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Ferdinand de Saussure (; ; 26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913) was a Swiss
linguist Linguistics is the science, scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise analysis of all aspects of language, particularly its nature and structure ...
, semiotician and
philosopher A philosopher is a person who practices or investigates philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the systematized study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about existence, reason, knowledge, values, mind, and language. Suc ...
. His ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in both
linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise analysis of all aspects of language, particularly its nature and structure. Linguis ...
and
semiotics Semiotics (also called semiotic studies) is the systematic study of sign processes (semiosis) and meaning making. Semiosis is any activity, conduct, or process that involves Sign (semiotics), signs, where a sign is defined as anything that commun ...
in the 20th century. He is widely considered one of the founders of 20th-century linguistics and one of two major founders (together with
Charles Sanders Peirce Charles Sanders Peirce ( ; September 10, 1839 – April 19, 1914) was an American philosopher, logician, mathematician and scientist who is sometimes known as "the father of pragmatism". Educated as a chemist and employed as a scientist for t ...
) of semiotics, or ''semiology'', as Saussure called it. One of his translators, Roy Harris, summarized Saussure's contribution to linguistics and the study of "the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics,
philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the systematized study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about existence, reason, knowledge, values, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. Some ...
,
psychoanalysis PsychoanalysisFrom Greek: + . is a set of theories and therapeutic techniques"What is psychoanalysis? Of course, one is supposed to answer that it is many things — a theory, a research method, a therapy, a body of knowledge. In what might ...
,
psychology Psychology is the science, scientific study of mind and behavior. Psychology includes the study of consciousness, conscious and Unconscious mind, unconscious phenomena, including feelings and thoughts. It is an academic discipline of immens ...
,
sociology Sociology is a social science that focuses on society, human social behavior, patterns of Interpersonal ties, social relationships, social interaction, and aspects of culture associated with everyday life. It uses various methods of Empirical ...
and
anthropology Anthropology is the scientific study of humanity, concerned with human behavior, human biology, cultures, societies, and linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because i ...
." Although they have undergone extension and critique over time, the dimensions of organization introduced by Saussure continue to inform contemporary approaches to the phenomenon of
language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which humans communicate, and may be conveyed through a variety of met ...
. As
Leonard Bloomfield Leonard Bloomfield (April 1, 1887 – April 18, 1949) was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and the 1940s. He is considered to be the father of American distributionali ...
stated after reviewing the ''Cours'': "he has given us the theoretical basis for a science of human speech".


