Saussure, Ferdinand de (1857-1913)
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Swiss linguist who advocated a strict division between the study of language as an system existing at any given point in history (langue: the synchronic rules and grammar of language), and as it changes and transfors through time parole (language in its actual, diachronic, use). Saussure's main emphasis lay on understanding the latter aspect, the workings of language here and now, the fact that we are able to speak and understand each other.

Saussure's semiotics (science of signs and meaning) had at its point of departure the observation that phonetic differences that were crucially significant in one language (as in "sad", vs. "sat", in English), might be semantically irrelevant in another (Russian "sat/sad" = garden). The meaning of words was not, Saussure showed, a product of the inherent qualities of the phonemes of which they consisted, but of the differences between the phonemes. Saussure asserted langue could be reduced to an abstract structure of differences (contrasts, oppositions), whose meaning was arbitrarily assigned by society.

On the basis of these observations, Saussure built a modernized semiotics, which could be applied not only to language but to the entire field of signification and symbolism. Saussure's semiotics has been hugely influential in many humanistic disciplines. It entered anthropology primarily through the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who made use of the adapted form of semiotics developed by Roman Jakobson in his work on kinship and myth.

Saussure published very little, but his lectures, in Paris and Geneva, were posthumously reconstructed by two of his students and published as Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics, 1916).

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