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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure was in many ways a reaction against the tradition of earlier branches of philology and historical linguistics which were focused primarily on the development of languages over time. The reasons for this were threefold:

  1. Classical philology as a discipline developed around the study of Greek and Latin.
  2. One primary focus of linguists in the nineteenth century (in the west) had been critical studies of the Bible, involving, inter alia, the attempt to reconstruct an Adamic language.
  3. The British colonization of England led to the development of the Indo-European hypothesis, and many linguistics focused on trying to understand the family tree of the Indo-European languages.

This historical study is called "diachronic". Saussure argued that it was also possible to study language synchronically, in terms of how language function as a system at a single moment in time and space, rather than comparatively or diachronically. 

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, developed the idea of synchrony, which refers to the study of language as a system at one point in time. A synchronic approach to studying language involves looking at it at one moment in time without considering its history. Saussure regarded language as a system of signs in which one sign changes relative to other signs. For example, British English and Indian English have a synchronic relationship. In contrast, a diachronic approach to studying language involves looking at the evolution of language over time and throughout history. For example, fifteenth-century English and modern English have a diachronic relationship. Saussure sought to develop a more synchronic analysis of language instead of only looking at the ways language has changed over time.