Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure (November 26, 1857 – February 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).
Saussure's systematic reexamination of language is based on four assumptions:
- The scientific study of language needs to develop and study the system rather than the history of linguistic phenomena.
- The basic elements of language can only be studied in relation to their functions rather than in relation to their causes.
- The relationship between the signifier and the signified in language is arbitrary.
- 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,"
- Poetic language adds a second, contrived, dimension to the original word
- There is a correspondence between elements, in both metre and rime
- Binary poetic laws transgress the rules of grammar
- 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.
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)
- Roman Jakobson
- Claude Lévi-Strauss
- Roland Barthes
- Jacques Lacan
- Julia Kristéva
- Jacques Derrida
- Noam Chomsky