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date: 02 July 2022

Ferdinand de Saussurefree

Ferdinand de Saussurefree

  • John E. JosephJohn E. JosephUniversity of Edinburgh


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the founding figure of modern linguistics, made his mark on the field with a book he published a month after his 21st birthday, in which he proposed a radical rethinking of the original system of vowels in Proto-Indo-European. A year later, he submitted his doctoral thesis on a morpho-syntactic topic, the genitive absolute in Sanskrit, to the University of Leipzig. He went to Paris intending to do a second, French doctorate, but instead he was given responsibility for courses on Gothic and Old High Gerrman at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and for managing the publications of the Société de Linguistique de Paris. He abandoned more than one large publication project of his own during the decade he spent in Paris. In 1891 he returned to his native Geneva, where the University created a chair in Sanskrit and the history and comparison of languages for him. He produced some significant work on Lithuanian during this period, connected to his early book on the Indo-European vowel system, and yielding Saussure’s Law, concerning the placement of stress in Lithuanian. He undertook writing projects about the general nature of language, but again abandoned them. In 1907, 1908–1909, and 1910–1911, he gave three courses in general linguistics at the University of Geneva, in which he developed an approach to languages as systems of signs, each sign consisting of a signifier (sound pattern) and a signified (concept), both of them mental rather than physical in nature, and conjoined arbitrarily and inseparably. The socially shared language system, or langue, makes possible the production and comprehension of parole, utterances, by individual speakers and hearers. Each signifier and signified is a value generated by its difference from all the other signifiers or signifieds with which it coexists on an associative (or paradigmatic) axis, and affected as well by its syntagmatic axis. Shortly after Saussure’s death at 55, two of his colleagues, Bally and Sechehaye, gathered together students’ notes from the three courses, as well as manuscript notes by Saussure, and from them constructed the Cours de linguistique générale, published in 1916. Over the course of the next several decades, this book became the basis for the structuralist approach, initially within linguistics, and later adapted to other fields. Saussure left behind a large quantity of manuscript material that has gradually been published over the last few decades, and continues to be published, shedding new light on his thought.


  • Historical Linguistics
  • History of Linguistics
  • Linguistic Theories

1. Saussure’s Life

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) was a young man holding no academic degree when he set out to reform the conceptual and methodological basis of linguistics. His early attempt was partly successful, insofar as the historical study of the Indo-European languages was concerned, but his wider ambitions would take much longer to realize. Only after his death did a book based on his lectures on general linguistics set the agenda for the analysis of language in the 20th century and beyond.

Saussure was born in Geneva on November 26, 1857, the first of the nine children of Henri de Saussure and Countess Louise de Pourtalès (for a full biography and account of Saussure’s works, see Joseph, 2012). The Saussures were a noble Calvinist family who had fled persecution in the Lorraine region of France in the 15th century and settled in Geneva’s Upper Town. Ferdinand’s great-grandfather, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, became a famous scientist, one of the founders of modern geology. Of Horace-Bénédict’s three children, two became scholars of considerable stature. Adrienne Necker de Saussure wrote a widely read biography of her cousin by marriage, the novelist Germaine de Staël, and an influential study of progressive education that includes a chapter on children’s acquisition of language (Necker de Saussure, 1828–1838). Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure is remembered for important contributions to organic chemistry, including being the first to determine the precise chemistry of photosynthesis.

Their younger brother, Alphonse, assisted their father in his scientific experiments, but did not become a scholar or author in his own right. Alphonse sent his two sons, Théodore and Henri, to Hofwyl, an experimental school near Bern run on the principles of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi. Henri, in turn, did the same with his first two sons, Ferdinand and Horace, imagining Hofwyl still to be as it was in his day. In fact, it was utterly changed, run by then on the model of an English boarding school, complete with the bullying for which those schools are notorious. Ferdinand and his brother finally had to be withdrawn from Hofwyl, where at least Ferdinand had got an initial grounding in the classical languages and German, the language of instruction, and also English, the lingua franca outside the classroom for the school’s international student body.

Returning to Geneva in 1870, Ferdinand, then twelve, entered the private École Martine, and went on in 1872 to the public Collège de Genève. After that, he progressed to the Gymnase de Genève and finally the Université de Genève, where he began his formal study of linguistics under the tutelage of Louis Morel, recently returned from his own studies at the University of Leipzig. It was to Leipzig that Ferdinand himself headed in 1876, shortly before his 19th birthday. Leipzig linguistics was in ferment at the time, with Hermann Osthoff and Karl Brugmann, both of whom would be among Saussure’s teachers, laying the ground for the neogrammatische Richtung, the manifesto of which they would jointly sign in 1878.

In 1877–1878 Saussure published his first articles in the Mémoires of the Société de Linguistique de Paris, having been admitted to membership by correspondence. One of them (Saussure, 1877) proposed a reanalysis of the vowels a and o in Proto-Indo-European, a topic that had returned to the forefront of the linguistic research agenda after two decades dominated by Schleicher’s analysis proposed in the 1850s. Saussure would offer another, much more radical reanalysis in his book on “the primitive system of vowels in the Indo-European languages” (Saussure, 1879), which made his reputation when he was just 20 years old, and was by far his most significant publication during his lifetime.

For the academic year 1878–1879 Saussure left Leipzig for Berlin, where he took private courses in Celtic and Sanskrit while undertaking research for his doctoral thesis analyzing the genitive absolute construction in Sanskrit (Saussure, 1881). He submitted this work to the University of Leipzig and was awarded a PhD in 1880. In August 1880 he travelled to Lithuania for a short research visit, hoping to record definitive data on Lithuanian intonation. He took many notes on what he heard (see Petit, 2010), but he concluded that the intonation pattern was too subtle for a non-native speaker to detect. None of the material he recorded was ever used in his published work or in his lectures, of which records are available.

