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Ferdinand de Saussure: biography of this pioneer of linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure: biography of this pioneer of linguistics

September 24, 2022

Ferdinand de Saussure is known as the founder of modern linguistics and semiotics, as well as one of the precursors of structuralism and poststructuralism. This is because, among other things, he proposed to reorganize the systematic study of language. However, his life and work not only affected this area.

Along with some of his contemporaries, Saussure contributed important elements to create new bases in the study of human behavior. Next we will do a review of the life of Ferdinand de Saussure through a brief biography and we present some of your contributions.

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Biography of Ferdinand de Saussure, pioneer of linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was born in Geneva, Switzerland. From a young age he learned different languages, such as Greek, French, German, English and Latin . After growing up in a family of scientists, he studied natural sciences at the University of Geneva.

Subsequently, he trained in linguistics at the University of Leipzig, where he obtained a doctor degree in 1881. After this he taught courses in ancient and modern languages ​​in Paris, and in 1891 he returned to Geneva.

In his native city he served as professor of Sanskrit and historical linguistics. It was until the year of 1906 when he taught the General Linguistics course, which guided much of his attention and that of other intellectuals to this day.

Ferdinand de Saussure he developed the theory of signs that we know as semiotics , as well as other aspects of the linguistic tradition. However, the impact of his work quickly moved to other fields of knowledge.

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From linguistics to the study of human behavior

Along with other intellectuals of his time, Saussure provided many of the bases for the development of different approaches to human behavior. Following the American linguist Jonathan D. Culler (1986), we will explain four of the repercussions that Saussure's work has had on the social sciences.

1. Human systems do not work the same as the physical world

Saussure realized that understanding about human practices and institutions can not be complete if we reduce explanations about our behavior to a series of events that occur just like events in the physical world. This is because it considers that, unlike the systems of the physical world, the interaction and the objects that make up a human social system have meanings .

That is why, when studying the behavior of human beings, researchers can not simply dismiss or omit the meanings that things and actions have for members of a society. For example, if people consider that some action is discourteous or rude, this is a convention, a social fact crucial for social interaction and for individual practices. Thus, the linguistic sign has, for Saussure, two components: significant (the word) and meaning (the concept to which the word appeals) .

2. Development of semiotics and precursor of structuralism

Among other things, Saussure developed a general science of signs and sign systems (semiotics), as well as some of the bases of structuralism, a current that proposes that sociocultural systems are delimited by a key structure: language.

Especially this was relevant to the development of anthropology, modern linguistics and literary criticism, however, some decades later it also affects much of psychology and sociology. In general allowed to rethink the social sciences.

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3. Answers to the chaos of modern thought

Saussure's proposals also clarified much of modern thought, that is, the way in which scientists, philosophers, artists or writers they tried to represent and explain the phenomena of the world .

His work opened the way to generate new paradigms of knowledge: the idea that the scientist can not obtain absolute knowledge , as if it were a god, but always choose or assume a perspective under which objects are defined by their relationships with other elements of the same system (beyond that objects have a fixed essence that can be discovered).

4. Relationship between language and mind

The way in which Saussure explains the language allows us to focus attention on a problem that is central to the human sciences, especially for those who are concerned about the relationship between language and the mind.

Saussure considers that humans are beings whose relationships with the world are characterized by two mental operations that clearly manifest themselves in language: structuring and differentiation . Part of Saussure's thought is present in the consideration that there is a tendency of human beings to organize things in systems through which different meanings are transmitted.

Main works

The most well-known and studied work of Ferdinand de Saussure is Cours de linguistique générale (General linguistics course) which was published three years after his death, in 1916. In fact, this work has been considered one of the most influential of the 20th century, not only for linguistics but for the social sciences . However, this work is the product of the compilation made by colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, who recovered the lectures and written notes of the Saussure students.

One of his first works, which was published while he was studying for his doctorate, was Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Memory of the primitive system of the vowels in Indo-European languages), where discusses how the original Indo-European vowels can be reconstructed . This was one of his beginnings in philology and linguistics.

Bibliographic references:

  • Culler, J. (1986). Ferdinand de Saussure. Revised Edition. Cornell University Press: USA.
  • New World Encyclopedia. (2016). Ferdinand de Saussure. New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 15, 2018. Available at //

Ferdinand de Saussure and Structural Linguistics (September 2022).

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