Ferdinand de Saussure November 1857 – 22 February 1913) was a Swiss linguist whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in linguistics 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 However, most modern linguists and philosophers of language consider his ideas outdated. Some philosophers of language, though mainly literary theorists, believe that these critics are themselves applying outdated argumentation to portray Saussurean ideas as obscurantist or deliberately distorted. While Saussure's concepts—particularly semiotics—have received little to no attention in modern linguistic textbooks, his ideas have significantly influenced the humanities and social sciences.
Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva 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, Greek, Sanskrit, and taking a variety of courses at the University of Geneva, he commenced graduate work at the University of Leipzig 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, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the genitive absolute in Sanskrit. He returned to Leipzig and was awarded his doctorate in 1880. Soon afterwards, he relocated to Paris, where he would lecture on Sanskrit, Gothic and Old High German, and occasionally other subjects. He taught at the École Pratique des Hautes Études 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 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, VD Switzerland.
 Course in General Linguistics
Main article: 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 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 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, 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.
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. Most notably, Nikolay Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson headed the efforts of the Prague School in setting the course of phonological theory in the decades following 1940. Jakobson's universalizing structural-functional theory of phonology, based on a markedness hierarchy of distinctive features, was the first successful solution of a plane of linguistic analysis according to the Saussurean hypotheses. Elsewhere, Louis Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen School proposed new interpretations of linguistics from structuralist theoretical frameworks.
In America, Saussure's ideas informed the distributionalism of Leonard Bloomfield and the post-Bloomfieldian structuralism of such scholars as Eugene Nida, Bernard Bloch, George L. Trager, Rulon S. Wells III, Charles Hockett, and through Zellig Harris and the young Noam Chomsky. In addition to Chomsky's theory of Transformational grammar, other contemporary developments of structuralism included Kenneth Pike's theory of tagmemics, Sidney Lamb's theory of stratificational grammar, and Michael Silverstein's work.
While a student, Saussure published an important work in Indo-European philology that proposed the existence of ghosts in Proto-Indo-European called sonant coefficients. The Scandinavian scholar Hermann Möller suggested that these might actually be laryngeal consonants, leading to what is now known as the laryngeal theory. 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. Saussure's predictions about the existence of primate coefficients/laryngeals and their evolution proved a resounding success when the Hittite texts were discovered and deciphered, some 50 years later.
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. In 1972, Noam Chomsky 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 [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 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."
Saussure is one of the founding fathers of semiotics. 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, Jacques Lacan, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. 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’ song "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure" on their 1999 album 69 Love Songs.
• "A sign is the basic unit of language (a given language at a given time). Every language is a complete system of signs. Parole (the speech of an individual) is an external manifestation of language."
• "A linguistic system is a series of differences of sounds combined with a series of differences of ideas."
• "The connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary."
• "In language there are only differences, and no positive terms"
• 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.
o 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).
• (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
The father of structuralism (and many would say of the modern science
of linguistics) was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure
(1857–1913). But Saussure was a reluctant father whose seminal Cours de linguistique générale
(Course in General Linguistics, 1916) was edited and posthumously
published by two colleagues and a student who assiduously took notes at
his lectures. The peculiar nature of its composition has resulted
in a work that is fraught with contradictions and puzzling self-doubts
cheek by jowl with superbly confident, dogmatic assertions. Despite all
the vagaries of its composition, Cours de linguistique générale
is a hugely influential work and has probably done more to establish
linguistics as an independent discipline than any other single book.
Although Saussure had a background in the historical study of
language and had made significant advances in the understanding of the
Indo-European vowel system, he was unusually critical of neogrammarian
philology, which he accused of being overly absorbed in diachrony (that
is, issues of the [color:4646=red ! important][color:4646=red ! important]evolution
of languages). Saussure also criticized traditional grammarians for
neglecting entire aspects of language and for lacking overall
perspective, but allowed that their method was fundamentally correct and
that they properly emphasized synchrony. Hence, whereas the discipline
of historical linguistics that grew up in the nineteenth century was
almost wholly diachronic in its orientation, linguistics in the first
half of the twentieth century—following the lead of Saussure—became a
largely synchronic enterprise. It was not long before European
structuralism crossed the Atlantic to become the predominant methodology
of American linguistics.
