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Ferdinand Saussure

Ferdinand Saussure

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All of us, no matter what language we speak, start off by learning primary words like cat, apple, tree and so on. As we grow older and become more proficient in one or more languages, we rarely stop to think about the origins of these words. We can always trace the origin and evolution of a word through history. Early modern linguists believed that words derive meaning from the objects they represent. Enter Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), a Swiss linguist who challenged this view by suggesting that there was no inherent relationship between a word and what it represents. This was a revolutionary idea that changed the way people looked at language and communication.

Now known as the founder of semiotics and modern linguistics, Saussure laid out a nuanced model of how language works. Here's an overview of Saussure's biography, theory of language, and contribution to linguistics.

Semiotics is the study of signs, their interaction and meaning.

Ferdinand de Saussure: biography

Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva in 1857. His family belonged to the aristocratic elite. Ancestral roots of the de Saussure family can be traced back to the east of France, from where they emigrated and settled in Switzerland in the sixteenth century.

Saussure's family had fostered a tradition of scientific scholarship for generations, and Saussure was himself a bright student of remarkable intelligence. After completing his secondary education at 17, Saussure taught himself Sanskrit by reading books on Sanskrit grammar written by the German linguist Franz Bopp (1791–1867). He enthusiastically pursued the study of languages. Saussure became a member of the Linguistic Society of Paris at a very young age.

Saussure went on to study linguistics at universities in Leipzig, Paris, and Berlin. He later took up a teaching position in Paris, where he taught until he was offered a professorship at the University of Geneva. Here Saussure was expected to teach historical and comparative linguistics as was the norm in linguistics then. Yet he still nurtured the new ideas that he had acquired from Leipzig, Berlin, and Paris, the new hotspots of linguistics at the time.

Even though Saussure fulfilled his academic duties scrupulously, he remained sceptical about the science of language as it was understood and taught then. In 1907, he began teaching the famous course on general linguistics at the University of Geneva.

The first published work on Saussure's life did not come out until 2008. Until then, little was known about his life other than snippets of biographical information from his books and other documents. Saussure died in 1913 in Switzerland.

Ferdinand de Saussure: books

Despite his stature in the field of literary theory and semiotics today, Saussure did not publish a significant amount of theoretical works in his lifetime. Saussure reportedly refused to publish any material on linguistics until the end of his life by insisting that there was too much that he remained unsure of. Much of what is known about Saussure's views and ideas today was revived from his handwritten notes on linguistics. These eventually changed the course of general linguistics and kickstarted a new direction in the study of signs known as semiotics or semiology.

The main source of information on Saussure's ideas are manuscripts that were discovered in 1996. They were edited and published in French in 2003 and have since then been translated into English in 2006. The most widely cited and discussed of Saussure's works is the Course in General Linguistics (1916). It is a compilation of lecture notes taken by Saussure's students, Charles Bally (1865–1947) and Albert Sechehaye (1870–1946), at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. It was edited by two of his colleagues and published posthumously in 1916.

Many of Saussure's translators have expressed difficulty in translating his original French terms into English. Discussing Saussure's theory in another language poses challenges for the translator regarding the translation of many technical words that are best expressed in Saussure's own terms. That is why you might find several French terms in Saussure's translations, much like the works of the poststructural (and postmodern) philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), whose work on deconstruction derives their theoretical foundations from concepts of Saussurean linguistics.

Poststructuralism: the theoretical stream that succeeded structuralism. It developed and criticised the loopholes in structuralist ideas.

Postmodernism: the intellectual and aesthetic ambience that followed Modernism in the early twentieth century. Postmodernism moved away from Modernist sentiments and was characterised by an acceptance of irony and chaos.

Deconstruction: the critical approach that denies the significance of finding fixed and stable meaning in a text.

Ferdinand de Saussure: discipline

Early modern linguistics emphasised the study of grammar and verse. This approach evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into modern philology, which focused on the structure, origins, and historical development of language. Saussure's ideas on language formed out of his scepticism towards the direction of general linguistics that he studied and taught.

Saussure's Course in General Linguistics inaugurated structural linguistics. It opened up a new arena for linguistics based on the internal structure of language rather than grammar and history.

Structuralism is a critical approach that is interested in the structural makeup of things. Structural linguistics distinguishes the basic unit of language and the interrelationships and dynamics within that structure.

The central concern in Saussure's work is the difference between what he called langue and parole. In fact, the idea of difference is at the core of Saussure's model of linguistics.

Ferdinand Saussure Theory StudySmarterFig. 1 - Saussure famously proposed that there is no inherent connection between a word and what it refers to.

Saussure differentiated language as a signifying system (known as langue) from the individual instances of speech (called parole).

Simply put, langue refers to the system of language itself, including its vocabulary and rules of grammar and syntax, whereas parole refers to speech, a verbal or non-verbal enunciation by an individual member of a speech community.