Biography

Saussure was born in
Geneva Geneva ( ; french: Genève ) frp, Genèva ; german: link=no, Genf ; it, Ginevra ; rm, Genevra is the List of cities in Switzerland, second-most populous city in Switzerland (after Zürich) and the most populous city of Romandy, the French-speaki ...
in 1857. His father, Henri Louis Frédéric de Saussure, was a mineralogist,
entomologist Entomology () is the science, scientific study of insects, a branch of zoology. In the past the term "insect" was less specific, and historically the definition of entomology would also include the study of animals in other arthropod groups, such ...
, and
taxonomist In biology, taxonomy () is the science, scientific study of naming, defining (Circumscription (taxonomy), circumscribing) and classifying groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics. Organisms are grouped into taxon, taxa (s ...
. Saussure showed signs of considerable talent and intellectual ability as early as the age of fourteen.Слюсарева, Наталья Александровна: ''Некоторые полузабытые страницы из истории языкознания – Ф. де Соссюр и У. Уитней.'' (Общее и романское языкознание: К 60-летию Р.А. Будагова). Москва 1972. In the autumn of 1870, he began attending the Institution Martine (previously the Institution Lecoultre until 1969), in Geneva. There he lived with the family of a classmate, Elie David. Graduating at the top of class, Saussure expected to continue his studies at the Gymnase de Genève, but his father decided he was not mature enough at fourteen and a half, and sent him to the Collège de Genève instead. Saussure was not pleased, as he complained: "I entered the Collège de Genève, to waste a year there as completely as a year can be wasted." After a year of studying
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
,
Ancient Greek Ancient Greek includes the forms of the Greek language used in ancient Greece and the classical antiquity, ancient world from around 1500 BC to 300 BC. It is often roughly divided into the following periods: Mycenaean Greek (), Greek Dark ...
and
Sanskrit Sanskrit (; attributively , ; nominalization, nominally , , ) is a classical language belonging to the Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. It arose in South Asia after its predecessor languages had Trans-cul ...
and taking a variety of courses at the
University of Geneva The University of Geneva (French: ''Université de Genève'') is a public university, public research university located in Geneva, Switzerland. It was founded in 1559 by John Calvin as a Theology, theological seminary. It remained focused on t ...
, he commenced graduate work at the
University of Leipzig Leipzig University (german: Universität Leipzig), in Leipzig in Saxony, Germany, is one of the world's oldest University, universities and the List of universities in Germany#Universities by years of existence, second-oldest university (by conse ...
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 the
University of Berlin Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (german: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, abbreviated HU Berlin) is a German public research university in the central borough of Mitte in Berlin Berlin ( , ) is the capital and largest city of Germany ...
under the '' Privatdozent''
Heinrich Zimmer Heinrich Robert Zimmer (6 December 1890 – 20 March 1943) was a German Indologist and linguist, as well as a historian of South Asian art, most known for his works, ''Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization'' and ''Philosophies of India ...
, with whom he studied Celtic, and
Hermann Oldenberg Hermann Oldenberg (31 October 1854 – 18 March 1920) was a German scholar of Indology, and Professor at Kiel (1898) and Göttingen (1908). Work Oldenberg was born in Hamburg. His 1881 study on Buddhism, entitled ''Buddha: Sein Leben, seine Lehr ...
with whom he continued his studies of Sanskrit. He returned to Leipzig to defend his doctoral dissertation ''De l'emploi du génitif absolu en Sanscrit'', and was awarded his doctorate in February 1880. Soon, he relocated to the
University of Paris , image_name = Coat of arms of the University of Paris.svg , image_size = 150px , caption = Coat of Arms , latin_name = Universitas magistrorum et scholarium Parisiensis , motto = ''Hic et ubique terrarum'' (Latin Latin (, or , ) is ...
, where he lectured on Sanskrit, Gothic and
Old High German Old High German (OHG; german: Althochdeutsch (Ahd.)) is the earliest stage of the German language, conventionally covering the period from around 750 to 1050. There is no standardised or supra-regional form of German at this period, and Old High ...
and occasionally other subjects. Ferdinand de Saussure is one of the world’s most quoted linguists, which is remarkable as he himself hardly published anything during his lifetime. Even his few scientific articles are not unproblematic. Thus, for example, his publication on Lithuanian phonetics is mostly taken from studies by the Lithuanian researcher Friedrich Kurschat, with whom Saussure traveled through Lithuania in August 1880 for two weeks and whose (German) books Saussure had read. Saussure, who had studied some basic grammar of Lithuanian in Leipzig for one semester but was unable to speak the language, was thus dependent on Kurschat. Saussure 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 The National Order of the Legion of Honour (french: Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur), formerly the Royal Order of the Legion of Honour ('), is the highest French order of merit The Order of Merit (french: link=no, Ordre du Mérite) ...
). When offered a professorship in Geneva in 1892, he returned to Switzerland. Saussure lectured on Sanskrit and Indo-European at the
University of Geneva The University of Geneva (French: ''Université de Genève'') is a public university, public research university located in Geneva, Switzerland. It was founded in 1559 by John Calvin as a Theology, theological seminary. It remained focused on t ...
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,
Vaud Vaud ( ; french: (Canton de) Vaud, ; german: (Kanton) Waadt, or ), more formally the canton of Vaud, is one of the Canton of Switzerland, 26 cantons forming the Switzerland, Swiss Confederation. It is composed of ten districts and its capital c ...
, Switzerland. His brothers were the linguist and Esperantist René de Saussure, and scholar of ancient Chinese astronomy, Léopold de Saussure. His son Raymond de Saussure was a psychoanalyst. Saussure attempted, at various times in the 1880s and 1890s, to write a book on general linguistic matters. His lectures about important principles of language description in Geneva between 1907 and 1911 were collected and published by his pupils posthumously in the famous '' Cours de linguistique générale'' in 1916. Work published in his lifetime includes two monographs and a few dozen of papers and notes, all of them collected in a volume of some 600 pages published in 1922. Saussure did not publish anything of his work on ancient poetics even if he had filled more than of a hundred notebooks. Jean Starobinski edited and presented material from them in the '70s and more has been published since then. Some of his manuscripts, including an unfinished essay discovered in 1996, were published in ''Writings in General Linguistics'', but most of the material in it had already been published in Engler's critical edition of the ''Course'', in 1967 and 1974. Today it is clear that ''Cours'' owes much to its so-called editors Charles Bally and Albert Sèchehaye and various details are difficult to track to Saussure himself or his manuscripts.