The German-born American anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884–1939) was
responsible for many enduring concepts in linguistic research. Author of
the landmark volume Language (1921), Sapir emphasizes that
language is tightly linked to culture. For Sapir, language is an
acquired function of culture rather than being biologically determined.
This view is diametrically opposed to that of the transformationalists
(see below), who believe (but have not proved) that human beings possess
a genetically determined predisposition for language—including many of
its most specific and distinguishing features—that is already present at
the moment of [color:4646=red ! important][color:4646=red ! important]birth.
Sapir is undoubtedly correct when he points out that, sans society, an
individual will never learn to talk in meaningful terms—that is, to
communicate ideas to other persons within a given community. This can
easily be demonstrated by observation of feral or mentally abused
children and in children suffering from autism or other psychological
disorders that affect the acquisition and manipulation of language.
Similarly, infants who are born into one linguistic environment but are
adopted into a completely different linguistic environment will
obviously not grow up speaking the language of their biological parents.
If there is any "hardwiring" of linguistic abilities, it occurs around
puberty, after which time it becomes increasingly difficult to attain
full fluency in a second language or to lose all ability in one's mother
tongue. Sapir, of course, could not have foreseen the degree to which
the transformationalists would divorce language from its social and
cultural matrix, but he would undoubtedly have been horrified by this
turn of events and would have regarded it as a fallacious approach to
language. While Sapir may not be around to point out the speciousness of
the transformationalists' so-called LAD (Language Acquisition Device,
also styled the "language module," "language instinct," and so forth),
which stipulates hardwired language ability at birth, that has been done
ably by Jerome Bruner (b. 1915) with his cognitive learning theory that
builds on the cultural-cognitive developmental model of the Russian
psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).
Although Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949) was a contemporary and
colleague of Sapir, and the two are widely regarded as the founders of
American structuralism, they were quite dissimilar in temperament and
outlook. Whereas Sapir was more dramatic and imaginative, Bloomfield
tended to be methodical and preferred as much as possible to rely
strictly upon evidence in formulating his positions. In 1914 he wrote Introduction to the Study of Language, which in later editions was called simply Language
(1933). Bloomfield was responsible for an enormously influential
synthesis that brought together three earlier traditions of language
study (historical, philological, and practical), and forged them into a
coherent whole. He was fiercely determined to establish linguistics as a
science. In particular, he wished to distinguish linguistics from the
speculative philosophers who assumed that the structure of their own
language embodied universal forms of human thought or even the cosmic
order. In addition to the speculative philosophers, Bloomfield censured
the grammarians of the old school tradition who strove to apply logical
standards to language, ignoring actual usage in favor of prescriptive
rules. Bloomfield was especially critical of those who took the features
of Latin as the normative form of human speech. He was much more
favorably disposed toward the grammatical studies of the ancient Indians
because the latter were themselves excellent phoneticians who had also
developed an intelligent systematization of grammar and lexicon.
In Europe, structuralism did not remain a monolithic linguistic
monopoly. The Prague School (which grew out of the Prague Linguistic
Circle) is a branch of structuralism, but with a difference. The members
of this school hold language to be a system of functionally related
units and focus on the observation of linguistic realia at discrete
moments. They are interested in language change, not in maintaining a
strict dichotomy of langue and parole (linguistic system
versus linguistic utterance)—a key tenet of Saussure—or of synchrony and
diachrony. The starting point of the Prague School is to clarify the
function of the various elements of actual utterances. The Prague School
has made a lasting impact upon many areas of modern linguistics,
particularly with regard to the analysis of the sounds of language and
their effect in literature.
