Ferdinand de Saussure  

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Signified (concept) and signifier (sound-image) as imagined by de Saussure
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Signified (concept) and signifier (sound-image) as imagined by de Saussure

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Ferdinand de Saussure (November 26, 1857February 22, 1913) was a Geneva-born Swiss linguist, closely associated with semiotics and structuralist linguistics.

Contents

Course in General Linguistics

Course in General Linguistics

Saussure's most influential work, Course in General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale), was published posthumously in 1916 by former students Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye on the basis of notes taken from Saussure's lectures in Geneva. The Course became one of the seminal linguistics works of the 20th century, not primarily for the content (many of the ideas had been anticipated in the works of other 20th century linguists), but rather for the innovative approach that Saussure applied in discussing linguistic phenomena.

Its central notion is that language may be analyzed as a formal system of differential elements, apart from the messy dialectics of real-time production and comprehension. Examples of these elements include his notion of the linguistic sign, which is composed of the signifier and the signified. Though the sign may also have a referent, Saussure took this last question to lie beyond the linguist's purview.

Legacy

The impact of Saussure's ideas on the development of linguistic theory in the first half of the 20th century cannot be overstated. Two currents of thought emerged independently of each other, one in Europe, the other in America. The results of each incorporated the basic notions of Saussurian thought in forming the central tenets of structural linguistics. In Europe, the most important work was being done by the Prague School. Most notably, Nikolay Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson headed the efforts of the Prague School in setting the course of phonological theory in the decades following 1940. Jakobson's universalizing structural-functional theory of phonology, based on a markedness hierarchy of distinctive features, was the first successful solution of a plane of linguistic analysis according to the Saussurean hypotheses. Elsewhere, Louis Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen School proposed new interpretations of linguistics from structuralist theoretical frameworks. In America, Saussure's ideas informed the distributionalism of Leonard Bloomfield and the post-Bloomfieldian Structuralism of those scholars guided by and furthering the practices established in Bloomfield's investigations and analyses of language, such as Eugene Nida, Bernard Bloch, George L. Trager, Rulon Wells, Charles Hockett, and through Zellig Harris, the young Noam Chomsky. In addition to Chomsky's theory of Transformational grammar, other contemporary developments of structuralism include Kenneth Pike's theory of tagmemics, Sidney Lamb's theory of stratificational grammar, and Michael Silverstein's work.

Outside linguistics, the principles and methods employed by structuralism were soon adopted by scholars and literary critics, such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and implemented in their respective areas of study. However, their expansive interpretations of Saussure's theories, which contained ambiguities to begin with, and their application of those theories to non-linguistic fields of study such as sociology or anthropology, led to theoretical difficulties and proclamations of the end of structuralism in those disciplines.

Works

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. (2002) Écrits de linguistique générale (edition prepared by Simon Bouquet and Rudolf Engler), Paris: Gallimard. ISBN 2-07-076116-9. English translation: Writings in General Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2006) ISBN 0-19-926144-X.

This volume is based on the manuscript of Saussure's "book on general linguistics", found in 1996 in Geneva. Saussure often mentioned the existence of such a manuscript, but it was thought to have been lost for a long time. With this new textual source, new light is shed on the work of Saussure. In particular, new elements appear that call for a revision of the legacy of Saussure, and call into question the reconstruction of his thought by his students in the Course in General Linguistics (1916).

  • (1878) Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européenes (Memoir on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages), Leipzig: Teubner. (online version in Gallica Program, Bibliothèque nationale de France).
  • (1916) Cours de linguistique générale, ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, with the collaboration of A. Riedlinger, Lausanne and Paris: Payot; trans. W. Baskin, Course in General Linguistics, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977.
  • (1993) Saussure’s Third Course of Lectures in General Linguistics (1910–1911): Emile Constantin ders notlarından, Language and Communication series, volume. 12, trans. and ed. E. Komatsu and R. Harris, Oxford: Pergamon.

See also




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