Authors: Ferdinand de Saussure

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Swiss scholar and linguist

Author Works


Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes, 1879

Cours de linguistique générale, 1916 (Course in General Linguistics, 1959)


Ferdinand de Saussure (saw-soor) is regarded by most scholars as the creator of modern linguistics–the scientific, objective study of language. Although he published only a few papers and no major works during his lifetime, the lecture notes of his students have been collected and edited into one of the most influential texts of modern linguistics, Course in General Linguistics. His major accomplishment was to establish the systematic study of language as an objective subject; he also pointed the way to the development of the discipline of semiology, or the study of signs and the system of signs.{$I[AN]9810000825}{$I[A]Saussure, Ferdinand de}{$I[geo]SWITZERLAND;Saussure, Ferdinand de}{$I[tim]1857;Saussure, Ferdinand de}

Ferdinand de Saussure

(Library of Congress)

Born into a family distinguished for its intellectual achievements, Saussure was introduced to the study of language at an early age. By the time he was fifteen, he had mastered Greek, Latin, French, German, and English. In 1875 he entered the University of Geneva, first intending to study physics and chemistry; after one year he transferred to the University of Leipzig and switched to the study of language. It was an apt choice in schools, for Leipzig was the center of the Junggrammatiker (young grammarians), who were attempting to bring to language study something of the rigor and objectivity of the natural sciences.

In 1879, Saussure 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), a breathtaking work of scholarship that won immediate and widespread attention and acclaim. Completing his doctorate at Leipzig, Saussure moved to Paris, where he taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études until 1891, when he returned to the University of Geneva as a professor. At Geneva Saussure taught a number of courses, but most notable were the classes in general linguistics that he gave from 1906 through 1911. The lecture notes of his students from these classes were gathered by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye and edited into Course in General Linguistics. Saussure himself published no complete or comprehensive view of his theories; he died at the relatively young age of fifty-five, in February, 1913.

Saussure’s central accomplishment was to place the study of language on a scientific basis, and this he accomplished through a logical series of steps that provided the proper foundation for all future examinations. First, Saussure admitted that language was a complex phenomenon, and the initial task was to determine how to approach it. He noted that language is a system of signs, in which the individual units of a particular language make sense (that is, communicate) only as part of an overall system. The smallest unit in this system is the linguistic sign. Often (but not always) a word, the linguistic sign is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. It is composed of two parts, the signifiant, or signifier, and the signifie, or the signified. In the broadest sense, these might be called sound and meaning, respectively. When they are linked together (as the sounds of d-o-g are with the concept of a certain animal), a linguistic sign is created.

The linguistic sign is arbitrary; that is, there is no natural link between the two parts. This point is of key importance to Saussure, because it forces the realization that the linguistic sign is part of a system and must fit into a pattern; it has no independent existence. Saussure used the analogy of language and chess: It matters not whether a knight is made of wood, marble, or metal, only that it moves in certain ways in relation to all the other chess pieces. Like the knight, the individual units of a language are part of a system.

The system of language is expressed through the medium of sound, but there is a fundamental difference between the system and its physical expression. The expression is the substance of language, but the system is its form, and Saussure pointed out that form must take precedence over substance in language study. He demonstrated this by his emphasis on two essential dichotomies in language.

First, language can be synchronic or diachronic. That is, language can be studied at a single moment in time (synchronic) or as it develops across time (diachronic). While a diachronic examination will reveal that languages change their sounds and substances–for example, Latin became French, Spanish, and Italian–it also demonstrates that the languages always retained a coherent system that allowed speakers to communicate at any given moment. Furthermore, the sound changes that take place across time happen without apparent reason and without exception. This reinforces the central concepts that the particular linguistic sign is arbitrary and that the overall pattern is the key to language.

Second, Saussure made a critical distinction between la langue and parole. La langue is the overall system of language, while parole is its realization in actual speech. There will be differences in pronunciation, vocabulary choice, and other items between different speakers of a language–an inevitable aspect of parole. Yet as long as the pattern remains consistent, understanding and communication will be maintained, which is the strength of la langue. The existence of these two aspects of language explains why a single language can have greatly differing dialects and yet remain a coherent whole.

Reviewed after their enunciation by Saussure, these fundamentals of linguistics might seem simple, even obvious; yet they represented a startling breakthrough in the study of language and made possible the achievements of modern linguistics.

BibliographyCuller, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986. This is a very readable account of Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory and legacy in linguistics and semiotics, with suggestions for additional reading.Furton, Edward J. A Medieval Semiotic: Reference and Representation in John of St. Thomas’s Theory of Signs. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. A look at Saussure’s theory of semiotics.Gadet, Françoise. Saussure and Contemporary Culture. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989. Part 1 offers extended quotations from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics with exegesis, and part 2 deals with the editorial fortunes of the book and its reception and influence.Gordon, W. Terrence. Saussure for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1996. Part of the popular For Beginners series, this is a concise introduction to Saussure’s theories.Harris, Roy. Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein: How to Play Games with Words. New York: Routledge, 1988. Outlines several points of contact between the linguistic approach to language taken by Saussure and the philosophical approach taken by Wittgenstein. Argues that the analogy between language and rule-governed games is central for both views.Harris, Roy. Reading Saussure: A Critical Commentary on the “Cours de linguistique générale.” London: Gerald Duckworth, 1987. A personal reading of Saussure with chapter-by-chapter commentary and summations of general issues by the author of a controversial translation; assumes basic background in linguistics and some familiarity with Saussure’s place in intellectual history.Harris, Roy. Saussure and His Interpreters. New York: New York University Press, 2001. A thorough overview of Saussure’s linguistic theories and their use and modification by his followers, including Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jacques Derrida.Harris, Roy, and Talbot J. Taylor. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. New York: Routledge, 1989. The chapter on Saussure provides a brief introduction to his major ideas, aimed at students approaching his work for the first time.Holdcroft, David. Saussure: Signs, System, and Arbitrariness. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Offers a revised ordering for Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics and a detailed exposition of the work’s central theses. Each chapter ends with a useful summary of its major points.Koerner, E. F. K. Ferdinand de Saussure, Origin and Development of His Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language: A Contribution to the History and Theory of Linguistics. Braunschweig, West Germany: Vieweg, 1973. The most extensive biographical information available in English, with considerable coverage of possible sources of Saussure’s thought. Includes a substantial bibliography.Thibault, Paul J. Rereading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life. New York: Routledge, 1997. Provides an examination of Saussure’s work and its influence in the language of philosophy.
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