Ferdinand de Saussure

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Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure (26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913) was a Swiss linguist and semiotician. His ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments both in linguistics and semiology in the 20th century.


  • As long as the activity of linguists was limited to comparing one language with another, this general utility cannot have been apparent to most of the general public, and indeed the study was so specialised that there was no real reason to suppose it of possible interest to a wider audience. It is only since linguistics has become more aware of its object of study, i.e. perceives the whole extent of it, that it is evident that this science can make a contribution to a range of studies that will be of interest to almost anyone. It is by no means useless, for instance, to those who have to deal with texts. It is useful to the historian, among others, to be able to see the commonest forms of different phenomena, whether phonetic, morphological or other, and how language lives, carries on and changes over time.

Cours de linguistique générale (1916)[edit]

Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (eds.); Wade Baskin (transl.), New York : Philosophical Library, 1959; McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966, 1983; Original ext: Cours de linguistique générale, Paris-Éditions Payot, 1916.

  • The subject matter of linguistics comprises all manifestations of human speech, whether that of savages or civilized nations, or of archaic, classical or decadent periods. In each period the linguist must consider not only correct speech and flowery language, but all other forms of expression as well. And that is not all: since he is often unable to observe speech directly, he must consider written texts, for only through them can he reach idioms that are remote in time or space.
    • p. 6
a) to describe and trace the history of all observable languages, which amounts to tracing the history of families of languages and reconstructing as far as possible the mother language of each family;
b) to determine the forces that are permanently and universally at work in all languages, and to deduce the general laws to which all specific historical phenomena can be reduced; and
c) to delimit and define itself.
Linguistics is very closely related to other sciences that sometimes borrow from its data, sometimes supply it with data.
  • p. 6
  • Speech has both an individual and a social side, and we cannot conceive of one without the other.
    • p. 9
  • Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc. But it is the most important of all these systems.
    • p. 16 ; Partly cited in; Geza Revesz, The Origins and Prehistory of Language, London 1956. p. 126
  • Writing obscures language ; it is not a guise for language but a disguise.
    • p. 31
  • Thus we may found the science for the study of the life of signs against the background of social life; it would form part of social psychology, and consequently of general psychology; we shall call it semiology (from Greek sēmeion — 'sign'). That science would explain to us in what signs consist of and by what laws they are governed. Since it is a science which does not yet exist, we do not know what it will be like; it has, however, a reason for its existence, its place is allocated in advance. Linguistics is only a part of that general science ; the laws which semiology will discover, will be applicable also to linguistics, which in turn will be linked with a domain clearly defined throughout the entirety of human affairs.
    • p. 33; as cited in: Adam Schaff (1962). Introduction to semantics, p. 9
Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.
- Ferdinand de Saussure, (1916: 77)
PART ONE. General principles
  • The causes of continuity are a priori within the scope of the observer, but the causes of change in time are not. It is better not to attempt giving an exact account at this point, but to restrict discussion to the shifting of relationships in general. Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.
    • p. 77
  • La langue est un systéme dont toutes les parties peuvent et doivent être considérés dans leur solidarité synchronique.
    • Language is a system whose parts can and must all be considered in their synchronic solidarity.
      • p. 87 (1916, p. 124; Part 1, Ch. 3, sec. 3.)
PART TWO. Synchronic Linguistics
  • The aim of general synchronic linguistics is to set up the fundamental principles of any idiosynchronic system, the constituents of any language-state. Many of the items already explained in Part One belong rather to synchrony; for instance, the general properties of the sign are an integral part of synchrony although they were used to prove the necessity of separating the two linguistics.
    • p. 101
  • The linguistic entity is not accurately defined until it is delimited, i.e. separated from everything that surrounds it on the phonic chain. These delimited entities or units stand in opposition to each other in the mechanism of language.
One is at first tempted to liken linguistic signs to visual signs, which can exist in space without becoming confused, and to assume that separation of the significant elements can be accomplished in the same way, without recourse to any mental process. The word "form," which is often used to indicate them (cf. the expression "verbal form," "noun form") gives support to the mistake. But we know that the main characteristic of the sound-chain is that it is linear.
  • p. 103
  • Psychologically our thought-apart from its expression in words-is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. Philosophers and linguists have always agreed in recognizing that without the help of signs we would be unable to make a clear-cut, consistent distinction between two ideas. Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. here are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.
    • p. 111-112
Visualize the air in contact with a sheet of water; if the atmospheric pressure changes, the surface of the water will be broken up into a series of divisions, waves; the waves resemble the union or coupling of thought with phonic substance.
- Ferdinand de Saussure, (1916: 112)
  • The characteristic role of language with respect to thought is not to create a material phonic means for expressing ideas but to serve as a link between thought and sound, under conditions that of necessity bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units. Thought, chaotic by nature, has to become ordered in the process of its decomposition. Neither are thoughts given material form nor are sounds transformed into mental entities; the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that "thought-sound" implies division, and that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses. Visualize the air in contact with a sheet of water; if the atmospheric pressure changes, the surface of the water will be broken up into a series of divisions, waves; the waves resemble the union or coupling of thought with phonic substance.
    • p. 112
  • A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas; but the pairing of a certain number of acoustical signs with as many cuts made from the mass of thought engenders a system of values.
    • p. 120
  • Language can be compared to a sheet of paper: thought is its recto and sound its verso: one cannot cut the verso without simultaneously cutting the recto. Similarly, in the matter of language, one can separate neither sound from thought nor thought from sound; such separation could be achieved only by abstraction, which would lead either to pure psychology, or to pure phonology.

Quotes about Ferdinand de Saussure[edit]

  • With de Saussure, the concept of meaning is inseparably connected with his concepts of sign and language... According to de Saussure, a linguistic sign is a psychic whole with two aspects: sound image and notion. Thus the sign is a specific combination of these two elements. Following from de Saussure's analysis, that two-sided relationship between sound and notion is meaning. This is why de Saussure suggests that the term "sound image" should be replaced by the term "signifiant" (that which means), and the term "notion" by the term "signifié" (that which is the object of meaning). The sign fulfils its function only by virtue of that relationship of meaning, the members of which are connected inseparably. The breaking of that unity would result in the destruction of the sign.
  • Saussure took the sign as the organizing concept for linguistic structure, using it to express the conventional nature of language in the phrase "l'arbitraire du signe". This has the effect of highlighting what is, in fact, the one point of arbitrariness in the system, namely the phonological shape of words, and hence allows the non-arbitrariness of the rest to emerge with greater clarity. An example of something that is distinctly non-arbitrary is the way different kinds of meaning in language are expressed by different kinds of grammatical structure, as appears when linguistic structure is interpreted in functional terms.
    • Michael Halliday (1977). "Ideas about Language" Reprinted in Volume 3 of MAK Halliday's Collected Works. Edited by J.J. Webster. London: Continuum. p113.
  • 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.
    • Roy Harris (1988). Language, Saussure and Wittgenstein. Routledge. p. ix; Summary of Saussure's contribution to linguistics and the study of language
  • Lacan's most widely quoted maxim is, “The unconscious is structured like a language,” and like that sentence, Lacan's whole oeuvre rests on a certain idea of language. His proclaimed "return to Freud" meant remedying Freud's failure to use "modern" linguistics. "Modern" linguistics for Lacan, however, means turn-of-the-century linguistics---specifically, Ferdinand de Saussure's. The trouble is that very little of Saussure's linguistics stands up today, after nearly a century's work in linguistics. [...] In writing this essay, for example, I had trouble finding linguistic texts that even refer to Saussure. Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics, Lacanians, and the occasional philosopher.

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