Ferdinand de Saussure

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Ferdinand de Saussure (November 26, 1857February 22, 1913) was a Swiss linguist, considered by many to be the father of structuralism.

Born in Geneva, he laid the foundation for many developments in linguistics in the 20th century. He perceived linguistics as a branch of a general science of signs he proposed to call semiology (now generally known as semiotics).

Life and Work:

Saussure was born in Geneva to a family known for its scholastic achievement. Relatively little is known about his life apart from his academic pursuits, where his interest and ability in linguistics were recognized early. His first professional essay was written at fourteen, a response to the works of the paleontologist Pictet, a family friend . Before starting his graduate work at the University of Leipzig in 1876 (at nineteen), Saussure had taught himself Sanskrit, attended a year of courses at the University of Geneva, submitted various articles for publication and joined the Société de linguistique de Paris. This would suggest he was a well-prepared and largely self-taught teen prodigy by the time he arrived at Leipzig.

The German academic community was undergoing violent disagreements about language at this time; the advent of the Comparative Method in the late nineteenth century made it possible to reconstruct the history of certain parent languages and scholars were reexamining all elements of their field. However, it did not succeed in establishing the next wave of linguistics which Saussure would dominate because it did not pursue the nature of its object of study, that nature is to be found in more than the elemental words of which a language consists; it speaks to the formal relations between those components. The Neogrammarians, who led the emergent school of linguistic thought at Leipzig, embraced the Comparative Method. While Saussure would work under them as a student, he would eventually break with their teachings.

In 1878 Saussure spent a year studying at Berlin. At twenty-one he wrote four articles plus a 300-page monograph: Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européenes. This would be the only full-length book published by him in his lifetime. The Mémoire was revolutionary and considered ingenious by many, although some of his mentors and peers at Leipzig were highly dismissive of its individuality. It did, however, establish his reputation and provide the foundation of his work on the Cours de linguistique générale. After the Mémoire, Saussure returned to Leipzig to finish his dissertation, which was submitted in 1880; he received his doctorate and the thesis was published in 1881.

In 1880 he moved to Paris and became a senior lecturer at l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. There he taught Gothic and Old High German, Sanskrit, Latin, Persian and Lithuanian. When he arrived in Paris, the graduate education system was transforming at a magnificent rate. There was much enthusiasm – especially in language and linguistics. Two strands of linguistics vied for prominence: that anchored at the Sorbonne, which published in Revue de linguistique et philologie comparée, and that led by Michel Brèal, which published in Société de linguistique de Paris. Saussure followed Brèal's group.

French psychologists and sociologists were also making great strides in the study of the workings of the mind and the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness, which held great potential for linguistic scientists. Saussure studied the work of Broca, Wernicke, Bergson, Jung, Weber, and Durkheim with interest, and applied it to his own.

However, over the years, Saussure became ever more obsessed with the idea of plagiarism, for fear of inadvertently incorporating the theories of one of his colleagues into his own research. He thereafter increasingly isolated himself. In reviewing the work being done in linguistics at this time, we find that many of the concepts that would appear in Saussure's Cours were already in development by other scholars, but not to the same degree or in the same manner. What was original about his concepts was his approach, his use of terminology and his incorporation of sociology, anthropology and philosophy.

Saussure returned to Geneva in 1891 and became a professor at the University. He was to teach there for the rest of his life. He began by giving courses in Sanskrit and Indo-European languages as well as historical and comparative linguistics. Only after a colleague died in 1906 did he add general linguistics; this would lead to the development of his famous three courses. As his curiosity and the complexity of his research increased, his published output decreased. In the last fifteen years of his life he produced only three papers. After 1906 the majority of his academic energy went into his series, Cours de linguistique générale. He approached these courses from three directions, without using any course notes.

Saussure's systematic reexamination of language is based on four assumptions:

  1. The scientific study of language needs to develop and study the system rather than the history of linguistic phenomena.
  2. The basic elements of language can only be studied in relation to their functions rather than in relation to their causes.
  3. The relationship between the signifier and the signified in language is arbitrary.
  4. Language is primarily a "social activity" (in some ways this is the most radical and yet least developed element of his system); language is socialized at every level, from the production of phonemes to the interpretation of complex meaning.

