Friday, February 22, 2013

Today in Language: Ferdinand de Saussure

It is hardly exaggeration to call Ferdinand de Saussure the father of modern linguistics. He was influenced by many predecessors (i.e., he didn't invent linguistics, or even some of his key concepts). He was made known by his students (without whom he may not even have been published), chiefly Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, important linguists in their own right. Yet Saussure serves well as both a marker in linguistic history as well as an original thinker.

The most significant aspect of Saussure's structuralism, as laid out in his Cours de linguistique générale, are the linguistic pairs he introduced. Study of language would focus on both diachronic and synchronic analyses. Significant layers of human language would begin to unfold with the differentiation between langue and parole. And the distinction between signifier and signified in the linguistic sign would enrich and nuance studies from morphology to phonology, not to mention open pathways to new linguistic subdisciplines.

All of these pairs (not strict either/or pairs, and definitely not dichotomies) opened up linguistic inquiry in directions researchers had not much thought of. In its turn, of course, Saussurean structuralism also incited much critique itself and led to a whole century of poststructuralism.

Saussure died exactly 100 years ago today, February 22, 1913.

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