Ferdinand de Saussure

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Ferdinand De Saussure (1857-1907) was a Swiss linguist. He studied linguistics at the University of Leipzig (1876) then later studied in Berlin. From 1881-1891, after receiving his doctorate from Leipzig, he taught in Paris, and in 1891, he accepted a professorship at Geneva. He taught at the University of Geneva for the rest of his career. In 1907, he started teaching General Linguistics. while a professor, Saussure developed the field of semiology, a field directly associated with Saussure's linguistic theories.

At Geneva, Saussure taught a general linguistics course (cours de linguistique generale). Students' class notes from this course were combined as records of the monumental discoveries that took place during Saussure's lessons in that course. The Cours de linguistique generale was translated into Japanese, German, Russian, Spanish, English, Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, and Italian.

Although internationally acclaimed, Saussure has received some criticism from certain semioticians for his ideas. He differentiates between linguistics and semiology. He says "Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of the deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc. But it is the most important of these sysems (...). Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics and the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts" (Krampen 63). In "Ferdinand de Saussure and the Development of Semiology," Martin Krampen argues that Saussure's critics most often just misunderstood his whole viewpoint by failing to read all of his work and make connections between his various theories (63). Krampen also summarizes well Saussure's understanding of the difference between parole (human speaking activity) and langue (language): "...in the concrete activity of speech an abstract system, language, expresses itself" (Krampen 65).

One argument against Saussure's argument that language is completely arbitrary is the existence of onamatopoeia, a particular instance in which language is not arbitrary but logically formed based on characteristics (sound) of the actual signified.

Saussure was monumental in that he proposed a structuralist approach to language and the origin of language. His approach removed the individual as creator of meaning and focused on the structure of language and thought, rather as what creates meaning and informs the individual. In "Landmarks in Linguistic Thought," Harris contrasts Saussure's revolutionary approach with that of the classical philosophers: "[Saussure] is the first thinker to issue a radical challenge to the notion that had been prevalent in the Western tradition from Plato onwards; namely, that the core of any language comprises an inventory of names designating things, persons, properties and events already given to human understanding in advance of language" (Harris 190). In an age when science was beginning to be regarded as the source of Truth, Saussure sought scientific answers to his questions about thought and language. "The theoretical task for general linguistics, as Saussure saw it, was to find an alternative set of assumptions on which it would be possible, at last, to erect a genuine science of language" (Harris 190).

Notable Quotes

The following excerpt from Saussure's lecture on general linguistics explains the underlying thought process and assumptions upon which Saussure based his structuralist, parole/langue theory of semiology.

"In itself, thought is like a swirling cloud, where no shape is intrinsically determiate. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure.

But do sounds, which lie outside this nebulous world of thought, in themselves constitute entities established in advance? No more than ideas do. The substance of sound is no more fixed or rigid than that of thought. It does not offer a ready-made mould, with shapes that thought must inevitably conform to. It is a malleable material which can be fashioned into separate parts in order to supply the signals which thought has need of. so we can envisage the linguistic phenomenon in its entirety--the language, that is--as a series of adjoining subdivisions simultaneously imprinted both on the plane of vague, amorphous thought, and on the equally featurless plane of sound...

Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in a language to isolate sound from thought or thought from sound. To separate the to for theoretical purposes takes us into either ure psychology or pure phonetics, not linguistics.

Linguistics, then, operates along this margin, where sound and thought meet. The contact between them gives rise to a form, not a substance."

-From Cours de linguistique generale: 155-7

Article Summaries

Saussure, Ferdinand de "Nature of the Linguistic Sign"

Additional Works/Publications




Semiotics for Beginners
Semiotics of Social Networking
Purdue OWL: Structuralism and Semiotics

Further Readings

Krampen, Martin. "Ferdinand de Saussure and the Development of Semiology." Classics of Semiotics. ed. Krampen, Martin, Klaus Oehler, Roland Posner, Thomas Sebeok, Thure von Uexkull. New York: Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag, 1981. Print.

Harris, Roy and Talbot Taylor. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. New York: Roy Harris & Talbot J. Taylor, 1989. Print.

Other Scholarly Views


Those authors that agree with Saussure.


Those authors that disagree with Saussure.


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