In the autumn of 1880, Saussure went to Paris with the intention of doing a second, French doctorate. His name was already known there, for his several publications by this time in the Mémoires of the Société de Linguistique, as well as for his 1879 Mémoire on the Indo-European vowel system. Within a few months he was hired to give courses on the historical linguistics of Gothic and Old High German at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and soon he was also made Adjunct Secretary of the Société de Linguistique (initially in an acting capacity), an appointment that saddled him with the heavy responsibility of seeing all of the Société’s publications through the press as well as organizing and recording minutes of its fortnightly meetings.

Abandoning his plans for a French degree, Saussure continued teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études until 1889, when he took a year’s leave and returned to Geneva, intending to complete his study of Lithuanian intonation and its wider implications. This leave coincided with a series of personal crises and disappointments. His mother’s nervous state had given way; his hopes for becoming engaged to a wealthy Parisian cousin were dashed; and he failed to be considered for either of the two chairs of Sanskrit that had recently fallen vacant. His time in Geneva did not produce a completed work for publication, and he returned to Paris for the academic year 1890–1891. But then, he decided to go back permanently to the Université de Genève, where a chair in Sanskrit and the history and comparison of the Indo-European languages was created for him.

In 1892 he married his cousin Marie Faesch, and nine months later they had their first son, Jacques. Two more sons, Raymond and André, followed in 1894 and 1895, though André succumbed to cholera three months later. In 1894 Saussure was one of the two main organizers of the Tenth International Congress of Orientalists in Geneva, where he gave a paper (of which only the abstract would be published, as Saussure, 1897), enunciating what would become known as Saussure’s Law, which is discussed in the next section. Apart from his articles on Lithuanian, he published little of lasting importance for linguistics for the remainder of his life, which ended on February 22, 1913, apparently from influenza, which still today, even with modern antibiotics, can be fatal to those suffering, as Saussure did, from chronic arteriosclerosis.

2. The Mémoire

When in 1878 Saussure set out to write a paper laying out a radically new approach to the primitive Indo-European vowel system, he estimated that it would be sixty pages long. As he wrote, it grew into a book five times that length. This book came out in December 1878, though bearing the date 1879 on its title page. The essence of Saussure’s many-faceted proposal was that the original Indo-European mother language had just one vowel in stressed syllables, an a which raised to be pronounced as /e/, and which he symbolized as a1. Subsequently, in some linguistic environments, a1 shifted phonetically to /o/; this variant he symbolized as a2. At first the raising and backing were not noticed by speakers, then were perceived as what Saussure called colorings, or what would later be called allophonic variants. Over time, however, they came to signal nuances in meaning, such as different tenses of the same verb.

Saussure argued that the primitive Indo-European syllable could have had one of four possible nuclei: a1 or a2 on their own, or forming a diphthong with another sound, which he termed the coefficient sonantique ‘sonant coefficient’ because of its co-effect with the vowel on later developments of the sound system. It had to be a sonant, capable of functioning as either a semi-consonant or a vowel because one eventual development was for the a1 or a2 to disappear, leaving the sonant coefficient as the lone vowel of the syllable. Alternatively, the sonant coefficient might disappear, leaving a trace on the preceding vowel such as lengthening or a change in quality or stress.

Saussure provided evidence for the existence of the sonant coefficients m, n, l, r, i, and u, all corresponding to sounds of the attested Indo-European languages, but he also included two hypothetical sonant coefficients, A and , corresponding to no attested sound. He argued further for the inclusion in the system of an unattested vowel which he symbolized as A, describing it as a “degenerescence” of the sonant coefficients A and , and likening it to the French e muet, the vowel for example of the de in de Saussure. Soon after the Mémoire was published, the Danish linguist Herman Möller (1880) proposed that these three sounds might correspond to the laryngeal consonants (variants of h or the glottal stop), which he had recently posited for Proto-Indo-European. Saussure never endorsed this possibility but neither was he hostile to it, and he would later accept Brugmann’s (1886) identification of A with the Hebrew schwa. Both Möller’s and Brugmann’s suggestions provided evidence for the earlier unity of the Indo-European and Hamito-Semitic language families, a unity that Möller in particular was hopeful of proving (see Möller, 1906).

Contrary to what is often stated, however, the Mémoire contains no mention of laryngeals. The story is often recounted of how the phonemes hypothesized in Saussure’s Mémoire were confirmed in 1927 when Jerzy Kuryłowicz showed how they correspond to the distribution of certain consonants in Hittite, an archaic Indo-European language not deciphered until 1911. Actually what Kuryłowicz (1927) was confirming were Möller’s reinterpretation of the sonant coefficients as laryngeals, yet it is right to credit Saussure with predicting where they would occur.

3. The Period 1879–1907

Over the next nearly 30 years, Saussure published his doctoral thesis on the genitive absolute in Sanskrit (Saussure, 1881), then a couple of dozen brief articles, while pursuing grander writing projects that he inevitably abandoned. Actually, the abandonment began with the projected Part Three of his doctoral thesis, in which he attempted to question the basic methodology for the historical study of languages and reground it on a firmer understanding of the nature of language. Just as the Mémoire had grown to many times the length originally projected, Part Three of the thesis, it turned out, was going to take much longer than anticipated; so he submitted the two initial parts to the University of Leipzig and was awarded his doctorate, the first academic degree he received.

