Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Ferdinand de Saussure has been widely acclaimed as the father of modern linguistics. That may seem surprising to those marginally aware that his publications total only six hundred pages—and that the work responsible for his renown was not published by him but by his students. Following his death in 1913, several of his students (led by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye) undertook to publish his insightful contributions to the field of linguistics. To their surprise, they found that the master had destroyed the drafts of lecture notes he had compiled for the three times he had taught the course between 1906 and 1911. Thus, their project became immeasurably more difficult, as they had to depend upon a compilation of notes provided by former students. Course in General Linguistics is the result of their unflagging effort in collating, synthesizing, and critically reconstructing the careful thought of their teacher.

Considerable deliberation went into the question of how the book should be constructed. No two of the three renderings of Saussure’s series of lectures had been essentially the same. Hence, the natural question was raised about limiting the presentation to one of the series—but which one? Unable to achieve unanimity on that question, they finally agreed to attempt a complete accounting of the theories and methods of Saussure. Since the third course (1910-1911) was the most definitive of the three, they chose it as the starting point and used the other two courses to supplement it. The result of this process was, they thought, the presentation of a master’s total schema, which would certainly have been distorted by a fragmentary approach.

Given the fact that Saussure himself had made no pretense to covering every aspect of linguistics, his...

(The entire section is 734 words.)