Ferdinand de Saussure

A Swiss historical linguist whose “Cours de linguistique générale” (Course in General Linguistics) was posthumously published by his students.

    Although most remembered in the United States for other ideas, Saussure was trained in comparative Indo-European linguistics. His greatest contribution to that field was the development of the “laryngeal theory,” (German Laryngaltheorie) a cornerstone of Proto-Indo-European vowel system and morphology. Saussure hypothesized 3 “laryngeal” sounds (h1, h2, and h3) in Proto-Indo-European words. The exact phonetic qualities of these sounds are debatable, varying from [ʔ], [h], and [x] (as in German) to [ʔ], [ʕ], and [ħ] (as in modern Arabic). The only laryngeal to be kept as a consonant in a recorded language was h2 in Hittite. Sometimes the laryngeals are also referred to as the “a-coloring,” “o-coloring,” and “neutral” laryngeal due to their assimilatory power on adjacent vowels in PIE. Saussure’s genius of reconstructing laryngeals in Proto-Indo-European despite lack of direct evidence resulted in fewer exceptions to paradigms and also caused idiosyncratic rules for the daughter languages to be collapsed into one consistent system.

Saussure is most famous today for ideas about sound and meaning. A “linguistic sign” is a connection between sound and meaning. When an English speaker hears the word “tree,” it calls up a mental image of a tall, wooden plant with leaves. In other languages the sound is different — French arbre, German Baum, etc. The “signifier” is the sound that evokes the mental image, and the “signified” is the mental image or concept itself. For Saussure, even the case of onomatopoeia, the connection between signifier and signified is an arbitrary one tacitly agreed to by native speakers. Saussure called this the “arbitrariness of sign” (l’arbitraire du signe).

Saussure is also famous for use of the terms “langue” and “parole,” which may be translated into English as something like “language” and “word.” “Langue” for Saussure is language as a rule-governed system. “Parole” is language as it’s actually used. These ideas are roughly analogous to Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance.

Also relevant in the Cours is Saussure’s separation of synchronic and diachronic perspectives on language. As suggested in the title “general,” Saussure was interested in developing explanations for how language functions synchronically for each individual speaker. He thus issues a challenge for a new kind of theory to be developed–alongside comparative linguistics–for language at one point in time. It could be argued that Saussure was heralding the Chomskyan revolution which was to take place around 50 years after Saussure’s death.

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