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Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

A class about his place in the history of linguistics

Marc van Oostendorp

on 29 October 2013

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Transcript of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

Ferdinand de Saussure
Marc van Oostendorp
History of Linguistics, 29.10.2013
Most important work published during lifetime: Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes.
Published when he was 21 years old
His dissertation (published when he was 23) on PIE case system was already less influential
After this move back to Geneva he never published anything
But he corresponded with colleagues and gave a course which was turned by colleagues into a book
Proto Indo European Vowels
Vowel inventory: {i, u, e, o, a} + schwa
Issue: how come the schwa surfaces in different forms in Greek?
Jerzy Kuryłowicz, (1895-1978)
Confirmation by Hittite
We saw that for the linguistic tradition, language reflected thought, which in turn reflected reality. This is no longer true for Saussure. Language (Langue) is an autonomous object which combines thought and language: there is no difference between the two.
Langue is holistic:
No sign has a meaning on its own, outside the system
No individual has a language on his own, outside the community.
"A linguistic system is a series of phonetic differences matched with a series of conceptual differences."
Synchrony and diachrony
What changes when Latin 'cause' changes into French 'chose'?
What stays the same if the first sound of Latin 'mare' is rendered in French as 'mer'?
the train is identified by its departure time, its route, and any other features
which distinguish it from other trains. Whenever the same conditions are
fulfilled, the same entities reappear.
(Cours: 151)

These two features are necessary for the existence of any value. To determine the value of a five-franc coin, for instance, what must be known is: (1) that the coin can be exchanged for a certain quantity of something different, e.g. bread, and (2) that its value can be compared with anothervalue in the same system, e.g. that of a one franc coin, or of a coin belonging to another system (e.g. a dollar). Similarly, a word can be substituted for something dissimilar: an idea. At the same time it can be compared to something of like nature: another word Its value is therefore not determined merely by that concept or meaning for which it is a token. It must also be assessed against comparable values, by contrast with other words. The content of a word is determined in the final analysis not by what it contains but by what exists outside it. As an element in a system, the word has not only a meaning but also—above all –a value. And that is something quite different.
(Cours: 159–60)
[…] values of any kind seem to be governed by a paradoxical principle.
Values always involve:
(1) something dissimilar which can be exchanged for the item whose
value is under consideration, and
(2) similar things which can be compared with the item whose value is
under consideration.
Linguistics is a branch of semiotics; semiotics is like economics.
Ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
Spiravere; pedes vestis defluxit ad imos
and her ambrosial locks sent forth a heavenly fragrance from the crown [of her head[, while her robes streamed down to her very feet
fr (fl) in deFLuxit
ro in ambROsiae
OD in ODorem
DI in DIvinum
IT in defluxIT
In a system in which, normally, not a single word can be altered or moved without disturbing several combinations necessary to the anagram- in such a system, one cannot speak of the anagram as of a game which is accessory to the versification. They become the foundation of that versification, whether the poet wishes it or not, whether the critic on the one hand, and the versifier on the other wish it or not. To write lines incorporating an anagram is necessarily to write lines based on that anagram, and dominated by it (Saussure, quoted in Starobinski: 1979, 17, italics added).
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