As noted above, Saussure moved to Paris, where he remained through the 1880s. Much of his time was consumed with the secretarial work for the Société de Linguistique. His intention was always to write a book that would do what was originally planned for the aborted Part Three of his thesis; at least one book-length manuscript from the first half of the decade has survived (eventually published as Saussure, 1995), along with drafts of other ambitious studies. His courses at the École Pratique des Hautes Études contained substantial consideration of general linguistic principles, and they were decisive in forming a generation of French linguists who would regard him as their primary inspiration. These linguists included Antoine Meillet, whose own students would be the leading linguists of France into the last third of the 20th century.

After his return to Geneva in 1891, he tried to draft another book or long article of a general linguistic nature, on the “double essence” of language. He set it aside, then gave it another go in 1894 when he was asked to contribute an article to a memorial volume for the recently deceased American linguist W. D. Whitney—again, never completed (both the 1891 and 1894 manuscripts are included in Saussure, 2002a). The double essence of the title refers to the fact that the elements of language function simultaneously as distinctive sounds and as meaningful sounds, or signs. This, Saussure says, is entirely different from opposing form and meaning, which is what linguists usually do, but which is in fact both wrong and impracticable. There can exist no linguistic form apart from meaning, nor linguistic meaning apart from form. The “linguistic unit” is their conjunction, and this makes language unique. The doubleness is there from the moment of inception, and while it is possible to think of the elements as separated into two component parts, these are not concrete entities, just abstractions created by the imagination.

What he did publish in this period were offshoots or continuations of the Mémoire, notably his work on Lithuanian accentuation (Saussure, 1894, 1896). Saussure believed that a particular feature of the Lithuanian pitch accent was the missing link of Indo-European linguistic history, the most direct living relic of his hypothetical A. In this context, he formulated what continues to be known as Saussure’s Law: in Lithuanian, in a sequence of a stressed circumflex vowel followed by an unstressed acute vowel, the stress shifts from the first to the second syllable, giving an unstressed circumflex followed by a stressed acute.

At the start of the 20th century, Saussure began pursuing a long-standing interest in what toponyms could reveal about the prehistory of the settlement of Geneva and adjacent areas of Switzerland and France, and how it connected to the Germanic legends that had become universally known through the operas of Richard Wagner (see Saussure, 1972, 1986). A trip to Rome in 1906 led him to undertake research into what appeared to be anagrams hidden within Latin and Greek poetry. His hypothesis was that he had located a forgotten principle that lay behind the composition of verse in the ancient Indo-European languages. In the end, however, he concluded that it could not be proven that the anagrams had been deliberately constructed, and he scrupulously abandoned the project without publishing any of it, despite Meillet’s pleas to him to do so.

4. The Courses in General Linguistics

The book for which Saussure became most famous, the Cours de linguistique générale, was put together by his Geneva colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye mainly using the notes of students, supplemented by some manuscript notes of Saussure’s, from the three general linguistics courses he gave in 1907, 1908–1909, and 1910–1911. In the autumn of 1906, Joseph Wertheimer, who had given a course in general linguistics at the Université de Genève since before Saussure himself was a student there (a course Saussure declined to take), fell gravely ill and was compelled to retire from teaching. Normally, the University would have replaced him with a new professor, but this was a period of austerity, and the University had in Saussure a renowned linguist whose courses in Sanskrit and occasionally other subjects attracted very few students. Saussure, who was also acting as librarian for the Arts Faculty, agreed to take responsibility for the general linguistics course starting in January 1907. He was not completely comfortable with it, recalling his vain efforts to write a book on the subject over his entire adult life, and knowing that this course was aimed at students whose background in Sanskrit or Latin or any other specific language was not strong enough for them to do the sort of in-depth textual study that Saussure considered the only real way to gain a comprehension of how language works. He knew that the course would need to start from scratch, questioning the meaning of such basic terms as langue, language, parole, all used more or less interchangeably in colloquial French to indicate language in general, a particular language, a text, an utterance, a word.

His first course was a good start but left him dissatisfied. Before the second run in 1908–1909, he rethought it from the ground up. Here and in the third course, Saussure completed his description of a language as a system whose every element is attached to every other element, and where the content of an element is purely a value generated by its difference vis-à-vis every other element. It is a model of such modernist elegance that we linguists today still have trouble accepting it with all that it entails. The following subsections sketch the features of Saussure’s approach that would prove most influential.

4.1 The Distinction Between Langue and Parole

A language, une langue, is the virtual system possessed by all those who form part of the same speech community that makes it possible for them to understand and be understood by other members of that community. La parole is the utterances, the texts, that individuals produce and understand making use of the system that is la langue. In addition, when Saussure refers to the language faculty that all people possess, as distinct from the particular langues they speak, he sometimes calls this the faculté de langage; but there is not a consistent three-way division of langue-parole-langage, particularly because he sometimes uses la langue to mean language generally, as a pan-human attribute.

4.2 Language as a System of Signs

A langue is a system of signs in which each sign is the conjunction of two values, both entirely mental (psychological), which he sometimes calls a concept and an acoustic image. However, these terms can mislead readers into thinking of them as visual images, when they are meant to be pure values. Other linguists of the time generally conceived of languages as a way of denoting things and actions. Saussure argued that it is not things, but our conception of things, actions, and ideas, that are part of our language; not names, but schemas in the brain capable of being evoked by certain combinations of sounds. In one of his last lectures he introduced the terms signifiant ‘signifier’ for the acoustic image and signifié ‘signified’ for the concept. He avoided neologism in general, but this appeared to be the best way around the temptation to imagine, for example, the signifié corresponding to sheep as either a physical animal or a mental image of such an animal, rather than as a value generated by its difference from lamb, goat, ewe, mutton, and so on.

