Ferdinand de Saussure - Biography
Ferdinand de Saussure, Ph.D., was the Maitre de Conferences at the Ecole Practique de Hautes Etudes in Paris and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Geneva. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig, where he studied Indo-European languages. Ferdinand de Saussure’s influence can be seen in linguistics, literary theory, philosophy and the social sciences.
During the last two years of pursuing his doctorate, Ferdinand de Saussure studied at the University of Berlin. In addition before Ferdinand de Saussure started his doctoral degree, he studied physics and chemistry at the University of Geneva. Ferdinand de Saussure was a preeminent Swiss linguist. His interest in the nature of language was evident by the time he was fifteen. At this young age Ferdinand de Saussure who was a polyglot (being familiar with French, German, English, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit) was already attempting to develop a ‘general system of language.” His writings include Écrits de linguistique générale, Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européenes, Cours de linguistique générale, and Recueil des publications scientifiques de F. de Saussure.
At the youthful age of 21, Ferdinand de Saussure penned Memoire sur la systeme primitif de voyelles dans les langues indo-européens (Memoir on the primitive system of vowels in the Indo-European languages). Although at the time the conclusions were speculative, archaeological evidence was discovered in 1925 that supported Ferdinand de Saussure’s claims. This early work marked a period of great productivity. But more than just signaling the start of a vibrant career, the concepts that were explored in Memoire sur la systeme primitif de voyelles dans les langues indo-européens also contained the rudimentary aspects of Ferdinand de Saussure’s influential later work.
The contemporaries of Ferdinand de Saussure considered him a neo-grammarian. But although Ferdinand de Saussure was well respected some thought he was destined for the obscured reputation of provincial life. Ferdinand de Saussure feared that he would never be effectively dissementate his belief that that "not a single term in linguistics. . . has any meaning for [him]." However, his reputation and influence in the field of linguistics is on par with Charles Levi-Strauss and Emile Durkheim. Ferdinand de Saussure laid the framework for structuralism. Saussure’s work reminds us that "[w]ithout language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula." His reputation was only assured by a chance death of a colleague. Due to this death, Ferdinand de Saussure was required to give a lecture series that became Saussure’s most important work, Cours de linguistique générale.
Following his death in 1913, colleagues and students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechaye, feared the loss of his lectures and compiled the Cours de linguistique générale. Bally and Sechaye would pursue their own linguistic studies. These students compiled their notes to produce the work. This was based on a series of three lectures that Ferdinand de Saussure gave at the University of Geneva.
Primarily the goal of Cours de linguistique générale, shifts the discourse of linguistic study from one that centered on history to one that centers on diachronic (historical) study. This shift frames the study by arguing that the speakers of a language do not have a history of the language. Instead speakers use language to relate to each other. Ferdinand de Saussure further conceptualizes this series of relations as a game such as chess. In effect, a player of this hypothetical game focuses on the moves that are to come not the previous moves. In Cours de linguistique générale., Ferdinand de Saussure outlines three main principles. The first principle places diachrony in contrast with synchrony. The second contrasts the system of a given language (langue) and the ability to speak or communicate through it (parole.) In essence, the knowledge of a given system is significantly different than the practice of speaking it. The third principle distinguishes syntagmatic and associative/paradigmatic. In this conceptualization of language, a sign can either make a contribution to the meaning of a sequence of signs or it can be used to contrast with sequence.
The principles that Ferdinand de Saussure has espoused have clearly impacted how contemporary thinkers view the nature of text. Essentially, the progression of Ferdinand de Saussure’s ideas led to the perception that texts do not have meaning until they are read. In describing the relation between written word and language, Ferdinand de Saussure states that the written word seems as if it is a concrete object. In the illusion concreteness, it seems as if the written word endures throughout time. Even though this connection seems permanent it is constructed of artifice. However, it seems more enduring than the natural connection between sound and word.
This perception was prescient of the development of deconstruction. His line of thought in semiology aligns with that of Nicholas Troubetzkoy and Roland Barthes. Writing for Ferdinand de Saussure was both an essential aspect of his study of language, but Saussure was concerned that writing was given an overblown importance. The tension of Saussure’s view of writing can be seen in those studies of literature that his followers have found. In this area, Ferdinand de Saussure’s assertions about literature illustrated how are perceptions about language are altered by interactions with written texts. Saussure indicates that “a literary language” gives a greater focus to writing since it is guided by the definitions and grammatical strictures. This form of language is given greater importance since students are indoctrinated to in through education. Ultimately, Ferdinand de Saussure that this relationship to writing inverts the natural relationship between speakers and language.
For Ferdinand de Saussure, the importance of the spoken language is evident despite the focus many linguists and philosophers place on the written word. It is in the spoken word that his principles are most evident. Yet even Saussure can not dispel the inherent power of the written word. He finds the importance of writing in the way that the reader provides to the signs in the text. Even while acknowledging the importance of the reader-text relationship, Ferdinand de Saussure maintained the importance of written language.
Saussure indicates that languages are expressed mostly through writing. A person’s knowledge of their home language or their first language is invaded by the written form. Remote and dead languages need to be supported by a written language for their survival. Yet the study of language in this way would necessitate a written record that was only a modern conception. Ferdinand de Saussure would find this relationship between language and writing distressing and use his work to maneuver around the totalizing effects of written language.
Some question the principle that meaning is established through contrast. Others find that Ferdinand de Saussure was within the subtext of the writings of Franz Boas, so some critics question the extent of his influence Two of his most noted critics, Roman Jakobson and Noam Chomsky, have both argued that Ferdinand de Saussure glossed over some of the complexities inherent in his subject matter so that the assertions he made would be superficially clear.
But without questions, Ferdinand de Saussure has left an indelible mark on linguistics, literary theory, philosophy and the social sciences. Saussure, whose work and thought could have been had it not been for a lucky break, deserves his reputation despite how legitimate the criticism of Jakobson and Chomsky might be. Ultimately, for his influence and clarity into linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure was made a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur.