Ferdinand De Saussure Research Paper

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1. Saussure’s Status In Twentieth-Century Linguistics

Saussure is best known for the posthumous compilation of lecture notes on general linguistics taken down assiduously by students attending his courses during 1907–1911, the Cours de linguistique generale, edited by his former students and junior colleagues and first published in 1916 (and since 1928 translated into more than a dozen languages). During his lifetime, Saussure was most widely known for his masterly Memoire of 1878 devoted to an audacious reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European vowel system. However, it is generally agreed that his Cours ushered in a revolution in linguistic thinking during the 1920s and 1930s which still at the beginning of the twenty-first century is felt in many quarters, even beyond linguistics proper. He is widely regarded as ‘the father of structuralism’; to many his work produced a veritable ‘Copernican revolution’ (Holdcroft 1991, p. 134). Indeed, essential ingredients and terms of his theory have become points of reference for any serious discussion about the nature of language, its functioning, development, and uses.

2. Formative Years And Career

Saussure was born on November 26, 1857 in Geneva, Switzerland. Although from a distinguished Geneva family which—beginning with Horace Benedict de Saussure (1740–1799)—can boast of several generations of natural scientists, F. de Saussure was drawn early to language study, producing an ‘Essai pour reduire les mots du grec, du latin et de l’allemand a un petit nombre de racines’ at age 14 or 15 (published in Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 32: 77–101 [1978]). Following his parents’ wishes, Saussure attended classes in chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the University of Geneva during 1875–1876, before being allowed to join his slightly older classmates who had left for Leipzig the year before. So in the fall of 1876 Saussure arrived at the university where a number of important works in the field of Indo-European phonology and morphology, including Karl Verner’s (1846–1896) epoch-making paper on the last remaining series of exceptions to ‘Grimm’s Law,’ had just been published. Saussure took courses with Georg Curtius (1820–1885), the mentor of the Junggrammatiker, and a number of the younger professors, such as August Leskien (1840–1916), Ernst Windisch (1844–1918), Heinrich Hubschmann (1848–1908), Hermann Osthoff (1847–1909), and others in the field of Indic studies, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, and Germanic. During 1878–1879 Saussure spent two semesters at the University of Berlin, enrolling in courses in Indic philology with Heinrich Zimmer (1851–1910) and Hermann Oldenberg (1854–1920).

After barely six semesters of formal study of comparative-historical Indo-European linguistics Saussure, then just 21, published his major lifetime work. In this 300-page Memoire sur le systeme primitif des oyelles dans les langues indo-europeennes (1879) Saussure assumed, on purely theoretical grounds, the existence of an early Proto-Indo-European sound of unknown phonetic value (designated *A) which would develop into various phonemes of the Indo-European vocalic system depending on its combination with those ‘sonantal coefficients.’ Saussure was thus able to explain a number of puzzling questions of IndoEuropean ablaut. However, the real proof of Saussure’s hypotheses came only many years later, after his death, following the decipherment of Hittite and its identification as an Indo-European language. In 1927 the Polish scholar Jerzy Kuryowicz (1895– 1978) pointed to Hittite cognates, i.e., related words corresponding to forms found in other Indo-European languages, that contained a laryngeal (not present in any of the other attested Indo-European languages) corresponding to Saussure’s ‘phoneme’ *A (Szemerenyi 1973). What is significant in Saussure’s approach is his insistance on, and rigorous use of, the idea that the original Proto-Indo-European vowels form a coherent system of interrelated terms. Indeed, it is this emphasis on the systematic character of language which informs all of Saussure’s linguistic thinking to the extent that there are not, contrary to received opinion, two Saussures, the author of the Memoire and the originator of the theories laid down in the Cours (cf. Koerner 1998).

Having returned to Leipzig, Saussure defended his dissertation on the use of the genitive absolute in Sanskrit in February 1880, leaving for Geneva soon thereafter. Before he arrived in Paris in September 1880, he appears to have conducted fieldwork on Lithuanian, an Indo-European language of which documents reach back to the sixteenth century only, but which exhibits a rather conservative vowel system comparable with that of Ancient Greek. First-hand exposure to this language was instrumental in his explanation of the Lithuanian system of accentuation (Saussure 1896) for which he is justly famous. In 1881, Michel Breal (1832–1915), the doyen of French linguistics, secured him a position as Maıtre de Conferences at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, a post he held until his departure for Geneva 10 years later. In Paris, Saussure found a number of receptive students, among them Antoine Meillet (1866–1936), Maurice Grammont (1866–1946), and Paul Passy (1859–1940), but also congenial colleagues such as Gaston Paris (1839–1903), Louis Havet (1849–1925), who had previously written the most detailed review of his Memoire, and Arsene Darmesteter (1848–1888). Still, Saussure did not write any major work subsequent to his doctoral dissertation, but he wrote a series of frequently etymological papers, which illustrate his acumen in historical linguistics. It was through the posthumous publication of lectures on (in fact historical and) general linguistics that Saussure became known for his theoretical and nonhistorical views.