Detailed inquiry into the sign was undertaken only in Saussure’s third and last course, specifically in its second half. From here derives the bulk of the material on the sign in the published Cours.

4.3 Value

Each signifier and each signified is a value produced by the difference between it and all the other signifiers and signifieds in the system (see Joseph, 2014). It is not the sound as such that signifies; there is, after all, much variation in the pronunciation of all speech sounds. The French /r/, for example, exhibits wide phonetic variation; indeed, analysis of recordings show subtle differences in every utterance of the “same” sound. But if when saying the word roi ‘king’ a speaker produces Standard French /ʁwa/, or /rwa/ with a rolled r, or /Rwa/ with the Parisian working-class guttural r (as on records by Édith Piaf), the same signifier is perceived, so long as it is distinct from moi ‘me’, doigt ‘finger’ or any other word.

Likewise with the signified: if an animal of a certain species comes into view a French speaker would exclaim Un mouton!, and an English speaker A sheep!. But the linguistic values of mouton and sheep are different. The signified of mouton includes the whole animal or some of its meat, whereas the signified of sheep covers only the animal on the hoof. Its meat is mutton, an entirely different sign. This means that the signified belongs to a particular language just as much as does the signifier. The world we experience with its categories of animals, things, colours and so on—does not exist before language. The signifier and the signified are created together, with the particular segmentations that distinguish one language from another, one culture from another.

The idea of value generated by difference was raised late in the first course, in the context of a discussion of historical reconstruction, acquired more significance in the second course as part of its opening discussion of the linguistic sign. It became the climax of the third course, whence the following passage from the Cours is taken:

“in a language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, the language contains neither ideas nor sounds that pre-exist the linguistic system, but only conceptual differences and phonic differences issuing from this system”

(Cours p. 166, my translation).

However, the conjunction of signifier and signified is a sign which is of a positive order, and is concrete rather than abstract. The third course also looks in detail at just how the oppositions within the system are structured. Every word or term or unit within the system is connected to an entourage of other units, related to it either syntagmatically (i.e., the units that can come before or after it in an utterance) or associatively (i.e., the units with which it has something in common in form or meaning). The relationships of difference in these two domains generate the value of the unit. Ultimately, then, no linguistic sign exists in isolation.

4.4 The Arbitrariness of the Linguistic Sign

It is specifically the link between a signifier and a signified that is radically arbitrary. Saussure calls this the first principle of the linguistic sign. It is an ancient doctrine, yet not self-evident, given the existence of apparently mimetic signifiers such as French fouet (an example inserted into the Cours by its editors) and its English counterpart whip, in each of which can be heard the crack of a whip. That is, some people hear it. It is a matter of interpretation: for someone who hears the sound, the mimetic link is real, despite the French word’s etymological derivation from Latin fagus ‘beech’ (strips of beech wood having been used as whips). The Saussurean principle of the arbitrariness of the sign maintains that, whether or not there is such a mimetic link, the sign operates in the same way: fouet and whip are no more “true” for those who hear the crack of a whip in the word than for those of us who do not hear it. Nor are they more or less true than a word such as livre or book, in which a mimetic link between sound and idea seems far-fetched (see Joseph, 2015).

Later passages constrain the principle of arbitrariness by showing that it does not necessarily apply in the relationships among signs, and by pointing out that, even if the linguistic sign is arbitrary, it is impossible for anyone to change it (see the section on Mutability and Immutability). However, time can change the sign, specifically by bringing about a shift in the relationship between the signified and signifier. Saussure himself remarked on the apparent contradiction between these two statements.

Saussure says that, before language, human thought was an amorphous, indistinct, nebulous mass, a floating realm; and human sound was no different. Only with the appearance of language do thoughts, in conjunction with sounds, become distinct. He argues that

the choice which calls up a given acoustic slice for a given idea is perfectly arbitrary. If this were not so, the notion of value would lose something of its character, since it would contain an element imposed from without. But in fact the values remain entirely relative, and that is why the link between the idea and the sound is radically arbitrary.

(Cours, p. 157)

In his annotated edition of the Cours (p. 464, n. 228), De Mauro points out that the last sentence turns the argument into a circular one, and shows that it is the result of a poor decision by the editors. Saussure did not try to explain the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. By positing it as the first principle, he accepted it axiomatically as the primordial fact about language that need not and cannot be explained.

Moreover, he treats arbitrariness not just as a principle but as a problem that the whole structure of a language is geared toward limiting: “everything having to do with language as a system demands […] to be treated from the point of view […] of limiting the arbitrary” (Cours, p. 182). “Only some signs are absolutely arbitrary; with others, a phenomenon intervenes which permits the recognition of degrees of arbitrariness without doing away with it: the sign can be relatively motivated” (pp. 180–181, italics in original). He gives a series of examples, all from morphology:

Thus vingt ‘twenty’ is unmotivated, but dix-neuf ‘nineteen’ is less so, since it evokes the terms which compose it and others associated with it, for instance dix ‘10’, neuf ‘9’, vingt-neuf ‘29’, dix-huit ‘18’ […]. Likewise for poirier ‘pear tree’, which recalls the simple word poire ‘pear’, and whose suffix ‑ier brings to mind cerisier ‘cherry tree’, pommier ‘apple tree’, etc. […]. The English plural ships recalls through its formation the whole series flags, birds, books etc., whereas men, sheep recall nothing […].

