Course in General Linguistics

by Ferdinand de Saussure

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 262

Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics marked a turning point in the history of linguistic pursuit. The importance of this work, however, does not rest only in its contribution to the field of linguistics proper. Indeed, the insights contained therein have provided the premises upon which semiotics and structuralism have proceeded. The book has fueled anthropological pursuits through Claude Levi-Strauss’ Anthropologie structurale (1958; Structural Anthropology, 1963). It has given rise to much fresh work in literary criticism, the proponents of its tools being far too numerous to mention. One cultural and literary critic who deserves mention in this regard, however, is Roland Barthes. His Mythologies (1957; English translation, 1972) bears the indelible mark of Saussurean categories. Furthermore, the fact that Barthes actually bridges structuralism and poststructuralism makes him a preeminent figure with reference to these concepts, many poststructuralists being adherents of Saussure as well.

Saussure redirected the work of linguistics. The breakthroughs resulting from the distribution of his principles tend to confirm that the Course in General Linguistics provided a paradigm shift, to borrow Thomas Kuhn’s terminology. Saussure outlined the linguist’s task as the analyzing of a language as a system of units and relations. The linguist must define the units of a language, determine the relations between them, and acknowledge the conventions and rules of their combination. The reason that these principles have proved so dynamic in disciplines other than linguistics is obvious in that sign systems are integral to every aspect of human endeavor. Thus, disciplinary provincialism may have suffered a mortal blow at the hands of Ferdinand de Saussure.

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