Who is Ferdinand de Saussure?June 25, 2021
Ferdinand de Saussure (26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913) was a Geneva-born Swiss linguist whose ideas laid the groundwork for many of the remarkable developments in linguistics in the 20th century. He is often thought of as the ‘father’ of 20th century linguistics.
Born in Geneva in 1857, a year after Sigmund Freud and a year before Emile Durkheim, Saussure was the son of a well-known naturalist. The family had a strong tradition of success in the natural sciences. A philologist and family friend, Adolphe Pictet, directed Saussure to study linguistics at an early age.
At the fifteenth, after adding Greek to the French, German, English, and Latin languages, Saussure sought to formulate a general language system. And for Pictet, he wrote the ‘Essay on Languages’, which suggested that all languages have a string of two or three basic consonants at the root. Pictet may not have been able to help but smile at the over-reductionist nature of this teenage effort, but he did not discourage this protege student who had started learning Sanskrit while still in school.
In 1875 Saussure entered the University of Geneva. Following the family tradition, he enrolled as a physics and chemistry student, but continued to attend Greek and Latin grammar classes. This experience convinced him that his vocation would be in language study. Because he not only joined a professional language society, the Paris Linguistics Association, but convinced his parents that his first year in Geneva was largely wasted, they should send him to the University of Leipzig to study Indo-European languages.
Leipzig was a lucky choice, as it was the center of the young school of language historians, the Junggrammatiker or ‘New Grammarists’; For the first time, Saussure was able to compare his own intelligence with the most creative linguists of his day. His belief in his own abilities was no doubt confirmed when one of his Leipzig teachers, Brugmann, found what Saussure had proposed a few years earlier but abandoned because it contradicted the assumptions of famous linguists.
Saussure stayed in Leipzig for four years, apart from an eighteen-month break in Berlin, and in December 1878, at the age of twenty-one, what a linguist called ‘the most authoritative work of comparative philology ever written’, Mémoire sur le sytème primitive des voyelles dans le langues indo -européennes (A Study on the First System of Indo-European Vowels). The most impressive aspect of this work is that the young linguist tackled the biggest and most fundamental problem in historical linguistics and emphasized the importance of methodological problems. In its preface, ‘I do not reflect on incomprehensible theoretical problems; I question the basis of the subject, the basis in which everything would be idle, causeless and uncertain.”
The review was well received in many circles. When Saussure returned to Berlin-Leipzig, a professor asked him if he was closely related to Saussure, the author of the Treatise, the great Swiss linguist. However, Saussure must not have found Germany close to him, for he returned to Paris soon after the defense of his doctoral thesis (awarded with Summa cum laude) on the use of the genitive case in Sanskrit.
It was quite successful in France. He immediately began teaching Sanskrit, Gothic, and Old High German at the École pratique des hautes études, and after 1887 expanded his teaching to include Indo-European philology generally. He was active in the Société linguistique in Paris, as well as making important contributions to shaping the younger generation of French linguists. But when he was offered a professorship in Geneva in 1891, he decided to return to Switzerland, and even the honor of his older colleagues presenting him with the Legion d’Honneur could not keep him in Paris.
In Geneva, his students were fewer and more backward. He taught Sanskrit and historical linguistics in general. He married, had two sons; he traveled very little; evidently a sane countryman was beginning to settle into obscurity. He began to write less and less, more painfully and reluctantly. In a letter written in 1894, one of the few explanatory personal documents we have, he cites and continues an article that he finally left in the hands of a publisher:
…but all this and the difficulty of writing even ten lines on linguistics was enough for me. For a long time, my mind was full of the thought of classifying linguistic facts and our perspectives on them; I realize more and more that the work that must be done to show the linguist what he is doing is immeasurable… The absolute inadequacy of the terms used, the necessity of reconsidering them, and in order to achieve this it is necessary to show what kind of object language is (usually, to think about the nature of language). Although it is my greatest wish not to be compelled) it constantly spoils my taste in philology.