Work and influence

Saussure's theoretical reconstructions of the
Proto-Indo-European language Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. Its proposed features have been derived by linguistic reconstruction from documented Indo-European languages. No direct record of Proto-Indo ...
vocalic system and particularly his theory of laryngeals, otherwise unattested at the time, bore fruit and found confirmation after the decipherment of Hittite in the work of later generations of linguists such as Émile Benveniste and Walter Couvreur, who both drew direct inspiration from their reading of the 1878 ''Mémoire''. Saussure had a major impact on the development of linguistic theory in the first half of the 20th century with his notions becoming incorporated in the central tenets of
structural linguistics Structural linguistics, or structuralism, in linguistics, denotes schools or theories in which language is conceived as a self-contained, self-regulating Semiotics, semiotic system whose elements are defined by their relationship to other element ...
. His main contribution to structuralism was his theory of a two-tiered reality about language. The first is the ''langue'', the abstract and invisible layer, while the second, the ''parole'', refers to the actual speech that we hear in real life. This framework was later adopted by Claude Levi-Strauss, who used the two-tiered model to determine the reality of myths. His idea was that all myths have an underlying pattern, which form the structure that makes them myths. These established the structuralist framework to literary criticism. In Europe, the most important work after Saussure's death was done by the Prague school. Most notably, Nikolay Trubetzkoy and
Roman Jakobson Roman Osipovich Jakobson (russian: Рома́н О́сипович Якобсо́н; October 11, 1896Kucera, Henry. 1983. "Roman Jakobson." ''Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America'' 59(4): 871–883. – July 18,phonological theory in the decades from 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 Louis Trolle Hjelmslev (; 3 October 189930 May 1965) was a Denmark, Danish linguistics, linguist whose ideas formed the basis of the The Copenhagen school (Linguistics), Copenhagen School of linguistics. Born into an academic family (his father was ...
and the Copenhagen School proposed new interpretations of linguistics from structuralist theoretical frameworks. In America, where the term 'structuralism' became highly ambiguous, Saussure's ideas informed the distributionalism of
Leonard Bloomfield Leonard Bloomfield (April 1, 1887 – April 18, 1949) was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and the 1940s. He is considered to be the father of American distributionali ...
, but his influence remained limited. Systemic functional linguistics is a theory considered to be based firmly on the Saussurean principles of the sign, albeit with some modifications. Ruqaiya Hasan describes systemic functional linguistics as a 'post-Saussurean' linguistic theory. Michael Halliday argues:


''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 for the innovative approach that Saussure applied in discussing linguistic phenomena. Its central notion is that language may be analyzed as a
formal system A formal system is an abstract structure used for inferring theorems from axioms according to a set of rules. These rules, which are used for carrying out the inference of theorems from axioms, are the logical calculus of the formal system. A form ...
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 In semiotics, a sign is anything that communication, communicates a Meaning (semiotics), meaning that is not the sign itself to the interpreter of the sign. The meaning can be intentional, as when a word is uttered with a specific meaning, or uni ...
, which is composed of the signifier and the signified. Though the sign may also have a referent, Saussure took that to lie beyond the linguist's purview. Throughout the book, he stated that a linguist can develop a diachronic analysis of a text or theory of language but must learn just as much or more about the language/text as it exists at any moment in time (i.e. "synchronically"): "Language is a system of signs that expresses ideas". A science that studies the life of signs within society and is a part of social and general psychology. Saussure believed that semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign, and he called it semiology.


Laryngeal theory

While a student, Saussure published an important work about
Proto-Indo-European Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European language family. Its proposed features have been derived by linguistic reconstruction from documented Indo-European languages. No direct record of Proto-Indo-E ...
, which explained unusual forms of word roots in terms of lost phonemes he called ''sonant coefficients''. The Scandinavian scholar Hermann Möller suggested that they might actually be laryngeal consonants, leading to what is now known as the laryngeal theory. After Hittite texts were discovered and deciphered, Polish linguist Jerzy Kuryłowicz recognized that a Hittite consonant stood in the positions where Saussure had theorized a lost phoneme some 48 years earlier, confirming the theory. It has been argued that Saussure's work on this problem, systematizing the irregular word forms by hypothesizing then-unknown phonemes, stimulated his development of
structuralism In sociology Sociology is a social science that focuses on society, human social behavior, patterns of Interpersonal ties, social relationships, social interaction, and aspects of culture associated with everyday life. It uses various meth ...
.


Influence outside linguistics

The principles and methods employed by structuralism were later adapted in diverse fields by French intellectuals such as
Roland Barthes Roland Gérard Barthes (; ; 12 November 1915 – 26 March 1980) was a French people, French literary theory, literary theorist, essayist, philosopher, critic, and Semiotics, semiotician. His work engaged in the analysis of a variety of sign sys ...
,
Jacques Lacan Jacques Marie Émile Lacan (, , ; 13 April 1901 – 9 September 1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. Described as "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Sigmund Freud, Freud", Lacan gave The Seminars of Jacques Lacan, yearl ...
,
Jacques Derrida Jacques Derrida (; ; born Jackie Élie Derrida; See also . 15 July 1930 – 9 October 2004) was an Algerian-born French philosopher. He developed the philosophy of deconstruction, which he utilized in numerous texts, and which was developed th ...
,
Michel Foucault Paul-Michel Foucault (, ; ; 15 October 192625 June 1984) was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, writer, political activist, and literary critic. Foucault's theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and h ...
and
Claude Lévi-Strauss Claude Lévi-Strauss (, ; 28 November 1908 – 30 October 2009) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theories of structuralism and structural anthropology. He held the chair of Social An ...
. Such scholars took influence from Saussure's ideas in their own areas of study (literary studies/philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, respectively).


View of language

Saussure approaches
theory of language Theory of language is a topic from Philosophy of language#Nature of language, philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics. It has the goal of answering the questions "What is language?"; "Why do languages have the properties they have?"; or ...
from two different perspectives. On the one hand, language is a system of signs. That is, a semiotic system; or a semiological system as he himself calls it. On the other hand, a language is also a social phenomenon: a product of the language community.