In 1891, the University of Geneva offered Saussure a professorship of Sanskrit and Comparative Grammar, which was made into a regular chair of Comparative Philology in 1896. It was only late in 1906 that the Faculty added the subject of General Linguistics to his teaching load. It was this decision and Saussure’s three ensuing lecture series (1907, 1908–9, and 1910– 11) in which he developed his thoughts about the nature of language and the manner in which it was to be studied that eventually led to the epoch-making book he did not write, the Cours de linguistique generale. Saussure died on February 22, 1913 at Chateau Vufflens, Switzerland.

3. The Cours De Linguistique Generale

The Cours appeared in 1916. By the 1920s Saussure’s name began to be almost exclusively connected with this posthumous work which was based largely on extensive lecture notes carefully taken down by a number of his students. One of them was Albert Riedlinger (1883–1978), whose name appears on the title page of the Cours as a collaborator. It was, however, put together by Saussure’s successors in Geneva, Charles Bally (1865–1947) and Albert Sechehaye (1870–1946), neither of whom had attended these lectures themselves as is frequently, but erroneously, stated in the literature. Indeed, their own focus of attention was nonhistorical linguistics, stylistics and syntax, respectively, and this had a considerable bearing on the manner in which Saussure’s ideas were presented (Amacker 2000), with Historical Linguistics, the subject Saussure was most interested in, being relegated to the end of the book. (See Godel 1957, for an analysis of the editors’ work; also Strozier 1988, for a close analysis of the texts.) It was the long general introduction of the Cours and the part dealing with nonhistorical (‘synchronic’) linguistics, which made history.

3.1 Saussure’s The Cours’s Legacy

The ideas advanced in the Cours produced something of a revolution in linguistic science; historicalcomparative grammar which had dominated linguistic research since the early nineteenth century soon became a mere province of the field. At least in the manner the Cours had been presented by the editors, Saussure’s general theory of language was seen as assigning pride of place to the nonhistorical, descriptive, and ‘structural’ approach. (Saussure himself did not use the last-mentioned term in a technical sense.) This emphasis on the investigation of the current state of a language or languages led to a tremendous body of work concerned with the analysis of the linguistic system or systems of language and its function(s), and a concomitant neglect of questions of language change and the field of Historical Linguistics in general, a situation still very much characteristic of the current linguistic scene. However, the field has become stronger since the mid-1980s, as sociolinguistic and typological aspects took hold in the investigation of language change.

From the 1920s onwards, notably outside of the traditional centers of Indo-European comparative linguistics, a variety of important schools of linguistic thought developed in Europe that can be traced back to proposals made in the Cours. These are usually identified with the respective centers from which they emanated, such as Geneva, Prague, Copenhagen, even London; more precisely these developments are to be associated with the names of Bally and Sechehaye, Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) and Nikolaj vs. Trubezkoy (1890–1938), Louis Hjelmslev (1899– 1965), and John Rupert Firth (1890–1960), respectively. In North America too, through the work of Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949), Saussure’s ideas became stock-in-trade among linguists, descriptivists, structuralists, and generativists (cf. Joseph 1990, for Saussure’s influence on Bloomfield as well as Chomsky). In each ‘school,’ it is safe to say, essential ingredients of the Cours were interpreted differently, at times in opposition to some of Saussure’s tenets as found in the book, which Saussure specialists now refer to as the ‘vulgata’ text, given that a number of points made in the Cours go back to its editors, not Saussure himself. However, it is this text that has made the impact on modern linguistics.

3.2 The Main Tenets Of The Cours

At the core of Saussure’s linguistic theory is the assumption that language is a system of interrelated terms, which he called ‘langue’ (in contradistinction to ‘parole,’ the individual speech act or speaking in general). This supra-individual ‘langue’ is the under- lying code ensuring that people can speak and under-stand each other; the language-system thus has a social underpinning. At the same time, ‘langue’ is an operative system embedded in the brain of everyone who has learned a given language. The analysis of this system and its functioning, Saussure maintains, is the central object of linguistics. His characterization of ‘langue’ asa ‘fait social’ has often led to the belief that Saussure’s thinking is indebted to Emile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) sociological framework. While the two were close contemporaries and shared much of the same intellectual climate, no direct influence of the latter on the former can be demonstrated; Meillet, Saussure’s former student and a collaborator of Durkheim’s since the late 1890s, publicly denied it when it was first proposed in 1931. For Saussure the social bond between speakers sharing the same language (‘langue’) was constitutive for the operation of this unique semiological system (see below).

The language system is a network of relationships which Saussure characterized as being of two kinds: ‘syntagmatic’ (i.e., items are arranged in a consecutive, linear order) and ‘associative,’ later on termed (by Firth and by Hjelmslev) ‘paradigmatic’ (i.e., pertaining to the organization of units in a deeper, not directly observable fashion dealing with grammatical and semantic relations). Since it is only in a state (‘etat de langue’) that this system can be revealed, the non- historical, ‘synchronic’ approach to language must take pride of place. Only after two such language states of different periods in the development of a given language have been properly described can the effects of language change be calculated, i.e., ‘diachronic,’ historical linguistics be conducted. Hence the methodological, if not epistemological primacy of synchrony over diachrony.

