Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure bigraphy, stories - Swiss linguist

Ferdinand de Saussure : biography

26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913

Ferdinand de Saussure ( or ; ; 26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913) was a Swiss linguist and semiotician whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments both in linguistics and semiotics in the 20th century.Robins, R.H. 1979. A Short History of Linguistics, 2nd Edition. Longman Linguistics Library. London and New York. p. 201. E.g. Robins writes Saussure’s statement of "the structural approach to language underlies virtually the whole of modern linguistics".Harris, R. and T.J. Taylor. 1989. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. 2nd Edition. Chapter 16. He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguisticsJustin Wintle, Makers of modern culture, Routledge, 2002, p. 467.David Lodge, Nigel Wood, Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, Pearson Education, 2008, p. 42.Thomas, Margaret. 2011. Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics. Routledge: London and New York. p. 145 ff.Chapman, S. and C. Routledge. 2005. Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. Edinburgh University Press. p.241 ff. and one of two major fathers (together with Charles Sanders Peirce) of semiotics.Winfried Nöth, Handbook of Semiotics, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990.

One of his translators, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics (Oxford University), Roy Harris, summarized Saussure’s contribution to linguistics and the study of language in the following way:

"Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world. This typically twentieth-century view of language has profoundly influenced developments throughout the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology."Harris, R. 1988. Language, Saussure and Wittgenstein. Routledge. pix.

Although they have undergone extension and critique over time, the dimensions of organization introduced by Saussure continue to inform contemporary approaches to the phenomenon of language. Prague school linguist Jan Mukařovský writes that Saussure’s "discovery of the internal structure of the linguistic sign differentiated the sign both from mere acoustic ‘things’ … and from mental processes", and that in this development "new roads were thereby opened not only for linguistics, but also, in the future, for the theory of literature."Mukarovsky, J. 1977. On Poetic Language. The Word and Verbal Art: Selected Essays by Jan Mukarovsky. Translated and edited by J. Burbank and Peter Steiner. p. 18. Ruqaiya Hasan argues that "the impact of Saussure’s theory of the linguistic sign has been such that modern linguists and their theories have since been positioned by reference to him: they are known as pre-Saussurean, Saussurean, anti-Saussurean, post-Saussurean, or non-Saussure."Linguistic sign and the science of linguistics: the foundations of appliability. In Fang Yan & Jonathan Webster (eds.)Developing Systemic Functional Linguistics. Equinox 2013


Saussure’s ideas had a major impact on the development of linguistic theory in the first half of the 20th century. Two currents of thought emerged independently of each other, one in Europe, the other in America. The results of each incorporated the basic notions of Saussure’s thought in forming the central tenets of structural linguistics.

Saussure posited that linguistic form is arbitrary, and therefore all languages function in a similar fashion. According to Saussure, a language is arbitrary because it is systematic in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Also, all languages have their own concepts and sound images (or signifieds and signifiers). Therefore, Saussure argues, languages have a relational conception of their elements: words and their meanings are defined by comparing and contrasting their meanings to one another. For instance, the sound images for and the conception of a book differ from the sound images for and the conception of a table. Languages are also arbitrary because of the nature of their linguistic elements: they are defined in terms of their function rather than in terms of their inherent qualities. Finally, he posits, language has a social nature in that it provides a larger context for analysis, determination and realization of its structure.