In many ways, the dualities of the first three assumptions are all reconfigured and resolved socially. They led Saussure to call for a new science that would go beyond linguistic science and study the life of signs within society. He would identify this as semiology, which is now interchangeably identified with semiotics' (from Dr. Klage's lecture on "Structuralism and Saussure").

Unbenownst to most of his colleagues, in the last seven years of his life Saussure began a new strain of research dealing with the anagrammatical properties of certain classical Latin and Indo-European poems. He mentioned his pursuit in only a few personal letters, and it wasn't until fifty years after his death that eight boxes of notebooks and sketches were discovered and analyzed. Saussure had become fascinated with the idea that, in a verse-form known as Saturnian (with forebears reaching back through Homer to ancient Sanskrit), poets encoded a name – often that of a god or patron – into the words of a poem. He had serious questions about his research, and was unsure of his findings – the anagrams were sometimes misleading and even yielded incorrect names. More importantly, he realized his new work would undermine some of the basic tenets of his Cours; giving special status to poetic language over "normal" language.

Nevertheless, critics like Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida embraced this newfound work and incorporated it into their own approaches. As Kristeva proclaimed: "We accept the principles set out by Ferdinand de Saussure in his "Anagrams,"

  1. Poetic language adds a second, contrived, dimension to the original word
  2. There is a correspondence between elements, in both metre and rime
  3. Binary poetic laws transgress the rules of grammar
  4. The element of the key word (or even letter) 'may be spread over the whole length of the text or may be concentrated in a small space, such as one or two words.' (Cambridge Companion to Saussure, 184)

In the end, Saussure abandoned his anagrams, perhaps because he had set too stringent a system of rules for himself which would not allow for such a leap of imagination.

The Course of General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale):

Saussure died in February, 1913. Within a month colleagues and former students realized what might be the greatest tragedy of his passing: that the genius of his Cours de linguistique générale remained solely in the memories and notebooks of the students fortunate enough to have enrolled in one of his three courses. Immediately a plan was formulated by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye to recreate the Cours from the notes and memories of those students, along with a strong amount of editing. Albert Riedlinger's meticulous notes formed the basis of the manuscript and he provided editorial support.

There was, and has continued to be, much controversy over the "real" Saussure and the "interpreted" Saussure through his students' notes and editorial manipulation. Considering that the editors chose to write the manuscript in the first-person (which certainly would not have been inherent in student notes), it at least begs the question of authorial authenticity. Regardless, it has been called one of the great achievements of Western intellect, contemplating the issue that language can be analyzed as a formal system of organized difference, apart from the dialectics of real-time production and comprehension.

It is important to recall that structuralist analysis concerns itself with the units ("phonemes") and rules of the system, rather than its specific content. In terms of language, these units are words and rules are the grammar which make order of the words.

The Cours is broken down into a series of sections:
1) Section I: The Nature of the Linguistic Sign.

- which identifies the terms "concept," "sound image," "sign" (the union of concept and sound image), "signifier" (sound), "signified" (thought), "structure" (system of language), "arbitrary" (the idea that a community must agree on the meaning of a gesture - that it is not intrinsic), "synchronic" (an analysis of language as a system at the present moment rather than in the past or future), and "linear" (elements in the system have one degree of combinatorial freedom). While certain of the ideas in this section preexisted the Cours, the establishment of the "arbitrary" truly made it groundbreaking and paved the way for structuralism.

2) Section II: Linguistic Value.
- which raises the connection between ideas and language, and the inseparable link between thought and sound. The terms "langue" (system of language), "parole" (individual unit within langue), "value" (the system-internal compositional meaning of recurring bits of linguistic form), "signification" (meaning), and "difference" (relation that creates value) are developed here. Within this section also lies the portion which deals with Synagmatic and Associative Relations, the basis for the social foundations of the course and the analysis of groups and discourse.