(p. 181)

Left without restriction, arbitrariness would result in supreme complication. But “the mind manages to introduce a principle of order and regularity into certain parts of the mass of signs, and therein lies the role of the relatively motivated” (p. 182). More than anything, this approach is reminiscent of the Neogrammarians who taught Saussure in Leipzig. According to them, languages evolve blindly, following laws of sound change that admit no exceptions but are occasionally contravened by analogy—precisely the process of the mind finding and introducing order into what is otherwise an arbitrary procedure. Saussure believed that some languages, like Sanskrit, are highly grammatical in structure and therefore lean more to the side of motivation, whereas others, like Chinese, are more lexicological and therefore lean more to arbitrariness. However, “within the interior of any given language, the whole movement of evolution can be marked by a continual passage from the motivated to the arbitrary and back again” (p. 183).

4.5 The Linearity of the Signifier and the Associative and Syntagmatic Axes

Linguistic signs unfold in a single dimension, a linear one. This frame has a fundamental implication for a language: it has two axes. Each element of a language occupies an associative axis, which determines its value vis-à-vis other elements, and a syntagmatic axis, which specifies which elements can and cannot precede it and follow it in an utterance, sometimes inflecting its meaning. The associative axis, the name of which may have connections with the associationist psychology that has various resonances in Saussure (see Joseph, 2016b), has tended to be known as the “paradigmatic” axis since it was rechristened as such by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev in the 1930s (see Koerner, 2000, p. 126, n. 18).

4.6 Mutability and Immutability

Every element of a language is subject to change, to evolution; no language is in the same state as it was 100 years previously, still less 500 years previously. Yet paradoxically, a language is immutable: no speaker can change it on his or her own. One can introduce an innovation into parole, the level of the individual utterance; but for this innovation to enter into the language requires it to be accepted by the entire speech community. Because the value of each element derives from its relation to all the other elements, any change in the system produces a new system, a new langue.

Therein lies the immutability of langue: no individual can change it; the masse parlante, the mass of speakers, have to accept a change, for it to become part of the language. In so doing, they do not make a change within the language. Rather, they move the whole language forward into a new état de langue, state of language, which is tantamount to a new language.

Both the mutability and the immutability of language, he argued, result from the arbitrariness of the sign. Were there some rational connection between signified and signifier, it would allow speakers of the language to intervene either to prevent inevitable change, or to initiate changes of their own. Saussure did not deny the validity of the usual explanation given in his day for immutability, namely the historical transmission of language. It excludes any possibility of sudden or general change because generations always overlap and because of the amount of imitative effort involved in mastering our mother tongue. But Saussure insisted that the essential explanation lies with the arbitrary nature of the sign, which protects the language from any attempt at modifying it, because the general populace would be unable to discuss the matter, even if they were more conscious of language than they are. For something to be put into question, it must rest on a norm that is raisonnable, able to be reasoned about.

Immutability has a social dimension as well. The fact that the language is an integral part of everyone’s life creates a collective resistance to change initiated by any individual. And it has a historical dimension: the language being situated in time, solidarity with the past checks the freedom to choose. “It is because the sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition, and it is because it is founded on tradition that it can be arbitrary” (Cours, p. 108).

4.7 Synchrony and Diachrony

For Saussure, the reality of a language cannot be fully comprehended without taking account of both its social and its historical dimension, in conjunction with the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. If we attended to the historical but left aside the social, “imagining an isolated individual living for several centuries, we would perhaps note no alteration; time would not act on the language” (Cours, p. 113). And if we attended to the social without the historical, “we would not see the effect of the social forces acting on the language” (ibid.). But as soon as the two are put together, “the language is not free, because time will permit the social forces working upon it to develop their effects, and we arrive at the principle of continuity, which annuls freedom” (ibid.).

Hence, the study of a language must be both synchronic and diachronic. Synchronic analysis is aimed at identifying the elements of a system and their values at a given point in time, a given état de langue. Diachronic analysis is the comparison of two or more états de langue as they exist at different times. But the so-called ‘historical’ linguistics of Saussure’s day was not diachronic: it claimed instead to trace the development of isolate elements across the centuries—a vowel, or an inflection—as if this element had a history, a life, independent of the system of which it was a part at each particular moment.

It is all too common to read that Saussure’s great impact on linguistics was to replace diachronic with synchronic analysis. On the contrary, it was he who invented diachronic linguistics, from which moreover the synchronic approach is inseparable.

5. The Published Cours de linguistique générale

Structuring the Cours de linguistique générale for publication was no easy task, given that the three courses Saussure taught were each unique in design and orientation, and with certain ideas developing considerably from the first to the third. Sofia (2015) has made available the original collation of notes by Sechehaye, from which Bally produced the published text.

The published Cours follows the structure of Saussure’s third course in opening with a brief glance at the history of linguistics. It then moves to an attempted definition of linguistics, as at the start of the first course, and from there to identifying the object of linguistics, something raised at different points in all three courses. All this is part of an Introduction that gives a first taste of other fundamental matters: the definition of language, semiology, the problems raised by writing. Forming an Appendix to the Introduction is a condensed version of three lectures on the syllable that Saussure gave in 1897.

Following this Introduction with its Appendix are five Parts. Part One covers general principles: the nature of the linguistic sign, with its two key principles of arbitrariness and linearity; the immutability and mutability of the sign; and static and evolutive linguistics, in which the contrast between the diachronic and synchronic approaches is introduced. Part Two then takes up Synchronic Linguistics, with material mainly from the third course, on entities and units, identities and values, syntagmatic and associative relations, and absolute versus relative arbitrariness. Again, the last topic is not ideally situated in its separation from the initial presentation of arbitrariness in Part One.