Language as semiology


The bilateral sign

One of Saussure's key contributions to semiotics lies in what he called ''semiology'', the concept of the bilateral (two-sided) sign which consists of 'the signifier' (a linguistic form, e.g. a word) and 'the signified' (the meaning of the form). Saussure supported the argument for the arbitrariness of the sign although he did not deny the fact that some words are
onomatopoeic Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word that phonetics, phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Such a word itself is also called an onomatopoeia. Common onomatopoeias include animal noises such as Oin ...
, or claim that picture-like symbols are fully arbitrary. Saussure also did not consider the linguistic sign as random, but as historically cemented. All in all, he did not invent the philosophy of arbitrariness, but made a very influential contribution to it. The arbitrariness of words of different languages itself is a fundamental concept in Western thinking of language, dating back to Ancient Greek philosophers. The question whether words are natural or arbitrary (and artificially made by people) returned as a controversial topic during the
Age of Enlightenment The Age of Enlightenment or the Enlightenment; german: Aufklärung, "Enlightenment"; it, L'Illuminismo, "Enlightenment"; pl, Oświecenie, "Enlightenment"; pt, Iluminismo, "Enlightenment"; es, La Ilustración, "Enlightenment" was an intel ...
when the medieval scholastic dogma, that languages were created by God, became opposed by the advocates of humanistic philosophy. There were efforts to construct a 'universal language', based on the lost
Adamic language The Adamic language, according to Jews, Jewish tradition (as recorded in the ''midrashim'') and some Christians, is the language spoken by Adam (and possibly Eve) in the Garden of Eden. It is variously interpreted as either the language used by ...
, with various attempts to uncover universal words or characters which would be readily understood by all people regardless of their nationality.
John Locke John Locke (; 29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Age of Enlightenment, Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "father of liberalism ...
, on the other hand, was among those who believed that languages were a rational human innovation, and argued for the arbitrariness of words. Saussure took it for granted in his time that "No one disputes the principle of the arbitrary nature of the sign." He however disagreed with the common notion that each word corresponds "to the thing that it names" or what is called the
referent A referent () is a person or thing to which a name – a linguistics, linguistic Phrase, expression or other symbol – reference, refers. For example, in the sentence ''Mary saw me'', the referent of the word ''Mary'' is the particular person call ...
in modern semiotics. For example, in Saussure's notion, the word 'tree' does not refer to a tree as a physical object, but to the psychological ''concept'' of a tree. The linguistic sign thus arises from the psychological ''association'' between the signifier (a 'sound-image') and the signified (a 'concept'). There can therefore be no linguistic expression without meaning, but also no meaning without linguistic expression. Saussure's structuralism, as it later became called, therefore includes an implication of
linguistic relativity The hypothesis of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis , the Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view, worldview or cognition, and ...
. However, Saussure's own view has been described instead as a form of semantic holism that acknowledged that the interconnection between terms in a language was not fully arbitrary and only methodologically bracketed the relationship between linguistic terms and the physical world. The naming of spectral colours exemplifies how meaning and expression arise simultaneously from their interlinkage. Different colour frequencies are per se meaningless, or mere ''substance'' or meaning potential. Likewise,
phonemic In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
combinations which are not associated with any content are only meaningless expression potential, and therefore not considered as ''signs''. It is only when a region of the spectrum is outlined and given an arbitrary name, for example 'blue', that the sign emerges. The sign consists of the ''signifier'' ('blue') and of the ''signified'' (the colour region), and of the associative link which connects them. Arising from an arbitrary demarcation of meaning potential, the signified is not a property of the physical world. In Saussure's concept, language is ultimately not a function of reality, but a self-contained system. Thus, Saussure's semiology entails a bilateral (two-sided) perspective of semiotics. The same idea is applied to any concept. For example, natural law does not dictate which plants are 'trees' and which are 'shrubs' or a different type of
woody plant A woody plant is a plant that produces wood as its structural tissue and thus has a hard stem. In cold climates, woody plants further survive winter or dry season above ground, as opposite to Herbaceous plant, herbaceous plants that die back to t ...
; or whether these should be divided into further groups. Like blue, all signs gain semantic ''value'' in opposition to other signs of the system (e.g. red, colourless). If more signs emerge (e.g. 'marine blue'), the
semantic field In linguistics, a semantic field is a lexical set of words grouped semantics, semantically (by Semantics, meaning) that refers to a specific subject.Howard Jackson, Etienne Zé Amvela, ''Words, Meaning, and Vocabulary'', Continuum, 2000, p14. The ...
of the original word may narrow down. Conversely, words may become antiquated, whereby competition for the semantic field lessens. Or, the meaning of a word may change altogether. After his death, structural and functional linguists applied Saussure's concept to the analysis of the linguistic form as motivated by meaning. The opposite direction of the linguistic expressions as giving rise to the conceptual system, on the other hand, became the foundation of the post-Second World War structuralists who adopted Saussure's concept of structural linguistics as the model for all human sciences as the study of how language shapes our concepts of the world. Thus, Saussure's model became important not only for linguistics, but for
humanities Humanities are List of academic disciplines, academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture. In the Renaissance, the term contrasted with Divinity (academic discipline), divinity and referred to what is now called classi ...
and
social sciences Social science is one of the branches of science, devoted to the study of society, societies and the Social relation, relationships among individuals within those societies. The term was formerly used to refer to the field of sociology, the o ...
as a whole.


