Ferdinand de Saussure
A Presentation by
Barbara Robinson
Michaela Densmore
© 2001
Edited By: Dr. Picart
Associate Professor of English
Associate Professor of Law
Ferdinand de Saussure-Bio
 Born 26 November 1857
– (French origin, moved to Geneva)
 From a family of many scholars
 Studied Latin, Greek, chemistry, theology and
law at University of Geneva (1875-76)
 At age 21, wrote Mémoire sur le système
primitif des voyelle dans les langues indoeuropéennes in which he proved scholars
Ferdinand de Saussure-Bio
 1880
awarded doctorate at University
Leipzig (Germany).
 Taught at Paris.
 1891 returned to Geneva to teach there.
 Taught ancient Sanskrit for 21 (!) years!
 Was asked to teach a course in General
Linguistics (taught it three times 1907 - 11)
Ferdinand de Saussure-Bio
 Influenced many different linguists,
but also other disciplines:
 Anthropology
 Psychiatry
 Literary criticism
Ferdinand de Saussure-Influence
Some names include:
 Claude Lévi-Strauss
(Structural Anthropology)
 Roland Barthes
Early works in Semiotics, put
principles into application
Ferdinand de Saussure-Influence
 Roman Jakobson
Linguist in the “Frankfurt School”
 Jacques Lacan
Ferdinand de Saussure-Influence
 Jacques Derrida
Literary criticism
Ferdinand de Saussure
-Linguistics / Key Terms
 Linguistics
– Analysis of language
 Semiology:
– The “Science of the life of signs within the
heart of social life” (Saussure)
Ferdinand de Saussure
-Linguistics / Key Terms
 Sign:
– combination of a concept and a sound-image
 Signifier:
– the sound-image
 Signified:
– concept
What does all this mess mean?
An Example of Saussure’s words
Signifier I
Signified I
Sign I
(passionified roses)
What does all this mess mean?
An Example of Saussure’s words
Signifier II
Signified II
(Passionified Roses)
(Valentine’s Day)
(i.e. Sign becomes
new Signifier)
Sign II
(Product consumption, expenditure
of money as romantic obligation)
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 Arbitrary Nature of the Sign
– We have inherited language from our ancestors.
– Language is connecting sound-images
– “Fenster” and the concept of
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 Arbitrary Nature of the Sign (2)
– Boundaries become blurred when we look
at different types of “language” (e.g. body
language, pantomime, spoken language,
written language, deaf-mute language, sign
language, Braille, etc.)
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 The Linear Nature of the Signifier
– Signifier = sound-image
– it is measurable only in terms of time.
– Sounds are “Schall und Rauch” (“sound and
– Problem: when writing down the “soundimage” the sound component gets lost.
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 Immutability of the Sign
– The signifier (sound-image) “is fixed, not
– “community itself cannot control so much as
a single word; it is bound to the existing
– Problem: modern language has added many
different words (e.g. computers, “teen”
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 Immutability of the Sign (2)
– Language is a law, not a rule which we can opt
to follow.
– We inherit these laws from our ancestors.
– Language is a social “institution” and must be
seen in the setting.
– “Speakers are largely unconscious of the laws
of language.”
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 Immutability of the Sign (3)
(1) Arbitrary Nature of the Sign
(2) Multiplicity of Signs Needed for Language
(3) System is “overly complex”
(4) Community does not care to change things.
Tradition  follows no law  arbitrary
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 Mutability
– Time changes the relationship between signifier (sound-image), signified (concept) and
therefore the sign.
– E.g. “mouse” =
= “mouse”
Ferdinand de SaussureLinguistics
 Mutability (2)
– Language = product of both social force and
– It holds true even for artificial languages,
such as Esperanto.
Ferdinand de Saussure-Summary
 Langue = speech minus speaking
 Language is a social construct which re-
quires a community of speakers.
 Linguistic sign is arbitrary and cannot be
taken out of social or temporal context.
This is exactly, where signifier and signified
are able to shift their relationships (compare
“mouse” and “mouse”).
Ferdinand de Saussure-Summary
 Because of the addition of time to the social
context, Saussure feels that there should be
two branches of linguistics, which he calls:
– Synchronic
– Diachronic
Ferdinand de Saussure-Summary
 Synchronic
– confined to one point of view in order to show
the whole language system
 Diachronic
– traces evolution of language, looking not at the
whole system but at individual elements of it at
different times.
Ferdinand de Saussure-Voilà!
 Saussure died in 1913.
 His Course in General Linguistics was
published by students posthumously in
1916 and has been translated into many
different languages.

Ferdinand de Saussure