These are the sections of the Cours that have been most widely read and have exerted such a great influence on the development of linguistics, semiology and structuralism in the 20th century. If less attention went to Part Three on Diachronic Linguistics, and the shorter Parts Four and Five on Geographic Linguistics and Questions of Retrospective Linguistics, it was mainly because they appeared anticlimactic after the earlier sections, which struck the linguistic world as utterly novel and original. Saussure had not, however, claimed any originality for them. Sign theory, including arbitrariness, had been commonplace from the Middle Ages until the grammaire générale tradition was abandoned in the first third of the 19th century. Even in Geneva, where it held out for a few decades longer, it died out soon after being transmitted to the young Saussure in his Gymnase and Université education (see Joseph, 2012, 2014).

The way the Cours progresses from the general to the specific, and builds toward diachronic linguistics as its apparent endpoint, is true to Saussure’s vision. But no book controls how it is read, and what is untrue to Saussure is how the Cours was read in such a way as to make synchronic linguistics its climax, leaving the diachronic as a mere coda. This led later generations to credit or blame Saussure for shifting the mainstream of linguistics from historical to synchronic enquiry. Certainly he considered historical linguistics to be in need of a fundamental reformation, and he made this his life’s work, though never with the intention of seeing historical enquiry sidelined.

The year 1916 was not the optimal moment for bringing a book to an international audience, with shipping being so limited during WWI. Nevertheless, it sold out, and in 1922 Bally and Sechehaye produced a second edition, with some corrections, which has remained the definitive version (the very minor corrections in later editions have still not removed all the typographic errors). Now the time was propitious for a new approach to the study of language to be taken up by linguists ready to throw off German cultural dominance and embrace modernism. The Cours was experienced as modern on account of some of its more venerable doctrines, such as the arbitrariness of the sign and the concept of value as pure difference (well established in mid-19th-century British philosophy), which had fallen by the wayside in the period of single-minded focus on historical phonology.

6. The Nachlass

In 1957, the first textual history of Saussure’s work appeared in the form of Godel’s book on the manuscript sources of the Cours. In addition to outlining the structure of the three courses as Saussure taught them, and how exactly material from each was put together by Bally and Sechehaye, it catalogued the known manuscript material and gave information about the forgotten publications-by-proxy of Saussure’s sign theory by his colleague Adrien Naville (1901), and in more detail by Henri Odier (1905), who gave the first account of Saussure’s model of the linguistic sign. Godel’s book established the first basis for dating and coding manuscript fragments and aligning them with the published Cours, thus launching the serious and sustained academic study of how Saussure’s linguistic thought developed over the course of his life.

The 1960s saw an explosion of interest in one particular area of the unpublished manuscript materials: the studies of anagrams in Latin poetry (along with some Greek and Italian poetry) which Saussure undertook between 1906 and 1909. Manuscript material was made available in articles, then a book, by Jean Starobinski (1971; for a detailed re-examination see Testenoire, 2013). An example: one line of the Saturnian inscription on the tomb of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, listing his civic offices, reads cōnsul cēnsor aedīlis quī fuit apud vōs “who was consul, censor, and aedile among you.” It looks as though the line unfolds out of the first word, consul, its consonants forming a pattern for the next word, its vowels mirrored in the final foot. Or indeed, the name of the man from whose tomb the inscription comes, Lucius Cornelius Scipio, could provide the matrix. Cornēlius, for example, has each of its sounds represented in CōNSUL CĒNSOR aedīLIS. A coincidence? Or a forgotten principle of early Latin poetry—namely, that the Saturnian line is constructed out of the component sounds of a key word, a theme of the poem itself.

This would be a momentous discovery indeed: that poetry had begun not from meter, but from the praise of a name, sung not just on the surface but fragmented and scattered within the verse, allowing it to exercise all the more implicit force on the listener. But after three years of research, filling ninety-nine notebooks, Saussure concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the patterns were planned rather than accidental, and abandoned the project. Starobinski’s publication of some of this material led to a romanticized Jekyll-and-Hyde interpretation of Saussure, supposedly leading a hidden, nocturnal intellectual life directly at odds with his daytime teaching of linguistics. The anagrams purportedly contradict the principle of the linearity of the sign. The flaw in this interpretation is that linearity inheres in langue, while the anagrams are instances of parole.

The year 1968 saw Rudolf Engler’s critical edition of the Cours, presenting its source materials in parallel columns. For any given passage in the Cours, readers could see what material—both manuscript and students’ notes—Bally and Sechehaye had drawn from and how they had reshaped it. In a second fascicle six years later, Engler published the complete text of the known manuscript material concerning general linguistics, some of which had previously appeared in the Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, a journal established in Geneva in 1941. In the meantime, the first detailed study of the course and its relations to other figures in 19th-century linguistics appeared in the form of a Canadian PhD thesis by E. F. K. Koerner (1973), who soon went on to found the first journal and book series devoted entirely to the historiography of linguistics.

The 1970s to 1990s saw the publication of manuscript material on the Germanic legends (Saussure, 1972, 1986) and the manuscript of a book on phonology from the early 1880s (Saussure, 1995) that Roman Jakobson persuaded Jacques and Raymond de Saussure to give to the Harvard University Library rather than to the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Genève (now renamed the Bibliothèque de Genève), which held the students’ notes and manuscript fragments that had been used in assembling the Cours. Also, partial sets of notes from each of the three general linguistics courses were published by Eisuke Komatsu, together with English translations by Roy Harris and George Wolf (Saussure, 1993, 1996, 1997). The fullest set of student notes from the third course has been published by Daniele Gambarara and Claudia Mejía Quijano (Saussure and Constantin, 2005).