Opposition theory

A second key contribution comes from Saussure's notion of the organisation of language based on the principle of opposition. Saussure made a distinction between meaning (significance) and ''value''. On the semantic side, concepts gain value by being contrasted with related concepts, creating a conceptual system which could in modern terms be described as a
semantic network A semantic network, or frame network is a knowledge base that represents Semantics, semantic relations between concepts in a network. This is often used as a form of Knowledge representation and reasoning, knowledge representation. It is a dir ...
. On the level of the sound-image, phonemes and morphemes gain value by being contrasted with related phonemes and morphemes; and on the level of the grammar, parts of speech gain value by being contrasted with each other. Each element within each system is eventually contrasted with all other elements in different types of relations so that no two elements have the exact same value: :"Within the same language, all words used to express related ideas limit each other reciprocally; synonyms like French ''redouter'' 'dread', ''craindre'' 'fear,' and ''avoir peur'' 'be afraid' have value only through their opposition: if ''redouter'' did not exist, all its content would go to its competitors." Saussure defined his own theory in terms of binary oppositions: ''sign—signified, meaning—value, language—speech, synchronic—diachronic, internal linguistics—external linguistics'', and so on. The related term markedness denotes the assessment of value between binary oppositions. These were studied extensively by post-war structuralists such as
Claude Lévi-Strauss Claude Lévi-Strauss (, ; 28 November 1908 – 30 October 2009) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theories of structuralism and structural anthropology. He held the chair of Social An ...
to explain the organisation of social conceptualisation, and later by the post-structuralists to criticise it. Cognitive semantics also diverges from Saussure on this point, emphasizing the importance of similarity in defining categories in the mind as well as opposition. Based on markedness theory, the Prague Linguistic Circle made great advances in the study of
phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise analysis of all aspects of language, parti ...
reforming it as the systemic study of
phonology Phonology is the branch of linguistics that studies how languages or dialects systematically organize their sounds or, for sign languages, their constituent parts of signs. The term can also refer specifically to the sound or sign system of a ...
. Although the terms opposition and markedness are rightly associated with Saussure's concept of language as a semiological system, he did not invent the terms and concepts which had been discussed by various 19th century grammarians before him.


Language as a social phenomenon

In his treatment of language as a 'social fact', Saussure touches topics that were controversial in his time, and that would continue to split opinions in the post-war structuralist movement. Saussure's relationship with 19th century theories of language was somewhat ambivalent. These included social Darwinism and Völkerpsychologie or
Volksgeist ''Geist'' () is a German language, German noun with a significant degree of importance in German philosophy. Its semantic field corresponds to English ghost, spirit, mind, intellect. Some English translators resort to using "spirit/mind" or "spi ...
thinking which were regarded by many intellectuals as nationalist and racist
pseudoscience Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that claim to be both scientific and factual but are incompatible with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or falsifiability, unfa ...
. Saussure, however, considered the ideas useful if treated in a proper way. Instead of discarding August Schleicher's organicism or
Heymann Steinthal Heymann or Hermann Steinthal (16 May 1823 – 14 March 1899) was a German philologist and philosopher. He studied philology and philosophy at the Humboldt University of Berlin, University of Berlin, and was in 1850 appointed ''Privatdozent'' of ...
's "spirit of the nation", he restricted their sphere in ways that were meant to preclude any chauvinistic interpretations. Organic analogy Saussure exploited the sociobiological concept of language as a living organism. He criticises August Schleicher and Max Müller's ideas of languages as organisms struggling for living space, but settles with promoting the idea of linguistics as a natural science as long as the study of the 'organism' of language excludes its adaptation to its territory. This concept would be modified in post-Saussurean linguistics by the Prague circle linguists
Roman Jakobson Roman Osipovich Jakobson (russian: Рома́н О́сипович Якобсо́н; October 11, 1896Kucera, Henry. 1983. "Roman Jakobson." ''Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America'' 59(4): 871–883. – July 18,Nikolai Trubetzkoy Prince Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy ( rus, Никола́й Серге́евич Трубецко́й, p=trʊbʲɪtsˈkoj; 16 April 1890 – 25 June 1938) was a Russian linguistics, linguist and historian whose teachings formed a nucleus of the ...
, and eventually diminished.


