Ferdinand de Saussure (26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913) By Siemers, Ryan
The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure received his doctorate from the University of Leipzig in 1880, taught at the École Pratique des Haute Études in Paris (1881–1891) and the Université de Genève (1991–1913). Saussure’s posthumously published Cours de Linguistique Générale (1915) was reconstructed by scholars from students’ notes taken at Saussure’s lectures between 1906 and 1911. Unlike previous linguists, Saussure focussed here on the synchronic (systematic) structure of language rather than the diachronic (historical) development of language, though he taught the latter as well. Saussure argued that signs were the arbitrary pairing of signifiers (sound images, or words) and signifieds (concepts), constituting a system in which tout se tient (everything connects with everything). (His approach to the sign was anticipated only by C. S. Pierce, founder of semiology.) Saussure’s linguistic signs are not “natural,” but arbitrarily gain value (the capacity to act as a signifier) by means of their systematic and habitual differences from one another. The rules of the system as a whole, langue, function autonomously, allowing individual performances, or parole, within a given language (langage). The literary critic Roman Jakobson and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss extended Saussure’s work into a theory of structuralism for the human sciences.