Ferdinand de Saussure

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 little more to say about Saussure. He married Marie Faesch; they had two sons. He entirely ceased to publish, rarely traveled, and attended only a few local scholarly meetings. From 1891 until 1899, he taught primarily comparative grammar and Sanskrit, adding a course on French verse in 1899; once in 1904, he taught a course on German legends.

Between 1906 and 1909, he conducted research on a topic that some scholars have called “esoteric”; others, more direct, labeled it “strange.” Saussure believed that he had found “hidden texts” within Latin verse—deliberately concealed proper names, relevant to the meaning and repeated throughout the poems, whose spellings could be detected distributed among the words of the verse. He called these “anagrams,” and he compiled more than a hundred notebooks of examples. He abandoned this work, without publishing a single paper on the topic, after receiving no response from a contemporary poet to whom he had written seeking confirmation of this poetic device.

The work on anagrams seems to have been an escape from Saussure’s overriding preoccupation—probing the very foundations of the science of linguistics. Toward the end of his life, he confided to a former student that he had added nothing to his theory of language since the early 1890’s, yet he struggled with the subject off and on for many years. At the University of Geneva, his teaching responsibilities for fifteen years in specific languages and comparative grammar precluded the incorporation of his general linguistic theory into his lectures. Then, in December, 1906, upon the retirement of another faculty member, Saussure was assigned to teach a course on general linguistics and the history and comparison of the Indo-European languages. He accepted the assignment reluctantly.

The course was offered three times, in alternate academic years. The first offering, in 1907, was actually only half a year, and Saussure focused almost entirely on the historical dimension. Five or six students were enrolled. In 1908-1909, there were eleven students, and, again, the emphasis was on the historical study of languages, although this time Saussure did begin with more general topics. For 1910-1911, Saussure spent the entire first semester on general linguistic theory. There were a dozen students in the course. Before he could teach the course again, Saussure fell ill in the summer of 1912. He died near Geneva on February 22, 1913, at the country home of his wife’s family.

Two of Saussure’s colleagues at the University of Geneva gathered the few lecture notes that Saussure had not destroyed and collected course notes from students who had attended his classes in general linguistics. Using the third offering of the course as a base, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye attempted “a reconstruction, a synthesis” of Saussure’s thought on the science of linguistics. First published in 1916, Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (1916; Course in General Linguistics, 1959) initially received mixed reviews and relatively little attention.

In Europe, Saussure’s views on linguistics, as represented in Course in General Linguistics, were discussed and adopted, often with alterations, only among members of the Copenhagen, Moscow, and Prague Linguistic Circles. It was not until the 1930’s that Course in General Linguistics had any significant effect on linguistics in France. In the United States, little attention was paid to Saussure’s work until the 1941 arrival in New York of Roman Jakobson, a founding member of the Linguistic Circles of both Moscow and Prague. In the development of the discipline of linguistics, Saussure has been more acknowledged in retrospect than followed directly.


In Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure made a sharp distinction between what he termed synchronic linguistics and diachronic linguistics. The latter is the study of change in language; to a great extent, diachronic work had dominated the nineteenth century. Synchronic linguistics, however, concentrates on a static view of language, as it exists for speakers at a particular point in time, and this became the major focus of twentieth century linguistics, particularly in the United States. Saussure also maintained that the proper object of study in linguistics should be not the actual speech of individual members of a linguistic community (which he labeled parole) but rather the common code, the language (langue), that they share. This distinction became so widely recognized that Saussure’s original French terms are still in international use.

Of all the concepts for which Saussure is now known, however, the most influential has been his view of a language as a system of signs, each of which is meaningful and important only in terms of its relationships to the other signs in the system. This system of relationships constitutes a structure, and it is this notion that is the foundation of twentieth century structuralism not only in linguistics but also in anthropology and literary criticism.

In his discussion of signs, Saussure proposed that linguistics was only one dimension of a broader science of the study of signs that he called “semiology.” Referred to as semiotics in the United States, this field has been all but ignored by linguists, but for many nonlinguists the name of Saussure is intricately intertwined with semiology. It is interesting, therefore, to note that semiology is mentioned in less than a dozen paragraphs in the entire Course in General Linguistics.

Course in General Linguistics has been the subject of numerous commentaries, and scholars have explored the origins of Saussure’s ideas and compared the work with the notes from which it was constructed. This research shows that some of the concepts often credited to Saussure may have their origins with other nineteenth century scholars, and there has been a continuing debate about the “authenticity” of the work in representing Saussure’s views. Regardless of these findings, the assessment of Saussure provided in a 1924 review of Course in General Linguistics by the great American linguist Leonard Bloomfield has been confirmed by the twentieth century: “He has given us the theoretical basis for a science” of language.


Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986. This is the most readable account of Saussure’s theory and legacy in linguistics and semiotics, with suggestions for additional reading.

Gadet, Françoise. Saussure and Contemporary Culture. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989. The first part offers extended quotations from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics with exegesis, while part two deals with the editorial fortunes of the book and its reception and influence.

Harris, Roy. Reading Saussure: A Critical Commentary on the “Cours de linguistique générale.” London: Gerald Duckworth, 1987. A personal reading of Saussure with chapter-by-chapter commentary and summations of general issues by the author of a controversial translation; assumes basic background in linguistics and some familiarity with Saussure’s place in intellectual history.

Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. An overview of structuralism in linguistics, anthropology, literature, and semiotics; pages 19-28 deal specifically with Saussure, but his influence is described throughout the book. Contains a good selective bibliography of works available in English.

Koerner, E. F. K. Ferdinand de Saussure, Origin and Development of His Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language: A Contribution to the History and Theory of Linguistics. Braunschweig, West Germany: Vieweg, 1973. The most extensive biographical information available in English, with considerable coverage of possible sources of Saussure’s thought; includes a substantial bibliography.

Sampson, Geoffrey. “Saussure: Language as Social Fact.” In Schools of Linguistics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1980. Sampson provides a clear and engaging discussion of several of Saussure’s most influential concepts, including the distinction between langue and parole. Other chapters treat a variety of twentieth century approaches to linguistics, most of which deal with issues raised by Saussure.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Reidlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. This is the standard English translation; also available in a number of reprintings. A book of less than 250 pages, this is the cornerstone of Saussure’s influence.

Starobinski, Jean. Words upon Words: The Anagrams of Ferdinand de Saussure. Translated by Olivia Emmet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Extensive extracts from Saussure’s notebooks on anagrams.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access