The speech circuit

Perhaps the most famous of Saussure's ideas is the distinction between language and speech ( Fr. ''langue et parole''), with 'speech' referring to the individual occurrences of language usage. These constitute two parts of three of Saussure's 'speech circuit' (''circuit de parole''). The third part is the brain, that is, the mind of the individual member of the language community. This idea is in principle borrowed from Steinthal, so Saussure concept of a language as a social fact corresponds to "Volksgeist", although he was careful to preclude any nationalistic interpretations. In Saussure's and Durkheim's thinking, social facts and norms do not elevate the individuals, but shackle them. Saussure's definition of language is statistical rather than idealised. ::"Among all the individuals that are linked together by speech, some sort of average will be set up : all will reproduce — not exactly of course, but approximately — the same signs united with the same concepts." Saussure argues that language is a 'social fact'; a conventionalised set of rules or norms relating to speech. When at least two people are engaged in conversation, there forms a communicative circuit between the minds of the individual speakers. Saussure explains that language, as a social system, is neither situated in ''speech'' nor in the mind. It only properly exists between the two within the loop. It is located in – and is the product of – the collective mind of the linguistic group. An individual has to learn the normative rules of language and can never control them. The task of the linguist is to study language by analysing samples of speech. For practical reasons, this is ordinarily the analysis of written texts. The idea that language is studied through texts is by no means revolutionary as it had been the common practice since the beginning of linguistics. Saussure does not advise against introspection and takes up many linguistic examples without reference to a source in a
text corpus In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise analysis of all aspects of language, particularly its nature and ...
. The idea that linguistics is not the study of the mind, however, contradicts
Wilhelm Wundt Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (; ; 16 August 1832 – 31 August 1920) was a German physiologist, philosopher, and professor, known today as one of the fathers of modern psychology. Wundt, who distinguished psychology as a science from philosophy and ...
's Völkerpsychologie in Saussure's contemporary context; and in a later context,
generative grammar Generative grammar, or generativism , is a Theoretical linguistics, linguistic theory that regards linguistics as the study of a hypothesised linguistic nativism, innate grammatical structure. It is a Biology, biological or Biologism, biologist ...
and
cognitive linguistics Cognitive linguistics is an interdisciplinary branch of linguistics, combining knowledge and research from cognitive science, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology and linguistics. Models and theoretical accounts of cognitive linguistics are cons ...
.


A legacy of ideological disputes


Structuralism versus generative grammar

Saussure's influence was restricted in American linguistics which was dominated by the advocates of
Wilhelm Wundt Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (; ; 16 August 1832 – 31 August 1920) was a German physiologist, philosopher, and professor, known today as one of the fathers of modern psychology. Wundt, who distinguished psychology as a science from philosophy and ...
's psychological approach to language, especially
Leonard Bloomfield Leonard Bloomfield (April 1, 1887 – April 18, 1949) was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and the 1940s. He is considered to be the father of American distributionali ...
(1887–1949). The Bloomfieldian school rejected Saussure's and other structuralists' sociological or even anti-psychological (e.g.
Louis Hjelmslev Louis Trolle Hjelmslev (; 3 October 189930 May 1965) was a Denmark, Danish linguistics, linguist whose ideas formed the basis of the The Copenhagen school (Linguistics), Copenhagen School of linguistics. Born into an academic family (his father was ...
,
Lucien Tesnière Lucien Tesnière (; May 13, 1893 – December 6, 1954) was a prominent and influential French people, French linguistics, linguist. He was born in Mont-Saint-Aignan on May 13, 1893. As a maître de conférences (senior lecturer) in University ...
) approaches to
theory of language Theory of language is a topic from Philosophy of language#Nature of language, philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics. It has the goal of answering the questions "What is language?"; "Why do languages have the properties they have?"; or ...
. Problematically, the post-Bloomfieldian school was nicknamed 'American structuralism', causing confusion. Although Bloomfield denounced Wundt's Völkerpsychologie and opted for behavioural psychology in his 1933 textbook ''Language'', he and other American linguists stuck to Wundt's practice of analysing the grammatical object as part of the
verb phrase In linguistics, a verb phrase (VP) is a syntax, syntactic unit composed of a verb and its argument (linguistics), arguments except the subject (grammar), subject of an independent clause or coordinate clause. Thus, in the sentence ''A fat man quic ...
. Since this practice is not semantically motivated, they argued for the disconnectedness of syntax from semantics, thus fully rejecting structuralism. The question remained why the object should be in the verb phrase, vexing American linguists for decades. The post-Bloomfieldian approach was eventually reformed as a sociobiological framework by
Noam Chomsky Avram Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is an American public intellectual: a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes called "the father of modern linguistics", Chomsky is ...
who argued that linguistics is a cognitive science; and claimed that linguistic structures are the manifestation of a random
mutation In biology, a mutation is an alteration in the nucleic acid sequence of the genome of an organism, virus, or extrachromosomal DNA. Viral genomes contain either DNA or RNA. Mutations result from errors during DNA replication, DNA or viral repl ...
in the human
genome In the fields of molecular biology and genetics, a genome is all the genetic information of an organism. It consists of nucleotide sequences of DNA (or RNA in RNA viruses). The nuclear genome includes protein-coding genes and non-coding gene ...
. Advocates of the new school,
generative grammar Generative grammar, or generativism , is a Theoretical linguistics, linguistic theory that regards linguistics as the study of a hypothesised linguistic nativism, innate grammatical structure. It is a Biology, biological or Biologism, biologist ...
, claim that Saussure's structuralism has been reformed and replaced by Chomsky's modern approach to linguistics. Jan Koster asserts: ::it is certainly the case that Saussure, considered the most important linguist of the century in Europe until the 1950s, hardly plays a role in current theoretical thinking about language. As a result of the Chomskyan revolution, linguistics has gone through a number of conceptual transformations which have led to all kinds of technical pre-occupations that are far beyond linguistic practice of the days of Saussure. For the most it seems Saussure has rightly sunk into near oblivion.Koster, Jan. 1996. "Saussure meets the brain", in R. Jonkers, E. Kaan, J. K. Wiegel, eds., Language and Cognition 5. Yearbook 1992 of the Research Group for Linguistic Theory and Knowledge Representation of the University of Groningen, Groningen, pp. 115–12
PDF
/ref> French historian and philosopher François Dosse however argues that there have been various misunderstandings. He points out that Chomsky's criticism of 'structuralism' is directed at the Bloomfieldian school and not the proper address of the term; and that structural linguistics is not to be reduced to mere sentence analysis. It is also argued that ::"‘Chomsky the Saussurean’ is nothing but “an academic fable”. This fable is a result of misreading – by Chomsky himself (1964) and also by others – of Saussure’s ''la langue'' (in the singular form) as generativist concept of ‘competence’ and, therefore, its grammar as the Universal Grammar (UG)."


