Ferdinand de Saussure

John E. Joseph

in Linguistics

Published online October 2015 | | DOI:

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Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857–d. 1913) is acknowledged as the founder of modern linguistics and semiology, and as having laid the groundwork for structuralism and post-structuralism. Born and educated in Geneva, in 1876 he went to the University of Leipzig, where he received a doctorate in 1881. While a student there he published the Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879), which radically reimagined how the original Indo-European vowel system might be reconstructed. During the 1880s Saussure was lecturer in Gothic and Old High German at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, and served as adjunct secretary of the Société de Linguistique de Paris and was responsible for the Société’s publications in which a number of his own papers appeared. He also began, but abandoned, several more ambitious projects. In 1891 he returned to Geneva to take up a chair in Sanskrit and comparative Indo-European philology. He began another project on the “double essence” of language that was never completed. His papers on Lithuanian accentuation from this period would earn recognition for “Saussure’s Law,” which applies to historical accent shifts in a particular category of Lithuanian words. The next decade saw him devote his attention to various topics, including local toponyms around Geneva, legends of the Germanic peoples who had settled in the area, and finally the search for anagrams in Greek and Latin poetry, but no publications resulted. In 1907 he was given responsibility for the university’s course in general linguistics, a course meant for students who lacked sufficient grounding in any ancient or medieval language to do in-depth textual study, which was all Saussure had experience in teaching. Restructuring the course each of the three times he gave it, he brought in sign theory and other aspects of the grammaire générale tradition in which he himself had been taught (see John E. Joseph, Saussure [Oxford University Press, 2012]) but that linguists had laid aside and forgotten in the intervening decades. Soon after his death in 1913, his colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, appreciating the extraordinary nature of his lectures, began gathering his manuscript notes and the notebooks of his students. From these they fashioned the Cours de linguistique générale (Course in general linguistics), published in 1916. It would become one of the most influential books of the 20th century, not just for linguistics but across many realms of intellectual endeavor. Many previously unpublished texts by Saussure have been appearing in recent years, principally in the volumes of the Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure. Various projects are under way for making photographic reproductions of the manuscript material online.

Article.  5977 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Anthropological Linguistics ; Language Families ; Psycholinguistics ; Sociolinguistics

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