Il manoscritto di Harvard Houghton Library bMS Fr 266 (8), Padova: Unipress, 1995).
  • (1878) Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européenes (Memoir on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages), Leipzig: Teubner. (online version in Gallica Program, Bibliothèque nationale de France
    Bibliothèque nationale de France
    The is the National Library of France, located in Paris. It is intended to be the repository of all that is published in France. The current president of the library is Bruno Racine.-History:...

    ).
  • (1916) Cours de linguistique générale, ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, with the collaboration of A. Riedlinger, Lausanne and Paris: Payot; trans. W. Baskin, Course in General Linguistics, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977.
  • (1922) Recueil des publications scientifiques de F. de Saussure, ed. C. Bally and L. Gautier, Lausanne and Geneva: Payot.
  • (1993) Saussure’s Third Course of Lectures in General Linguistics (1910–1911): Emile Constantin ders notlarından, Language and Communication series, volume. 12, trans. and ed. E. Komatsu and R. Harris, Oxford: Pergamon.

See also

  • Axiom of categoricity
    Axiom of categoricity
    The Axiom of Categoricity is a tenet of linguistic theory that remained practically undisputed before the inception of modern sociolinguistics in the mid-twentieth century. The term was coined by J.K...

  • Leonard Bloomfield
    Leonard Bloomfield
    Leonard Bloomfield was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and the 1940s. His influential textbook Language, published in 1933, presented a comprehensive description of American structural linguistics...

  • Linguistics
    Linguistics
    Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

  • Neogrammarians
  • Roman Jakobson
    Roman Jakobson
    Roman Osipovich Jakobson was a Russian linguist and literary theorist.As a pioneer of the structural analysis of language, which became the dominant trend of twentieth-century linguistics, Jakobson was among the most influential linguists of the century...

  • Structuralism
    Structuralism
    Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...


Notations

  • Culler, J. (1976). Saussure. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.
  • Ducrot, O. and Todorov, T. (1981). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language, trans. C. Porter. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Harris, R. (1987). Reading Saussure. London: Duckworth.
  • Holdcroft, D. (1991). Saussure: Signs, System, and Arbitrariness. Cambridge University Press
    Cambridge University Press
    Cambridge University Press is the publishing business of the University of Cambridge. Granted letters patent by Henry VIII in 1534, it is the world's oldest publishing house, and the second largest university press in the world...

    .
  • Lyons, J.
    John Lyons (linguist)
    Sir John Lyons, LittD, FBA is an English linguist, most famous for his work on semantics.John Lyons was educated at St Bede's College, Manchester, and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in Classics in 1953 and a Diploma in Education in 1954. After doing his national service in...

     (1968). An Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Sanders, C., ed.(2004). The Cambridge Companion to Saussure. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80486-8.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1974). "New tools for the study of Saussure's contribution to linguistic thought." Historiographia Linguistica 1.255-64. http://homepage.mac.com/noula/ling/1974a-saussure.pdf

External links