Ferdinand de Saussure

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Saussure, Ferdinand de

(fĕrdēnäN` də sōsür`), 1857–1913, Swiss linguist. One of the founders of modern linguisticslinguistics,
scientific study of language, covering the structure (morphology and syntax; see grammar), sounds (phonology), and meaning (semantics), as well as the history of the relations of languages to each other and the cultural place of language in human behavior.
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, he established the structural study of language, emphasizing the arbitrary relationship of the linguistic sign to that which it signifies. Saussure distinguished synchronic linguistics (studying language at a given moment) from diachronic linguistics (studying the changing state of a language over time); he further opposed what he named langue (the state of a language at a certain time) to parole (the speech of an individual). Saussure's most influential work is the Course in General Linguistics (1916), a compilation of notes on his lectures.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Saussure, Ferdinand de


Born Nov. 26, 1857, in Geneva; died Feb. 22,1913, at Vufflens-sur-Morges. Swiss linguist.

Saussure studied at the University of Geneva in 1875 and at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin from 1876 to 1880. From 1881 to 1891 he taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris and in 1891 became a professor at the University of Geneva. His doctoral dissertation was entitled On the Use of the Genitive Absolute in Sanskrit (1881).

Saussure’s work Report on the Primitive Vowel System of the Indo-European Languages (1879) brought him worldwide fame as the leading specialist on Indo-European languages. The work introduced a new principle for the reconstruction of the phonological system of the protolanguage on the basis of morphological data. In his works on Lithuanian accentuation, written from 1894 to 1896, Saussure established the nature of word accentuation and intonation in the Baltic languages as related to analogous phenomena in the Slavic languages (the Fortunatov-Saussure law); independent work in this same area was done at the time by F. F. Fortunatov.

Course in General Linguistics, compiled by C. Bally and A. Sechehaye on the basis of notes collected by students during three series of Saussure’s lectures, was published in 1916 (3rd ed., 1972). The work presents Saussure’s views on language, which have had a very great influence on 20th-century linguistics—particularly on the development of structural linguistics, since Saussure was the first linguist to examine language as a system (structure). In the diverse manifestations of speech, Saussure distinguished between langue and parole. Langue is a system of signs, a social and psychological phenomenon passively acquired and accepted by speakers; it is studied by the linguistics of language. Parole is an individual and psychophysiological phenomenon, the active use of a linguistic code in accordance with the speaker’s thoughts; it is studied by the linguistics of speech.

Saussure defined linguistics as part of a new science that studies the life of signs within society; he called this study semiology and included it within the framework of social psychology. The linguistic sign (a word, a word’s meaningful part) has a double nature: it represents the unity of the signified (concept) and the signifier (sound image), which are linked together arbitrarily and without motivation. The second characteristic of the linguistic sign is the linearity of the signifier, that is, the successive character of linguistic units (words, affixes) in the speech act and the strict rules of their distribution relative to one another.

Saussure formulated the concept of the value of linguistic signs, that is, the aggregate of the signs’ relational characteristics, which exist alongside the signs’ absolute characteristics, such as meaning and phonetic traits. The relational characteristics are determined by the associative (common roots, affixes, and phonemes) and syntagmatic (arrangement in a line) relations of the signs as members of a system with other members of the system and serve as a basis for the identification of linguistic units. Langue is studied by synchronic (static) linguistics, whereas parole is studied by diachronic (evolutionary) linguistics. As the object of internal linguistics, language is examined “in and for itself”; the connection between the history of a language and that of a nation pertains to external linguistics, as does the study of the literary language and dialects and the geographic distribution of languages.

Saussure’s philosophic orientation was influenced by E. Dürkheim, G. Tarde, and French rationalism. The linguistic aspect of Saussure’s concepts are close to the ideas of I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay, N. V. Krushevskii (M. Kruszewski), and W. Whitney. Saussure’s theory of language influenced not only linguistics but also certain foreign trends in semiotics, anthropology, literary theory and criticism, and aesthetics.


Recueil des publications scientifiques. Heidelberg, 1922.
Cours de linguistique générale, fases. 1–3. Edited by R. Engler. Wiesbaden, 1967–68.
“Morphologie. Linguistique statique: Quelques Principes généraux.” In A Geneva School Reader in Linguistics. Bloomington, Ind., 1969.
Cours de linguistique générale [3rd ed.]. [Paris] 1972.
In Russian translation:
Kursobshchei lingvistiki. Moscow, 1933.


Sliusareva, N. A. Teoriia F. de Sossiura v svete sovremennoi lingvistiki. Moscow, 1975.
Godel, R. Les Sources manuscrites du cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure. Paris-Geneva, 1957.
Starobinski, L. Les Mots sous les mots: Les Anagrammes de F. de Saussure. [Paris, 1971.]
Koerner, E. F. K. Ferdinand de Saussure: Origin and Development of His Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language. Braunschweig, 1973.
Koerner. E. F. K. Bibliographia Saussureana, 1870–1970. Metuchen, N.J., 1972.
Wunderli, P. Ferdinand de Saussure und die Anagramme: Linguistik und Literatur. Tübingen, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Both groups made use of the linguistic techniques of Saussure, Ferdinand de. Although they based their approach largely on Symbolist notions concerning the autonomy of the text and the discontinuity between literary and other uses of language, the Formalists sought to make their analyses more objective and scientific than those of Symbolist criticism.