Article abstract: Primarily through a book written by colleagues after his death, Saussure established the foundations of twentieth century linguistics. His focus on the systematic structure of language is the fundamental principle of structuralism in linguistics, anthropology, and literary criticism, and he provided the theoretical basis of semiology—the study of signs.
When Ferdinand de Saussure was enrolled in chemistry and physics courses at the University of Geneva in 1875, he was following a tradition long established on his father’s side of the family. Ferdinand’s great-grandfather was Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a famous scientist; his grandfather was professor of geology and mineralogy; and his father, Henri, had a doctorate in geology. Ferdinand, too, was to become a scientist, but it was the science of linguistics that captured his attention at an early age.
Adolf Pictet, a friend of the family, and Count Alexandre-Joseph de Pourtalès, Ferdinand’s maternal grandfather, encouraged the young boy to study languages. By the age of twelve, Ferdinand had read chapters of Pictet’s book on linguistic paleontology. He knew French, German, English, and Latin, and he began Greek at the age of thirteen. The year before entering the university, the young Saussure, on Pictet’s advice, studied Sanskrit from a book by the German scholar Franz Bopp.
Saussure’s career in physics and chemistry lasted for only two semesters. During that time, he continued his studies of Greek and Latin and joined the Linguistic Society of Paris. By autumn 1876, he had transferred to the University of Leipzig in Germany. For the next four semesters, Saussure attended courses in comparative grammar, history of the German language, Sanskrit, Greek, Old Persian, Celtic, Slavic languages, and Lithuanian. His teachers were the leading figures of the time in historical and comparative linguistics, including, among the younger generation, the “Neogrammarians,” scholars of Indo-European who established the famous principle that sound changes in the historical development of languages operate without exception.
In the Leipzig environment of August Leskien, Hermann Osthoff, and Karl Brugmann, Saussure wrote extensively, publishing several papers through the Linguistic Society of Paris. At age twenty-one, in 1878, he produced the monograph that was to be the most famous work of his lifetime, Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879; memoir on the original system of the vowels in the Indo-European languages). When it appeared, he was in Berlin studying Sanskrit. Returning to Leipzig in 1880, he received his doctoral degree with honors.
Saussure’s Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes was a daring reconstruction of an aspect of proto-Indo-European which was met in Germany with little understanding, even with hostility. Yet the work was very well received in France; in the fall of 1880, Saussure moved to Paris. He attended courses in classical languages, lectures by the leading French linguist Michel Bréal, and meetings of the Linguistic Society of Paris. The next year, on October 30, 1881, with Bréal’s strong support, he was unanimously named lecturer in Gothic and Old High German at the École des Hautes Études. His lifelong career as a teacher began a week later.
Saussure’s courses dealt primarily with comparative grammar of the Germanic languages, but he was highly critical of the earlier nineteenth century German tradition in such studies. Comparison of individual words in different languages or over time within one language seemed to him haphazard, unfruitful, and unscientific. In his Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes, he had used the notion of a language as a structured system in which all forms are interrelated, and this fundamental concept had led him to hypothesize forms in Indo-European that had disappeared in the languages for which there were historical records. It was a half century after the publication of the Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes that evidence was discovered in Hittite proving him correct.
At the École des Hautes Études, Saussure’s courses attracted substantial numbers of students, and, with Bréal, he set the foundation for comparative grammar in France. He taught Sanskrit, Latin, and Lithuanian as well, and some of his students and disciples became the most prominent French linguists of the early twentieth century. One of these, Antoine Meillet, was later to emphasize the intellectual excitement and commitment generated by Saussure in his classes. So engrossed was Saussure in his teaching during the Paris years that his publications became increasingly infrequent, but he was greatly admired, and when he left the École des Hautes Études for a position at the University of Geneva in the winter of 1891, his French colleagues nominated him for the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
At Geneva, too, students and colleagues were devoted to Saussure and committed to his teachings. Were it not for this dedication, there would be...
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