Saussure versus the social Darwinists

Saussure's ''Course in General Linguistics'' begins and ends with a criticism of 19th century linguistics where he is especially critical of Volkgeist thinking and the evolutionary linguistics of
August Schleicher August Schleicher (; 19 February 1821 – 6 December 1868) was a German linguistics, linguist. His great work was ''A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages'' in which he attempted to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-Eur ...
and his colleagues. Saussure's ideas replaced social Darwinism in Europe as it was banished from
humanities Humanities are List of academic disciplines, academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture. In the Renaissance, the term contrasted with Divinity (academic discipline), divinity and referred to what is now called classi ...
at the end of World War II. The publication of
Richard Dawkins Richard Dawkins (born 26 March 1941) is a British evolutionary biology, evolutionary biologist and author. He is an Oxford fellow, emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford and was Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Prof ...
's
memetics Memetics is a study of information and culture. While memetics originated as an analogy with Darwinian evolution, digital communication, media, and sociology scholars have also adopted the term "memetics" to describe an established empirical study ...
in 1976 brought the Darwinian idea of linguistic units as cultural replicators back to vogue. It became necessary for adherents of this movement to redefine linguistics in a way that would be simultaneously anti-Saussurean and anti-Chomskyan. This led to a redefinition of old humanistic terms such as structuralism, formalism, functionalism and constructionism along Darwinian lines through debates which were marked by an acrimonious tone. In a functionalism–formalism debate of the decades following ''
The Selfish Gene ''The Selfish Gene'' is a 1976 book on evolution by the ethologist Richard Dawkins, in which the author builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams (biologist), George C. Williams's ''Adaptation and Natural Selection'' (1966). Dawk ...
'', the ' functionalism' camp attacking Saussure's legacy includes frameworks such as
Cognitive Linguistics Cognitive linguistics is an interdisciplinary branch of linguistics, combining knowledge and research from cognitive science, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology and linguistics. Models and theoretical accounts of cognitive linguistics are cons ...
,
Construction Grammar Construction grammar (often abbreviated CxG) is a family of theories within the field of cognitive linguistics which posit that constructions, or learned pairings of linguistic patterns with meanings, are the fundamental building blocks of human ...
, Usage-based linguistics and Emergent Linguistics. Arguing for 'functional-typological theory', William Croft criticises Saussure's use or the organic analogy: ::When comparing functional-typological theory to biological theory, one must take care to avoid a caricature of the latter. In particular, in comparing the structure of language to an ecosystem, one must not assume that in contemporary biological theory, it is believed that an organism possesses a perfect adaptation to a stable niche inside an ecosystem in equilibrium. The analogy of a language as a perfectly adapted 'organic' system where ''tout se tient'' is a characteristic of the structuralist approach, and was prominent in early structuralist writing. The static view of adaptation in biology is not tenable in the face of empirical evidence of nonadaptive variation and competing adaptive motivations of organisms. Structural linguist Henning Andersen disagrees with Croft. He criticises memetics and other models of cultural evolution and points out that the concept of 'adaptation' is not to be taken in linguistics in the same meaning as in biology. Humanistic and structuralistic notions are likewise defended by Esa Itkonen and Jacques François; the Saussurean standpoint is explained and defended by Tomáš Hoskovec, representing the
Prague Linguistic Circle The Prague school or Prague linguistic circle is a language and literature society. It started in 1926 as a group of linguistics, linguists, philology, philologists and literary critics in Prague. Its proponents developed methods of semiotic lit ...
. Conversely, other cognitive linguists claim to continue and expand Saussure's work on the bilateral sign. Dutch philologist Elise Elffers, however, argues that their view of the subject is incompatible with Saussure's own ideas. The term 'structuralism' continues to be used in structural– functional linguistics which despite the contrary claims defines itself as a humanistic approach to language.