A 'signifying system' is a set of units and rules that convey meaning, including the oldest language in the history of humankind, a computer code, and a traffic sign.

Ferdinand Saussure: theory

Saussure's theory approached language from two different perspectives: language as a system of signs, but also as a social experience and a collective product of a particular speech community.


Saussure's speciality was semiology, defined as the study of signs and their function in society.

A sign is the basic unit of meaning. It is composed of two parts, the 'signifier' and the 'signified'.

The signifier is a sound image (verbal or non-verbal), like the word 'tree' or a traffic sign. The signified is the concept or the actual object the signifier is referring to.

Though the terms semiotics and semiology are used interchangeably nowadays, the differences between the two are noteworthy. Semiotics refers to the science of signs championed by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). Peirce's semiotics focused on the function of the sign in representing an external object.

Saussure was more interested in difference. In Saussurean semiology, the sign does not simply refer to an object or a concept. Nor does it stand for a mimetic association between a word and what it refers to.

The relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, meaning there is no intrinsic relationship or natural connection between the word and the concept it represents. This explains why different languages use different words for the same thing!

Think of the word 'dog'. While the word immediately conjures up the image of a furry animal with four legs in our minds, isn't that really because we have been repeatedly making that association in our minds?

The link between the signifier and the signified, randomly chosen though it may be, is not unfixed, free, or changeable. These associations are determined by convention and long-term use. More importantly, for a language to work, its users must abide by these conventions.

Saussure is criticised today for his static outlook on language, which did not take into account how languages evolve with time. Yet, Saussure's twin concepts, synchrony and diachrony, theorised precisely that. While Saussure agreed that it is important to study the evolution of languages over time (diachronic analysis), he maintained that the function of language is best examined at a fixed point in time (synchronic analysis).

While a sign can communicate on its own (think of a traffic signal), the interactions between signs influence and alter the process of creating meaning. These connections are captured by Saussure's ideas of syntagms and paradigms. A syntagmatic relationship is formed when a sequence of signs interact to create meaning. A paradigmatic relationship consists of signs that can substitute or replace each other, possibly affecting the meaning of the sequence.

Ferdinand de Saussure: contribution to linguistics

Saussure was a pioneer in the field of semiology as well as structuralist movements of twentieth-century Europe. Saussure's works marked a departure from the conventions of linguistics of his time and also the essential humanist approach to language in general. Not only was structural linguistics revolutionary in its own right, but it also inspired highly influential theories and philosophical views later on.

The principles and methods employed by structuralism were later adapted in diverse fields such as literary studies, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and anthropology. Saussure's ideas subsequently influenced models of art criticism, literary analysis, and film theory.

How to Read a Film (1977) by James Monaco (1942–2019) is a seminal book on film theory. In the book, Monaco applies Saussure's concepts of sign, synchrony and diachrony and syntagmatic and paradigmatic sequences to discuss movies and filmmaking.

Ferdinand Saussure - Key takeaways

  • Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist born in 1857.
  • Saussure belonged to an upper-class family and was educated in Leipzig, Paris, and Berlin.
  • Saussure was a professor of linguistics at the University of Geneva, where he gave monumental lectures called Course in General Linguistics.
  • The book Course in General Linguistics (1916) was compiled by Saussure's students using their lecture notes and was published after Saussure's death.
  • Saussure's idea that language is a system composed of arbitrary signs was pivotal in linguistics and semiotics.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ferdinand Saussure

Saussure was a Swiss linguist who introduced the study of signs called semiology. 

In Saussure's theory, signs are arbitrary units in the process of signification.

Saussure transformed historical linguistics by proposing that language is a system of signs based on difference. 

Saussure called the study of signs 'semiology'. It is currently used interchangeably with semiotics.

Saussure argued that there is no natural or inherent connection between the two components of a sign, the signifier and the signified.

Final Ferdinand Saussure Quiz

Ferdinand Saussure Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Who was Ferdinand de Saussure?

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Saussure was a Swiss linguist who proposed the theory of signs. 

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What is semiology?

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Semiology is the study of signs as described by Ferdinand de Saussure.

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Where was Saussure born?

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Geneva, Switzerland

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Where did Saussure teach?

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The University of Geneva

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What was Saussure's famous lecture called?

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Course in general linguistics

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What is the Course in General Linguistics?

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Course in General Linguistics is a book that contains Saussure's ideas on linguistics. It was compiled by Saussure's former students and published in 1916.

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Why is Ferdinand de Saussure called the father of modern linguistics?

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Saussure transformed linguistics by proposing that language is a system of signs based on difference. 

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What did Saussure say about language?

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According to Saussure, language is a system of signs. 

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What did Saussure say about the linguistic sign being arbitrary?

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Saussure argued that there is no natural or inherent connection between a sound-image and what it represents. 

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What is a sign?

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A sign is the basic unit of language, composed of a signifier and a signified.

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