In 1996, many hundreds of previously unseen manuscript pages and correspondence were given by the Saussure family to the Bibliothèque de Genève. These included the “double essence” manuscripts (see The Period 1879–1907 section above), published by Engler and Simon Bouquet, along with a few dozen other new fragments, in a volume (Saussure, 2002a) that consisted mostly of material Engler had already included in his critical edition of the Cours in 1968–1974. This has since appeared in translation in various languages, making this material available to a much wider audience than anything since the Cours itself. Although to people familiar with Engler’s critical edition and with Saussurean manuscripts published since the 1970s the 2002a volume contained few surprises, they have resulted in a radical rethinking of Saussure by the much larger community of those who had believed they knew the full extent of his linguistic thought based on didactic reductions of key ideas in the Cours. A Saussure who had appeared to them to take a simplistic, mechanical approach to the phenomena of language was revealed to be alert to, even tortured by, its vast complexities.

Publication projects continue, including Saussure (2002b, 2013), various items in Bouquet ed. (2003) and regular items in the annual volumes of the Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure. Today, more than a century after Saussure’s death, his fundamental ideas continue to function as the foundation of linguistic theory. They have outlived countless challenges and survived having countless theoretical constructs built upon them.

Further Reading

  • Amacker, R. (1975). Linguistique saussurienne. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz.
  • Bouissac, P. (2010). Saussure: a guide for the perplexed. London and New York: Continuum.
  • Bouquet, S. (1997). Introduction à la lecture de Saussure. Paris: Payot.
  • Culler, J. (1986). Ferdinand de Saussure. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Engler, R. (1968). Lexique de la terminologie saussurienne. Utrecht: Het Spectrum.
  • Engler, R. (1975). European structuralism: Saussure. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Current trends in linguistics: historiography of linguistics (vol. 13, pp. 829–886). The Hague: Mouton.
  • Gmür, R. (1980). Das Schicksal von F. de Saussures ‘Mémoire’: eine Rezeptionsgeschichte. Bern: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität.
  • Godel, R. (1966). F. de Saussure’s theory of language. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Current trends in linguistics: theoretical foundations (vol. 3, pp. 479–493). The Hague and Paris: Mouton.
  • Joseph, J. E. (2012). Saussure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Joseph, J. E. (2016a). The arbre-tree sign: pictures and words in counterpoint in the Cours de linguistique générale. Semiotica, in press.
  • Joseph, J. E. (Ed.). (2013). Ferdinand de Saussure: Critical assessment of leading linguists. Vols. 4. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Koerner, E. F. K. (1973). Ferdinand de Saussure: origin and development of his linguistic thought in Western studies of language: a contribution to the history and theory of linguistics. Braunschweig, Germany: Vieweg.
  • Koerner, E. F. K. (1988). Saussurean studies/Études saussuriennes. Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine.
  • Meisner, P., & H. Saussy (2011). Introduction to re-issue of F. de Saussure, Course in general linguistics. Translated by W. Baskin. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Mejía, C. (1998). La linguistique diachronique: le projet saussurien. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz.
  • Mejía Quijano, C. (2014). Ferdinand de Saussure: une vie en lettres. Nantes: C. Defaut.
  • Normand, C. (2000). Saussure. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
  • Sanders, C. (Ed.). (2005). The Cambridge companion to Saussure. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