Works

* (1878) ''Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes'' Dissertation on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages Leipzig: Teubner.
online version
in Gallica Program, Bibliothèque nationale de France). * (1881) ''De l'emploi du génitif absolu en Sanscrit: Thèse pour le doctorat présentée à la Faculté de Philosophie de l'Université de Leipzig'' On the Use of the Genitive Absolute in Sanskrit: Doctoral thesis presented to the Philosophy Department of Leipzig University Geneva: Jules-Guillamaume Fick.
online version
on the
Internet Archive The Internet Archive is an American digital library with the stated mission of "universal access to all knowledge". It provides free public access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, software applications/games, music, ...
). * (1916) '' Cours de linguistique générale'', eds. Charles Bally & Alert Sechehaye, with the assistance of Albert Riedlinger. Lausanne – Paris: Payot. ** 1st trans.: Wade Baskin, trans. ''Course in General Linguistics''. New York: The Philosophical Society, 1959; subsequently edited by Perry Meisel & Haun Saussy, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011. ** 2nd trans.: Roy Harris, trans. ''Course in General Linguistics''. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1983. * (1922) ''Recueil des publications scientifiques de F. de Saussure''. Eds. Charles Bally & Léopold Gautier. Lausanne – Geneva: Payot. * (1993) ''Saussure’s Third Course of Lectures in General Linguistics (1910–1911) from the Notebooks of Emile Constantin''. (Language and Communication series, vol. 12). French text edited by Eisuke Komatsu & trans. by Roy Harris. Oxford: Pergamon Press. * (1995) ''Phonétique: Il manoscritto di Harvard Houghton Library bMS Fr 266 (8)''. Ed. Maria Pia Marchese. Padova: Unipress, 1995. * (2002) ''Écrits de linguistique générale''. Eds. Simon Bouquet & Rudolf Engler. Paris: Gallimard. . ** Trans.: Carol Sanders & Matthew Pires, trans. ''Writings in General Linguistics''. NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. ** This volume, which consists mostly of material previously published by Rudolf 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. * (2013) ''Anagrammes homériques''. Ed. Pierre-Yves Testenoire. Limoges: Lambert Lucas. * (2014) ''Une vie en lettres 1866 – 1913''. Ed. Claudia Mejía Quijano. ed. Nouvelles Cécile Defaut.


See also

*
Theory of language Theory of language is a topic from Philosophy of language#Nature of language, philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics. It has the goal of answering the questions "What is language?"; "Why do languages have the properties they have?"; or ...
* Geneva School * Jan Baudouin de Courtenay


Notes


References


Sources

* Culler, J. (1976). ''Saussure''. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins. * Ducrot, O. and Todorov, T. (1981). ''Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language'', trans. C. Porter. Oxford: Blackwell. * Harris, R. (1987). ''Reading Saussure''. London: Duckworth. * Holdcroft, D. (1991). ''Saussure: Signs, System, and Arbitrariness''.
Cambridge University Press Cambridge University Press is the university press of the University of Cambridge. Granted letters patent by Henry VIII of England, King Henry VIII in 1534, it is the oldest university press in the world. It is also the King's Printer. Cambr ...
. * Веселинов, Д. (2008). ''Българските студенти на Фердинанд дьо Сосюр (The bulgarian students of Ferdinand de Saussure)''. Университетско издателство "Св. Климент Охридски" (Sofia University Press). * Joseph, J. E. (2012). ''Saussure''. Oxford University Press. * * Wittmann, Henri (1974). "New tools for the study of Saussure's contribution to linguistic thought." ''Historiographia Linguistica'' 1.255-64

* Ekaterina Velmezova, Velmezova Е., Fadda E. (eds.) ''Ferdinand de Saussure today: semiotics, history, epistemology'' (Sign Systems Studies, 50 1, Tartu University Press). https://ojs.utlib.ee/index.php/sss/issue/view/SSS.2022.50.1


External links

* *
''The poet who could smell vowels''
an article in The Times Literary Supplement by John E. Joseph, 14 November 2007.
Original texts and resources
published by ''Texto'', .
Hearing Heidegger and Saussure
by Elmer G. Wines.
Cercle Ferdinand de Saussure
Swiss society devoted to Saussurean studies. {{DEFAULTSORT:Saussure, Ferdinand De 1857 births 1913 deaths 19th-century essayists 19th-century linguists 19th-century Swiss philosophers 19th-century Swiss writers 20th-century essayists 20th-century linguists 20th-century Swiss non-fiction writers 20th-century Swiss philosophers Balticists Ferdinand Leipzig University alumni Linguistic turn Linguists from Switzerland Linguists of Indo-European languages Writers from Geneva Philosophers of culture Philosophers of language Philosophers of linguistics Philosophers of psychology Semioticians Structuralists Swiss essayists Swiss male writers Swiss non-fiction writers Swiss philosophers University of Geneva alumni