Ferdinand de Saussure

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Ferdinand de Saussure (* Nov 26th 1857 – † Feb 22nd 1913) was a major Swiss linguist. He is occasionally considered the founder of the "modern linguistics". He was undisputably one of the most influential authors of structuralism in the 20th century.

Ferdinand de Saussure


Ferdinand de Saussure was born in November 26th 1857 in Geneva and died in February 22nd 1913 in Vufflens-le-Château near Morges.

He studied linguistics in Leipzig and Indo-European studies in Berlin and gave lectures of linguistics at the University of Geneva 1906–1911.

1916, after Saussure's dead, his colleagues Antoin Sechehaye and Charles Bally published in his name the class notes made by his students. The publication was titled „Cours de linguistique générale“. This work initiated the further development of structuralism.


Saussure's language theories

In „Cours de linguistique générale“ a theory of language as a system of signs is presented. Saussure differentiates:

1. human language per se (langage)

2. abstract system of rules (langue) and

3. speech (parole)

Saussure argues that the goal of linguistics should be to identify the elements of a language, to classify them and finally describe the their combination rules in a synchronic structure. This view was in contrast with the predominant diachronic perspectives of that time.

Saussure's definition of the linguistic sign

Following Saussure, the language consists of signs which express ideas. Linguistic sings are elements which have some meaning. Thus, the linguistic sing links the human idea of an object or concept to the form of the sign (e.g. a particular sequence of sounds).

Linguistic signs contain the signified and the signifier. This is called the bilateral linguistic sign:

Bilateral linguistic sign model: general scheme

Bilateral linguistic sign model: general scheme

Bilateral linguistic sign model: example: german Haus

Bilateral linguistic sign model: example: german Haus

In Saussure's view linguistic signs are relational elements which are motivated by the need to differentiate them from other linguistic signs. They are not innate to things or concepts they mean. Thereby the form of a linguistic sign is an arbitrary convention.


1916. Cours de linguistique générale, ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, with the collaboration of A. Riedlinger, Lausanne and Paris: Payot.

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