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Ferdinand de Saussure

(1857—1913) Swiss linguistics scholar


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(1857–1913)

Swiss linguist, noted for his early structuralist views on language.

Born in Geneva, Saussure was educated at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin. He worked initially on the comparative philology of the Indo-European languages, which he taught in Paris, before returning in 1891 to Switzerland to take up the post of professor of linguistics at the University of Geneva. After his death Saussure's theoretical views became widely known and extremely influential, through the posthumous publication of his lectures in Cours de linguistique générale (1915; translated as Course in General Linguistics, 1959).

It was Saussure more than any other linguist who broke away from the previous century's obsession with historical linguistics. In addition to the diachronic study of language, he insisted, we should also consider its synchronic features. We should also be prepared to pay as much attention to language as langue (roughly, grammatical rules) as to language as parole (the actual act of speaking). Saussure also spoke of other distinctions – form and matter, paradigm and syntagm, for example – which have since become an accepted part of the structuralist's vocabulary. In more general terms Saussure saw language as a system of signs in which there is established a conventional relationship between the signifié (the thing signified, i e the meaning) and the significant (the signifier, i e the word). Language thus became a system of mutually dependent and interacting signs. Consequently no item could be understood on its own but is in fact like a chess piece, part of a complex and integrated structure. It is this notion of structure that proved to be one of the most suggestive of Saussure's innovations, influencing the work of (among others) the linguist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) and the anthropologist Lévi-strauss.

Subjects: Literature.


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