'A Selection of Basic Points from the Cours:

  • the sound-image is nothing more than the sum of a limited number of elements or phonemes
  • language is a storehouse of sound-images.
  • the sound-image is sensory - "material" - and can be opposed to the more abstract term, the concept.
  • language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing.
  • a linguistic sign is a two-sided psychological entity made up of a concept and a sound-image that are intimately united, each recalling the other. This combination of concept and sound-image is also identified as signified and signifier.
  • the linguistic sign is arbitrary - in the sense that there is no natural connection between the signifier and the signified.
  • the sign is not only arbitrary but linear.
  • it is impossible to conceive of ideas without language - language must preexist the idea - language becomes the sign of the idea.
  • imagine thought as the front and back of a piece of paper, or two sides of a coin; irrevocably connected. So with language, sound and thought cannot be divided.
  • signs used in writing are arbitrary.

(from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 961-76)


The impact of Saussure's work spread far beyond linguistics to have a profound effect on the humanities and social sciences. His work provided the foundation for structuralism and poststructuralism and was enmeshed in developments in literarary studies, history, anthropology and psychoanalysis. Among the notable theorists who recognized his influence on their work: Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Umberto Eco, A.J. Greimas, Louis Hjelmslev, Emile Benveniste and Vladimir Propp.

Ironically, some of these scholars incorporated Saussure's theories into their work through the interpretation of others. Lévi-Strauss offers an example, reading Jakobson's essays on Saussure and applying them to his own long before he ever read the Cours. Barthes, also, undertook a long study of Saussure by reading the analyses of Jakobson, Greimas, Levi-Strauss, Hjelmslev, Benveniste, and Propp.

Publication and translation of the Cours occurred in unusual patterns around the world. While access in French language and other European editions was fast to spread across Europe and Russia prior to World War II, the work was not translated into English for almost forty years. However, it founds American linguistics through the lineage of Leonard Bloomfield.

One can trace three distinct early twentieth-century schools of linguistic thought:

  • The western European or French school, guided by Saussure's teachings,
  • The eastern European/Russian or Formalist school, centered in the Prague Linguistic Circle, led by Roman Jakobson and heavily influenced by the works of Saussure,
  • The North American school, led by Leonard Bloomfield, who synthesized and systematized Saussure's insights, introducing his own modifications and discoveries. The Neo-Bloomfieldians (including Chomsky's teacher, Zellig Harris) subsequently formalized Saussure's theory, reducing its scope and the social nature of its explanations, paving the way for the autonomous syntactic formalism of Noam Chomsky, who began discussing Saussure in remarks made at the 1962 International Congress of Linguists and in papers thereafter. While Chomsky did not fully agree with many of Saussure's theories, he did find certain commonalities between his own concepts and those of the Swiss linguist.

Russian Formalism (starting in 1916) was borne out of an intense interest in language. Roman Jakobson was integral to its development. Jakobson recognized the value of Saussure's theories to Russian language because of the application of Marxism and the worth accorded to literature in Russian society as a means of moral and social criticism. During World War II, Jakobson emigrated to the U.S. and brought his passion for Saussure with him. He founded the New York Circle and a new Journal ("Word") and presented a series of lectures and articles on the Cours. He also began to encourage North American comprehension and acceptance of Saussure that would finally take root in the 50's and 60's as a more open climate between the North American and European academic communities was actualized.

Meanwhile, in France, as experiments with applications of Saussure's theories to more branches of the social and human sciences and philosophy were tested, there were misunderstandings over the relationship between his teachings and the development of structuralism. The question of who really could be identified as the rightful "father" of the system was argued, and elements of the originality of Saussure's Cours were challenged. When Lacan attempted to reconfigure Saussure's signifier/signified algorithm for psychoanalitic purposes, it was dismissed by many as being too focused on the study of psychosis and the unconscious to provide real linguistic value. Had Saussure's work been overdetermined by too many theorists who were too eager to test its boundaries, only to discover that the system in fact had limits - that the model could not be applied infinitely?

