Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure

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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 students/editors followed suit. Nor did they attribute the same relative weight to every area that was examined. Instead, they sought to explicate through foundational principles and examples those fundamentals which served to weave together the fabric of his thought’s design. For this reason, certain areas—for example, semantics—do not receive broad treatment. Yet such “omissions” should be acknowledged in the light of their relative importance to the project as a whole, while at the same time granting a healthy sense of respect to the editors, given the constraints within which they were working.

Jonathan Culler, in his work on Saussure, has shown something of the scope of influence embodied by the Course in General Linguistics, and in turn he has emphasized Saussure’s primary concern. Culler states:Someone who knows Saussure only by reputation, as the founder of modern linguistics, promoter of a new conception of language, and inspiration for anthropologists and literary critics, might expect to find the Course in General Linguistics a book full of broad generalizations, portentous observations about the nature of language and mind, elaborate and eloquent theories about social and communicative behavior. What strikes one most forcibly in the Course is Saussure’s active and scrupulous concern for the foundations of his subject.

The introduction attempts to survey the history of linguistics and linguistic concerns. This section sets the context within which assumptions may be challenged and alternative concerns may be addressed. In part 1, general principles are presented. These principles, related to the sign, signifier, and signified, are viewed in terms of speech communities at a point in time, as well as their changes within a language system through time. Parts 2 and 3 go into much greater depth in constructing a view of synchronic and diachronic linguistics. The synchronic viewpoint provides the linguist with a view of the linguistic system in a particular state. It has no reference to time and includes things characteristically thought of as “general grammar.” The diachronic study of language, on the other hand, is the study of the evolution of language in...

(The entire section is 2,832 words.)