Biographical sketch of Ferdinand de Saussure

by Suzanne Kemmer

Ferdinand de Saussure, 1857-1913. Ferdinand de Saussure was born in Geneva into a family of well-known scientists. He studied Sanskrit and comparative linguistics in Geneva, Paris, and Leipzig, where he fell in with the circle of young scholars known as the Neogrammarians. Brugmann, in particular, was his mentor, but he was also close to Karl Verner and others of the circle.

In 1878, at the age of 21, Saussure published a long and precocious paper called "Note on the Primitive System of the Indo-European Vowels". He explained in greater and clearer detail than others who were coming to similar conclusions how the PIE ablaut system worked. (Ablaut is the ancient system of vowel alternations in the parent language, visible in surviving irregular alternations among cognates like Latin ped vs. Greek pod, 'foot'; and also in the Germanic strong verb system in exemplified by vowel alternates like sing, sang, sung).

One of the most inspired parts of his analysis is the positing of 'sonorant co-efficients', consonantal elements that do not appear in any daughter language but can be hypothesized due to the systematic way the vowels are affected in the descendent languages, and due to position and distribution of such elements in the rest of the PIE system. The great 20th century Indo-Europeanist Jerzy Kurylowicz later pointed out that Hittite, the last-discovered ancient Indo-European language, had consonants in just the positions predicted by Saussure's analysis. These consonants are now called laryngeals, and the study of laryngeals, bringing to bear more recent evidence than Saussure had access to, is still an important area of Indo-European studies.

This brilliant start was not followed by any tremendous output of published work, but it contained the seeds of his essential insight into the importance of the linguistic system and how central it is for understanding human knowledge and behavior. De Saussure was only eight years younger than Karl Brugmann, and he died some years earlier than Brugmann; yet because of his re-focussing of attention onto aspects of language that had not been part of the older field, he seems to belong to a later generation. His ideas fit into a recognizably modern era in which human phenomena are no longer viewed primarily from the point of view of their construed trajectory through time, but as structural wholes that are self-contained and whose parts fill interrelated functions.

Saussure's influence on linguists was far-reaching, first through his direct influence on his students at the University of Geneva, who practically worshipped him, and then through his ideas as collected and disseminated after his death by two of his students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechaye These students, who became well-known linguistic researchers in their own right, put together course notes from their and another student's notebooks to produce the Cours de Linguistique Generale, based on several of Saussure's courses of lectures at Geneva, using the notebooks of various students attending. This composite work, shaped and interpreted by Bally and Sechaye, was prepared in the years immediately following Saussure's death as a tribute and as a way making his brilliant ideas accessible beyond Geneva and for posterity. It worked: the Cours was widely read in French by scholars all over Europe, and in 1959 was translated into English by Wade Baskin mainly for American students, who were less likely to have learned to read French than their European counterparts. A new translation of the Cours by Roy Harris appeared in 1986.

Saussure's fresh ideas were consonant with those of his influental compatriot Claude Levi-Strauss, and also those of Emile Durkheim, pioneer of the new field of sociology. Saussure's influence spread all through the new social sciences in the early and mid-twentieth century, and ultimately, for better or worse, to literary theory and modern cultural studies. They still exert a very strong intellectual force in all these disciplines (probably most in Linguistics and the disciplines most influenced by literary theory; less so now in traditional Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology).

In Linguistics, Saussure's focus on the synchronic dimension and on language as an interrelated system of elements was maintained through the American Structuralist period (Bloomfield, Hockett), and also in the Generative period (Chomsky, Bresnan). His view of the essential nature of the form-meaning pairing, without the intermediate and essentiallly meaningless syntactic layer posited by Chomsky, Perlmutter, and other generative theory-builders, has re-emerged in theories like Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (Sag and Pollard) and Construction Grammar.

Modern Functionalist theories have integrated diachrony much more than generative theories (cf. the Functional Typology of Greenberg, Givón, Comrie, Heine, and Bybee), but the focus on the synchronic has nevertheless been essentially maintained in modern Cognitive theories of language, in keeping with the synchronic view of the human mind in the Cognitive Sciences, notably Psychology and Neuroscience.


Harris, Roy. 1987. Reading Saussure. London: Duckworth.

Harris, Roy. Saussure and his interpreters. 2003. 2nd ed. Call number for 2nd ed: P85 .S18 H37 2003

Harris, Roy, and Talbot J. Taylor. 1989. [Second ed. 1997] Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. London: Routledge. Call number for 2nd ed: P61 .H37 1997

Koerner, Konrad. 1962.

Pedersen, Holger. 1931. [1962]. The Discovery of Language: Linguistic Science in the 19th Century. Translated by John Webster Spargo. Midland Book edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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