Another noteworthy structuralist school is the Copenhagen Linguistic
Circle. One of its leading theoreticians was Louis Hjelmslev
(1899–1965), whose Prologomena (1943; English edition 1953) is
intended as a series of preliminary statements essential for the
formulation of any theory of language. Laying down the most basic ground
rules for linguistics, Hjelmslev faults the humanities for being overly
descriptive and insufficiently systematizing. He is opposed to the
confusion of philosophy of language with theories of language. Hjemslev
views language as a self-sufficient totality of its own. He foresees the
emergence of an "algebra of language," which he calls "glossematics."
This novel linguistic approach, which strongly emphasizes form, is
intentionally designed to distinguish the ideas of the Copenhagen School
from more traditional forms of structural linguistics, such as those of
the Prague School. Hjelmslev does adhere to Saussure's basic principles
of structuralism, but attempts to make his theory more axiomatic,
having been influenced by the logical empiricism of Alfred North
Whitehead (1861–1947), Russell, and Carnap. With the ostensible goal of
eliminating confusion between the object (language) being studied and
the methodology used to describe it, Hjelmslev tries to create
noncontradictory descriptive terminology by employing carefully crafted
abstractions and mathematical logic.
Around the middle of the twentieth century, Morris Swadesh
(1909–1967), a student of Sapir, devised a statistical method for
determining the family relationships of languages and the probable dates
of their separation from a common parent. This technique, which is
called lexico-statistics or glottochronology, is premised upon the idea
that the vocabulary of a language is replaced at a constant rate, much
like the steady radioactive decay of carbon-14 that is used to date
organic remains. The Swadesh lists select a core vocabulary of one
hundred or two hundred words consisting of body part terms, lower
numerals, pronouns, primary kinship terms, common flora and fauna, words
for ordinary topographical features, and so forth. Widely used in the
1960s and 1970s, glottochronology provoked an emotional debate, with all
manner of objections being raised against it: the rate of decay is not
universal, cognates may be partial and may or may not be recognizable,
even core terms may be borrowed, and so forth. Despite the outcry,
glottochronology is still employed, but in mathematically increasingly
complex and conceptually more sophisticated models. For example, a
geographical dimension may be incorporated into the tree, and more
careful attention is paid to historical reconstruction.
Another controversial legacy of structuralism that continues to
attract attention is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis concerning the
relationship among language, thought, and culture developed by Benjamin
Lee Whorf (1897–1941), who was also a student of Sapir and who based his
hypothesis on the approach of his mentor. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
has two main facets: (1) linguistic determinism (the language one uses
conditions the way one thinks), (2) linguistic relativity (the complex
of distinctions made in a given language are unique and not to be found
in any other language). Both of these facets are somewhat at odds with
the Bloomfieldian notion (broadly ascribed to by modern linguists) that
all languages—like all people—are equal in their ability to express
whatever thoughts their speakers need or want to convey. Whorf did
intensive work on North American indigenous languages that have
dramatically different grammatical and lexical properties from
Indo-European languages, so it is altogether comprehensible that his
intimate familiarity with their distinctive outlooks would lead him to
develop the hypothesis that he did. While the two main facets of the
hypothesis would appear to be innocuous, commonsense propositions, they
are anathema to certain sectors of the modern political spectrum.
Furthermore, continuing the tinctorial theme, the strong form of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that a given language determines the thought and
perception of its speakers) is seen by many to have been refuted by the
study of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay on basic color terms and their
supposed universality (1969). The conclusions of Berlin and Kay,
however, have not gone un-challenged: John A. Lucy and Richard Shweder
have demonstrated significant behavioral differences in regard to color
perception on the part of speakers of different languages. In any event,
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis should be easily testable by extensive
investigation of the thought patterns of individuals who are thoroughly
bilingual (or multilingual) in markedly dissimilar languages. Simply
asking such individuals whether it is easier to think certain thoughts
in a given language than in another language, or whether it is
impossible to think the thoughts of one language in another language,
should go far toward determining the validity of the Sapir-Whorf