  • Aarsleff, H. (1978). Taine and Saussure. Yale Review, 68, 71–81. Reprinted in Aarsleff, From Locke to Saussure: essays on the study of language and intellectual history, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; London: Athlone, 1982, 356–365; and in Joseph (Ed.), 2013, 72–79.
  • Bouquet, S. (Ed.). (2003). Ferdinand de Saussure. Paris: L’Herne.
  • Brugmann, K. (1886). Grundriß der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, I: Einleitung und Lautlehre. Straßburg: K. J. Trübner.
  • Godel, R. (1957). Les sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure. Genève: Droz.
  • Joseph, J. E. (2012). Saussure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Joseph, J. E. (2014). Saussure’s value(s). Recherches sémiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry, 34, 191–208.
  • Joseph, J. E. (2015). Iconicity in Saussure’s linguistic work, and why it does not contradict the arbitrariness of the sign. Historiographia Linguistica, 42(1), 85–105.
  • Joseph, J. E. (2016b). Language, mind and body: A conceptual history. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Joseph, J. E. (Ed.). (2013). Ferdinand de Saussure: critical assessments of leading linguists. Vols. 4. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Koerner, E. F. K. (1973). Ferdinand de Saussure: origin and development of his linguistic thought in Western studies of language: a contribution to the history and theory of linguistics. Braunschweig: Vieweg.
  • Koerner, E. F. K. (2000). J. R. Firth and the Cours de linguistique générale: an historical sketch. In O. Mišeska Tomić and M. Radovanović (Eds.), History and perspectives of language study: papers in honor of Ranko Bugarski (pp. 115–130). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins.
  • Kuryłowicz, J. (1927). ə indo-européen et h hittite. In: Symbolae grammaticae in honorem Ioannis Rozwadowski, vol. I, 95–104. Krakow: Gebethner & Wolff.
  • Möller, H. (1880). Review of F. Kluge, Beiträge zur Geschichte der germanischen Conjugation. Straßburg: K. J. Trübner, 1879; Englische Studien, 3, 148–164.
  • Möller, H. (1906). Semitisch und Indo-Germanisch, I: Konsonanten. Copenhagen: H. Hagerup.
  • Naville, A. (1901). Nouvelle classification des sciences: étude philosophique. Paris: F. Alcan.
  • Necker de Saussure, A. (1828–38). De l’éducation progressive, vol. 1: Étude de la première enfance, Paris: A. Sautelet, 1828; vol. 2: Étude de la dernière partie de l’enfance, Paris: Paulin, 1832; vol. 3: Étude de la vie des femmes, Paris: Paulin, 1838.
  • Odier, H. (1905). Essai d’analyse psychologique du méchanisme du langage dans la compréhension. Bern: Imprimerie Sheitlin Spring & Cie.
  • Osthoff, H., & K. Brugmann. (1878). Preface to Morphologische Untersuchungen auf dem Gebiete der indogermanischen Sprachen 1, iii-xx. Leipzig: S. Hirzel.
  • Petit, D. (2010). New insights on Lithuanian accentuation from the unpublished manuscripts of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). Baltic Linguistics, 1, 143–166.
  • Saussure, F. de (1877). Essai d’une distinction des différents a indo-européens. Mémoires de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 3, fasc. 5, 359–370. Reprinted in Saussure (1922), 379–390.
  • Saussure, F. de (1879). Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles indo-européennes. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner. Reprinted Paris: F. Vieweg, 1887; and in Saussure (1922), 1–168.
  • Saussure, F. de (1881). De l’emploi du génitif absolu en sanscrit, thèse pour le doctorat présentée à la Faculté de Philosophie de l’Université de Leipzig. Genève: Imprimerie J.-G. Fick. Reprinted in Saussure (1922), 269–338.
  • Saussure, F. de (1894). À propos de l’accentuation lituanienne (intonations et accent proprement dit). Mémoires de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 8, fasc. 5, 425–446. Reprinted in Saussure (1922), 490–512.
  • Saussure, F. de (1896). Accentuation lituanienne. Indogermanische Forschungen Anzeiger 6, 157–166. Reprinted in Saussure (1922), 526–538.
  • Saussure, F. de (1897). Abstract. Actes du Xe Congrès International des Orientalistes, Session de Genève, 1894, edited by P. Oltramare & F. de Saussure. Vols. 4. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, vol. 1, 89. Reprinted in Saussure (1922), 603–604.
  • Saussure, F. de (1916). Cours de linguistique générale. Edited by C. Bally & A. Sechehaye, assisted by A. Riedlinger. Lausanne and Paris: Payot. 2d ed. 1922 (subsequent editions essentially unchanged). Annotated edition by T. De Mauro, Paris: Payot, 1972. Critical edition, Édition critique du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure, by R. Engler, Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz, 1968–74. English translation, Course in general linguistics, by W. Baskin, New York: Philosophical Library, 1959; reissued with new commentary by P. Meisner and H. Saussy, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
  • Saussure, F. de (1922). Recueil des publications scientifiques de Ferdinand de Saussure. Edited by C. Bally & L. Gautier. Genève: Sonor, Lausanne: Payot, Heidelberg: C. Winter.
  • Saussure, F. de (1972). Note sulle leggende germaniche. Edited by D. S. Avalle. Torino: Giappichelli.
  • Saussure, F. de (1986). Le leggende germaniche. Edited by A. Marinetti & M. Marcello. Este: Zielo.
  • Saussure, F. de (1993). Troisième cours de linguistique générale (1910–1911), d’après les cahiers d’Émile Constantin / Saussure’s third course of lectures on general linguistics (1910–1911), from the notebooks of Émile Constantin. Edited by E. Komatsu, translated by R. Harris. Oxford and New York: Pergamon.
  • Saussure, F. de (1995). Phonétique: il manoscritto di Harvard Houghton Library bMS Fr 266(8). Edited by M. P. Marchese. Padova: Unipress.
  • Saussure, F. de (1996). Premier cours de linguistique générale (1907), d’après les cahiers d’Albert Riedlinger / Saussure’s first course of lectures on general linguistics (1907), from the notebooks of Albert Riedlinger. Edited by E. Komatsu, translated by G. Wolf. Oxford and New York: Pergamon.
  • Saussure, F. de (1997). Deuxième cours de linguistique générale (1908–1909), d’après les cahiers d’Albert Riedlinger et Charles Patois / Saussure’s second course on general linguistics (1908–1909), from the notebooks of Albert Riedlinger and Charles Patois. Edited by E. Komatsu, translated by G. Wolf. Oxford and New York: Pergamon.
  • Saussure, F. de (2002a). Écrits de linguistique générale. Edited by S. Bouquet & R. Engler, assisted by A. Weil. Paris: Gallimard. English translation, Writings in general linguistics by C. Sanders and M. Pires, with the assistance of P. Figueroa. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Saussure, F. de (2002b). Théorie des sonantes: il manoscritto di Ginevra, BPU Ms. fr. 3955/1. Edited by M. P. Marchese. Padova: Unipress.
  • Saussure, F. de, and É. Constantin (2005). Saussure, “Notes préparatoires pour le cours de linguistique générale 1910–1911”; Constantin, “Linguistique générale, cours de M. le professeur de Saussure 1910–1911.” Edited by D. Gambarara & C. Mejía Quijano. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 58, 71–290.
  • Saussure, F. de (2013). Anagrammes homériques. Edited by P.‑Y. Testenoire. Limoges: Lambert-Lucas.
  • Sofia, E. (2015). La ‘collation Sechehaye’ du Cours de linguistique générale de Ferdinand de Saussure. Leuven and Paris: Peeters.
  • Starobinski, J. (1971). Les mots sous les mots: Les anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure. Paris: Gallimard. English translation, Words upon words: the anagrams of Ferdinand de Saussure, by O. Emmet, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.
  • Testenoire, P.‑Y. (2013). Ferdinand de Saussure à la recherche des anagrammes. Limoges: Lambert-Lucas.