Apart from syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic relations, several trichotomies can be found in the Cours which, however are usually reduced to dichotomies. Many of them have become current in twentieth-century thought, far beyond their original application, i.e., language–langue–parole (i.e., language in all its manifestations or ‘speech’; language as the underlying system, and ‘speaking,’ with terms such as ‘tongue’ and ‘discourse’ or ‘competence’ and ‘performance’ being proposed to replace the langue/parole couple), signe–signifie–signifiant (sign, signified, and signifier), synchrony vs. diachrony (Saussure’s ‘panchrony’ would be an overarching of these two perspectives).

Saussure’s definition of language as ‘a system of (arbitrary) signs’ and his proposal of linguistics as the central part of an overall science of sign relations or ‘semiologie’ have led to the development of a field of inquiry more frequently called (following Charles Sanders Peirce’s [1839–1914] terminology) ‘semiotics,’ which more often than not deals with sign systems other than those pertaining to language, such as literary texts, visual art, music, and architecture. (For the wider implications of Saussure’s socio-semiotic ideas and a critique of the various uses of Saussure’s concepts in literary theory, see Thibault 1997.)

As is common with influential works (cf., e.g., Freud’s) many ingredients of Saussure’s general theory of language have often been taken out of their original context and incorporated into theories outside their intended application, usually selectively and quite arbitrarily, especially in works by French writers engaged in ‘structural’ anthropology (e.g., Claude Levi-Strauss) and Marxist philosophy (e.g., Louis Althusser), literary theory (e.g., Jacques Derrida), psychoanalysis (e.g., Jacques Lacan), and semiotics (e.g., Roland Barthes), and their various associates and followers. (For a judicious critique of these extralinguistic exploitations, see Tallis 1988.) However, these uses—and abuses—demonstrate the endurance and originality of Saussure’s ideas. He has achieved in linguistics a status comparable to Imanuel Kant in philosophy, in that we can, similar to Kant’s place in the history of thought, distinguish between a linguistics before Saussure and a linguistics after Saussure.


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  2. Bouquet S 1997 Introduction a la lecture de Saussure. Payot, Paris
  3. Engler R 1976 Bibliographie saussurienne [1970–]. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 30: 99–138, 31: 279–306, 33: 79–145, 40: 131–200, 43: 149–275, 50: 247–95 (1976, 1977, 1979, 1986, 1989, 1997).
  4. Godel R 1957 Les Sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique generale de F. de Saussure. Droz, Geneva, Switzerland
  5. Harris R 1987 Reading Saussure: A Critical Commentary on the Cours de linguistique generale. Duckworth, London
  6. Holdcroft D 1991 Saussure: Signs, System, and Arbitrariness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  7. Joseph J E 1990 Ideologizing Saussure: Bloomfield’s and Chomsky’s readings of the Cours de linguistique generale. In: Joseph J E, Taylor T E (eds.) Ideologies of Language. Routledge, London and New York, pp. 51–93
  8. Koerner E F K 1972 Bibliographia Saussureana, 1870–1970: An Annotated, Classified Bibliography: on the Background, Development and Actual Relevance of Ferdinand De Saussure’s General Theory of Language. Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ
  9. Koerner E F K 1973 Ferdinand de Saussure: Origin and Development of his Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language. A Contribution to the History and Theory of Linguistics. F. Vieweg and Sohn, Braunschweig, Germany
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  11. Koerner E F K 1998 Noch einmal on the History of the Concept of Language as a ‘systeme ou tout sevtient’. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 51: 21–40
  12. Saussure F de 1879 Memoire sur le systeme primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-europeennes. B. G. Teubner, Leipzig, Germany (Repr. G. Olms, Hildesheim, 1968.). In: Lehmann W P (ed.) A Reader in Nineteenth-Century Historical IndoEuropean Linguistics. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1967, pp. 218–24
  13. Saussure F de 1896 Accentuation lituanienne. Indogermanische Forschungen. Anzeiger 6: 157–66
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  15. Saussure F de 1922 Recueil des publications scientifiques ed. by Charles Bally and Leopold Gautier. Payot, Lausanne; C. Winter, Heidelberg. (Repr. Slatkine, Geneva, 1970; it includes a reprint of the Memoire, his 1880 dissertation (pp. 269–338), and all of Saussure’s papers published during his lifetime.)
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  19. Strozier R M 1988 Saussure, Derrida, and the Metaphysics of Subjectivity. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin and New York
  20. Szemerenyi O 1973 La theorie des laryngales de Saussure a Kuryowicz et a Benveniste: Essai de reevaluation. Bulletin de la Societe de Linguistique de Paris 68: 1–25
  21. Tallis R 1988 Not Saussure. Macmillan, London
  22. Thibault P J 1997 Re-Reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life. Routledge, London
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