Ferdinand de Saussure and the Study of Language

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

On November 26, 1857, Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure was born. His ideas laid the foundation for many significant developments both in linguistics and semiotics in the 20th century. Moreover, de Saussure is widely considered one of the fathers of 20th-century linguistics and together with Charles Sanders Peirceone of two major fathers of semiotics.

Ferdinand de Saussure enrolled at the University of Geneva and started his graduate work at Leipzig in 1876. Already in 1879, the young scientist published a dissertation on the “Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages”. Due to his research on the field, he is next to August Schleicher and Franz Bobb considered as one of the founders of Indo-European Studies. He reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) ablaut system, earning a great reputation. The ‘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“[1]. His findings are important in Indo-European studies up to this day.

De Saussure began teaching Sanskrit, Gothic, and Old High German in Paris but eventually, he was offered a position as a professor in Geneva and returned to his home town. Teaching there, his students enjoyed not only his classes but admired him as a scientist and authority. A few years later, de Saussure taught General Linguistics, which ended in 1911. Some of his students in Geneva collected and published de Saussure’s ideas and manuscripts. These students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechaye became well known linguistic researchers themselves and also published the book “Cours de Linguistique Generale” which contained many of de Saussure’s course contents. The book was a great success and was translated in several languages. The work is now considered as one of the most influential of the 20th century due to the innovative approaches de Saussure risked to take while discussing linguistic phenomena. Also, it was noticed, how consonant the scientist’s ideas were with those of Emile Durkheim or Claude Levi-Strauss and de Saussure contributed significantly to the new field of sociology in these years.

Even though Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories were updated or extended through the years, he was one of the most important contributors to linguistics of the early 20th century and he taught many how to approach language on a fundamental level.

Ferdinand de Saussure passed away on 22 February 1913.

At yovisto you can learn more about the semiotics movement through the work of its founding theorist, Ferdinand de Saussure in the lecture of Yale Prof Paul Fry on ‘Semiotics and Structuralism‘ from Introduction to Theory of Literature.

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