Ferdinand de Saussure
Born 1857

Geneva, Switzerland

Relevant Work Course in General Linguistics


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

 Biography Edit

  • Born into an intellectual Swiss family
  • Known as the "father of modern linguistics"
  • Published only one book during his life, Memoir on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages, while at the University of Leipzig, where he received his doctorate.
  • Unknowingly gave birth to structuralism through the publication of a book filled with his students' notes after his death.

Course in General Linguistics Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Key Words and Terms Edit

Phonemes - The smallest distinctive unit of sound in a spoken language

Semiology - The science that studies the life of signs within society

Sign - The "whole" (the two elements [concept and sound-image] are intimately united, and each recalls the other" (853).

Signified - Concept, the "psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses" (853).

Signifier - Sound-image or "word" (853), "the natural representation of the word as a fact of potential language, outside any actual use of it in speaking" (852, footnote 4).

Syntagms - Linguistic unit consisting of a set of forms (phonemes, words, or phrases) that are in a sequential relationship to one another

Key Quotations Edit

"Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts. It can be localized in the limited segment of the speaking-circuit where an auditory image becomes associated with a concept" (NATC 850).

"Language, unlike speaking, is something that we can study separately. Although dead languages are no longer spoken, we can easily assimilate their linguistic organisms." (850)

"For the distinguishing characteristic of the that in some way it always eludes the individual or social will" (851).

"The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image" (852).

"Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms" (862).

Discussion Edit

Class Notes Edit

De Saussure - sound image

De Saussure - sign
  1. Culture creates a word for something not something already is a word. Meaning is created through what the collective has agreed on.
  2. A "thing" is arbitrary. It is relative to different social collectives. There is no necessary relation beyond social convention.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Although Saussure's work helped lay the theoretical framework for structuralism and poststructuralism, critics have argued that his narrow focus on language fails to account for more global concerns. For example, Terry Eagleton claims language cannot be examined without some reference to the world and history outside linguistics. While Saussure assumes language is "unified and closed," postmodern critics argue that language is fluid, shifting depending on the speaker's position within it based on their "class, gender, race, geography," etc (Leitch 849).

Related Works Edit

  • Saussure: Signs, System, and Arbitrariness by Jonathan Culler
  • The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism by Fredric Jameson
  • Reading Saussure: A Critical Commentary of the "Cours de linguistique generale" by Roy Harris
  • Saussure and Contemporary Culture by Francoise Gadet
  • Re-Reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life by Paul J. Thibault

References Edit

de Saussure, Ferdinand. "From Course in General Linguistics." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd ed., Norton, 2010, pp. 850-66.

Leitch, Vincent B. "Ferdinand de Saussure." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., Norton, 2010, pp. 845-9.