In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ferdinand de Saussure

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals and Website
  • The Mémoire and Other Work in Historical Linguistics
  • Semiology
  • The Anagram Research and Other Unpublished Work
  • Cours de linguistique générale
  • Later Extensions of Saussure’s Work

Linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure
John E. Joseph
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0003


Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857–d. 1913) is acknowledged as the founder of modern linguistics and semiology, and as having laid the groundwork for structuralism and post-structuralism. Born and educated in Geneva, in 1876 he went to the University of Leipzig, where he received a doctorate in 1881. While a student there he published the Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879), which radically reimagined how the original Indo-European vowel system might be reconstructed. During the 1880s Saussure was lecturer in Gothic and Old High German at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, and he served as adjunct secretary of the Société de Linguistique de Paris and was responsible for the Société’s publications in which a number of his own papers appeared. He also began, but abandoned, several more ambitious projects. In 1891 he returned to Geneva to take up a chair in Sanskrit and comparative Indo-European philology. He began another project on the “double essence” of language that was never completed. His papers on Lithuanian accentuation from this period would earn recognition for “Saussure’s Law,” which applies to historical accent shifts in a particular category of Lithuanian words. The next decade saw him devote his attention to various topics, including local toponyms around Geneva, legends of the Germanic peoples who had settled in the area, and finally the search for anagrams in Greek and Latin poetry, but no publications resulted. In 1907 he was given responsibility for the university’s course in general linguistics, a course meant for students who lacked sufficient grounding in any ancient or medieval language to do in-depth textual study. Saussure had no experience in teaching a course in general linguistics, nor indeed had he ever taken one. Restructuring the course each of the three times he gave it, he brought in sign theory and other aspects of the grammaire générale tradition in which he himself had been taught (see John E. Joseph, Saussure [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012]) but that linguists had laid aside and forgotten in the intervening decades. Soon after his death in 1913, his colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, appreciating the extraordinary nature of his lectures, began gathering his manuscript notes and the notebooks of his students. From these they fashioned the Cours de linguistique générale (Course in general linguistics), published in 1916. It would become one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, not just for linguistics but also across many realms of intellectual endeavor. Many previously unpublished texts by Saussure have been appearing in recent years, principally in the volumes of the Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure. Various projects are underway for making photographic reproductions of the manuscript material online.

General Overviews

Because Saussure did not actually write the book that he is most famous for and that had the most direct impact on later linguistics, it is especially useful to approach his work in its broader context, rather than to focus exclusively on the Cours. Indeed, some Saussure scholars (most notably Simon Bouquet) maintain that the published Cours badly misrepresents Saussure’s ideas about language as recorded in his students’ notebooks, although others, probably a majority, consider such misrepresentations to be few in number and rarely to amount to serious distortion. The studies in this section are divided between those aimed at an audience looking for an initial introduction to Saussure and those that analyze his linguistic theories in depth. In both cases, the ones published before 1980 rarely take serious account of the manuscripts available up to that time, while those from the 1980s and 1990s do tend to look at the full scope of the material then available, and those from the 2000s and after are able to draw on new manuscripts that have come to light since 1996.

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