Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

Swiss linguist whose ideas on structure in language laid the foundation for the structuralist school in linguistics and social theory. The whole line from Jakobson to Lévi-Strauss to Althusser to Foucault and Derrida trace their ideas back to Saussure’s simple idea that the meaning of a word is to be understood through its relation to other words, as opposed to the positivist line of research dominant in his day, which sought to understand language through analysis of sounds and their impact on the nervous system.

While still a student, Saussure established his reputation with a brilliant contribution to comparative linguistics, Memoir on the Original System of Vowels in the Indo-European Languages. In it, he explained how vowel alternations in Indo-European languages take place. Though he wrote no other book, he was enormously influential as a teacher, lecturing at the École des Hautes Études in Paris from 1881 to 1891 and as professor of Indo-European linguistics and Sanskrit (1901-13) and of general linguistics (1907-13) at the University of Geneva. His name is best known, however, for the Course in General Linguistics, a reconstruction of his lecture notes and other materials by two of his students.

While viewing language as a social rather than a biological phenomenon, he saw language as a structured system that can be viewed synchronically and diachronically (i.e., historically) but he insisted that the methodology of each approach is distinct and mutually exclusive. His own work focussed on the synchronic relations, i.e., the structure created by like and differing signs, or signifiers, taken as a distinct structure, formally unrelated to any structure inherent in that which is signified. He also introduced two terms that have become common currency in linguistics – “parole,” the speech of the individual person, and “langue,” the systematic, structured language (such as English) existing at a given time within a given society. These are ideas are usually regarded as starting point of Structuralism in Linguistics.


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