Ferdinand de Saussure

26 Nov 1857
22 Feb 1913
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Ferdinand de Saussure ( 26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913) was a Swiss linguist and semiotician whose ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments both in linguistics and semiology in the 20th century.

He is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics and one of two major fathers (together with Charles Sanders Peirce) of semiotics/semiology.

One of his translators, Roy Harris, summarized Saussure’s contribution to linguistics and the study of “the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.”

Although they have undergone extension and critique over time, the dimensions of organization introduced by Saussure continue to inform contemporary approaches to the phenomenon of language.

Prague school linguist Jan Mukařovský writes that Saussure’s “discovery of the internal structure of the linguistic sign differentiated the sign both from mere acoustic ‘things’ … and from mental processes”, and that in this development “new roads were thereby opened not only for linguistics, but also, in the future, for the theory of literature.”

Ruqaiya Hasan argues that “the impact of Saussure’s theory of the linguistic sign has been such that modern linguists and their theories have since been positioned by reference to him: they are known as pre-Saussurean, Saussurean, anti-Saussurean, post-Saussurean, or non-Saussure.”

Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva in 1857. His father was Henri Louis Frédéric de Saussure, a mineralogist, entomologist, and taxonomist. Saussure showed signs of considerable talent and intellectual ability as early as the age of fourteen.

After a year of studying Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, and taking a variety of courses at the University of Geneva, he commenced graduate work at the University of Leipzig in 1876.

Two years later at 21, Saussure published a book entitled Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Dissertation on the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages).

After this he studied for a year at Berlin under the ‘Privatdozenten’ Heinrich Zimmer, with whom he studied Celtic, and Hermann Oldenberg, with whom he continued his studies of Sanskrit.

He returned to Leipzig to defend his doctoral dissertation De l’emploi du génitif absolu en Sanscrit, and was awarded his doctorate in February 1880. Soon afterwards, he relocated to Paris, where he lectured on Sanskrit, Gothic and Old High German, and occasionally other subjects.

He taught at the École pratique des hautes études for eleven years, during which he was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor).

When offered a professorship in Geneva in 1891, he returned. Saussure lectured on Sanskrit and Indo-European at the University of Geneva for the remainder of his life.

It was not until 1907 that Saussure began teaching the Course of General Linguistics, which he would offer three times, ending in the summer of 1911.

He died in 1913 in Vufflens-le-Château, Vaud, Switzerland. His son was the psychoanalyst Raymond de Saussure.

Saussure attempted at various times in the 1880s and 1890s to write a book on general linguistic matters. His lectures about important principles of language description in Geneva between 1907 and 1911 were collected and published by his pupils posthumously in the famous Cours de linguistique générale in 1916.

Some of his manuscripts, including an unfinished essay discovered in 1996, were published in Writings in General Linguistics, though most of the material in this book had already been published in Engler’s critical edition of the Course in 1967 and 1974. (TUFA)

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