While the early mania for Saussure has cooled somewhat, and the contributions of other scientists to twentieth-century linguistics are now rightfully recognized, it is important that we also acknowledge Saussure for his incredible achievements. He always said he would never publish any reflections on the 'essence' of linguistics, and yet we look to his Cours as his life's work – in a sense, a sign for him. If anything, Saussure had only identified the foundations of his work, and the Cours might have been viewed as one facet of that, rather than its whole. The key may lie in his famous challenge for scientists to pursue a new discipline: "By studying rites, customs, etc. as signs, I believe that we shall throw new light on the facts and point up the need for including them in a science of semiology and explaining them by its laws." (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 962)


  • (1878). Essai d'une distinction des différents a indo-européens. Memoires de la Société de linguistique, 3:359-70.
  • (1879). Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes. Leipzig: Teubner.
  • (1908). Mélanges de linguistique offerts à M. Ferdinand de Saussure (no eds.). Paris: Champion.
  • (1909). Interview with A. Riedlinger, 19 January 1909. In Godel, 1957/1969a.
  • (1916). Cours de linguistique générale (published by C. Bally and A. Sechehaye in collaboration with A. Riedlinger). Lausanne and Paris: Payot. (CLG)
  • (1922). Recueil des publications scientifiques. Geneva: Editions Sonor.

Godel, R. (1957). Les sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure (Société de publications romanes et françaises, 61). Geneva: Droz; Paris: Minard.

  • (1957). Cours de linguistique générale Cours II 1908-1909: introduction (d'aprés des notes

d'etudiants) (ed. R. Godel). Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 15: 3-103. Godel, R. (1958/9). Nouveaux documents saussuriens: les cahiers E. Constantin. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 16: 23, 32.

  • (1959). Course in General Linguistics (trans. W. Baskin). New York: Philosophical

Library. (CGL-B)

  • (1960). Souvenirs de F. de Saussure concernant sa jeunesse et ses études (ed. R. Godel).

Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 17: 12-26. Benveniste, E. (1964). Lettre de Ferdinand de Saussure a Antoine Meillet. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 21:91-130.

  • (1964/5). Notes et documents sur Ferdinand de Saussure (1880-1891) (présentées par

Michel Fleury). Annuaire de l'Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, 35-67.

  • (1968). Cours de linguistique générale (critical edition by R. Engler, vol. 1). Wiesbaden:

Harrassowitz. (CLG/E 2)

  • (1972 [1916]). Cours de linguistique génrale (ed. T. de Mauro). Paris: Payot. (CLG/D)
  • (1974). Cours de linguistique générale (Notes personnelles) (critical edition by R. Engler,

vol. 2). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. (CLG/E 2)

  • (1974 [1959]). Course in General Linguistics (trans. W. Baskin, with an introduction by

J. Culler). London: Peter Own. (CGL-B)

  • (1978). Essai pour réduire les mots du grec, du latin et de l'allemand à un petit nombre de

racines (ed. B. Davies). Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 32: 73-101.

  • (1979). Saggio sul vocalisimo indoeuropeo (Italian edition, introd., trans. and ed. G.C.

Vincenzi). Bologna: Libreria Universitaria Editrice.

  • (1983). Course in General Linguistics (trans. and annotated by R. Harris). London:

Duckworth. (CGL-H)

  • (1993). Troisiéme Cours de linguistique générale / Third Course in General Linguistics (1910-1911), d'après les cahiers d'Emile Constantin (ed. and trans. E. Komatsu

and R. Harris). Oxford: Pergamon.

  • (1994). [Letter dated September 1912 to Bally]. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 48: 132.
  • (1996). Premier Cours de linguistique générale / First Course in General Linguistics

(1907), d'après les cahiers d'Albert Riedlinger (ed. and trans. E. Komatsu and G. Wolf). Oxford: Pergamon.

  • (1997). Deuxième Cours de linguistique générale / Second Course in General linguistics

(1908-1909), d'après les cahiers d'Albert Riedlinger & Charler Patois (ed. and trans. E. Komatsu and G. Wolf). Oxford: Pergamon.

  • (2002). Ecrits de linguistiques générale (ed. S. Bouquet and R. Engler). Paris: Gallimard.


See also

External links


  • The Cambridge Companion to Saussure. ed. Carol Sanders. Cambridge: Cambridge U P. 2004.
  • Harris, Roy. Saussure and his Interpreterers. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P. 2003.
  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: WW Norton & Co. 2001. 956-77.
  • Gabriel Rupp and Ronald Schleifer. "Ferdinand de Saussure".Johns Hopkins Online Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P. (c)2005.(February 1 2006).