Saussure was born on November 26, 1857 in Geneva, and died on February 22, 1913, at Château Vufflens near Geneva. He is best known for the posthumous compilation of his lecture notes on general linguistics, the Cours de linguistique générale, edited by his former students and first published in 1916 (since translated into more than a dozen languages, including–in order of their first appearance since 1928– Japanese, German, Russian, Spanish, English, Polish, Italian, Hungarian). However, during his lifetime, Saussure was most widely known for his masterly Mémoire of 1879, devoted to an audacious reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European vowel system. It is generally agreed that his Cours ushered in a evolution in linguistic thinking during the 1920s and 1930s which is still felt in the 1990s in many quarters, even beyond linguistics proper. He is universally regarded as ‘the father of structuralism.’
Although from a distinguished Geneva family which–beginning with Horace Bénédict de Saussure, whose portrait adorns the Swiss twenty franc note–can boast of several generations of natural scientists, Ferdinand de Saussure was early drawn to language study, producing an ‘Essai pour réduire les mots du grec, du latin et de l’allemand à un petit nombre de racines’ at the age of 14 or 15 (published in Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure). Following his parents’ wishes, he attended classes in chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the University of Geneva during 1875–76, before being allowed to join his slightly older classmates who had left for Leipzig the year before. So in the fall of 1876 Saussure arrived at the university where a aunber of important works in the field of Indo-European phonology and morphology, including Karl Verner’s epoch-making paper on a series of exceptions to ‘Grimm’s Law,’ had just been published Saussure took courses with Georg Curtius, the memtor of the ‘Junggrammatiker,’ and a number of the younger professors, such as August Leskein, Ernst Windisch, Heinrich Hübschmann, Hermann Osthoff, and others in the fields of Indic studies, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, and Germanic. During 1878–79 Saussure spent two semesters at the University of Berlin, enrolling in courses with Heinrich Zimmer and Hermann Oldenberg. After barely six semesters of formal study, when just 21, he published the major work of his life time. In this 300-page work he assumed the existence, on purely theoretical grounds, of an early Proto-Indo-European sound of unknown phonetic value which would develop into various phonemes of the Indo-European vocalic system depending on its combination with various ‘sonantal coefficients.’ Saussure was thus able to explain a number of puzzling questions of Inde-European ablawt. But the real proof of Saussure’s hypotheses came many years later, after his death, following the decipherment of Hittite and its identification as an Indo-European language, and after the Polish scholar Kurylowica in 1927 had pointed to Hittite cognates that contained the sound corresponding to Saussure’s *A. These were identified as laryngeals, sounds previously not found in any of the other Indo-European languages.
Having returned to Leipzig, Saussure defended his dissertation on the use of the genitive absolute in Sanskrit in February 1880, leaving for Geneva soon thereafter. Before he arrived in Paris in September of that year, he appears to have conducted fieldwork on Lithuanian, like Schleicher and others before him. In Paris Sauussure found a number of receptive students, among them Antoine Meillet, Maurice Grammont, and Paul Passy, but also congenial colleagues such as Gaston Paris, Louis Havet, who had previously written the most detailed review of his Mémoire, and Arsène Darmesteter. Michel Bréal, the doyen of French linguistics, secured him a positin as Maître de Conférences at the École des Hautes in 1881, a post he held until his departure for Geneva ten years later.
During his lifetime, Saussure was best known for his Mémoire and the paper on Lithuanian accentuation (1896). Since the 1920s, however, his influence and fame have been almost exclusively connected with the book he never wrote, the Cours de linguistique générale. This was largely based on notes carefully taken down by a number of his students during a series of lectures on the subject that he had given from 1907-11 at the University fo Geneva (to which he had returned as a professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Grammar in 1891). One of them was Albert Riedlinger, whose name appears on the title page of the Cours, which was put together by Saussure’s successors, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, neither of whom had attended these lectures themselves (through it is frequently, but erroneously, stated in the literature that they had). The Cours was in fact never published in Geneva and was not published in 1915 but in Lausanne and Paris in 1916, thatis, exactly 100 years after Franz Bopp’s Conjugationssystem, which is usually regarded as the beginning of comparative-historical Indo-European linguistics.
The ideas advanced in the Cours produced a veritable revolution in linguistic science; historical-comparative grammar which had dominated linguistic research since the early nineteenth century was soon relegated to a mere province of the field. At least in the manner the Cours had been presented by the editors, Saussure’s general theory of language was seen as assigning pride of place to the non-historical, descriptive, and ‘structural’ approach (Saussure himself did not use the last-mentioned term in a technical sense). This led to a tremendous body of work concerned with the analysis of the linguistic system of language and its function, and a neglect of questions of language change and linguistic evolution in general-a situation which remains characteristic of the linguistic scene in the 1990s, in particular the framework associated with the name of Noam Chomsky. Form the 1920s onwards a variety of important schools of linguistic thought developed in Europe that can ve traced back to proposals made in the Cours. These are usually identified with the respective centers from which they emanated, such as Geneva, Prague, Copenhagen, and Paris. In North America too, through the work of Leonard Bloomfield, Saussure’s ideas became stock-in-trade among linguists, descriptivists, structuralists, and generativists.
At the core of Saussure’s linguistic theory is the assumption that language is a system of interrelated terms which he called ‘langue’ (in contradistinction to ‘parole,’ the individual speech act or speaking in general). This ‘langue’ is the underlying code which ensures that people can speak and understand each other; it has social underpinning and is an operative system embedded in the brain of everyone who has learned a given language. The analysis of this system, Saussure maintains, is the true object of linguistics. The system is a network of relationships which he characterized as being of two kinds: syntagmatic (i.e., items are arranged in a consecutive, linear order) and associative, later termed ‘paradigmatic’ (i.e., the organization of units in a deeper fashion dealing with grammatical and semantic relations). Saussure’s emphasis on language as ‘a system of arbitrary signs’ and his proposal that linguistics is the central part of an overall science of sign relations or ‘semiologie’ have led to the development of a field of inquiry more frequently called ‘semiotics’ (following C. S. Peirce’s terminology), which deals with sign systems in literature and other forms of art, including music and architecture.
The trichotomies (usually reduced to dichotomies) which have become current in twentieth-century thought, far beyond their original application, are: langage-langue-pparole (i.e., language in all its manifestations or ‘speech’; language as the underlying system; and ‘speaking’), sign, signified, and signifier synchrony versus diachrony, and syntagmatic versus paradigmatic relations.
From The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics