Study Guide

Ferdinand de Saussure Biography

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Basic Information


Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure


Ferdy, Saucy, Saussure for Sure, F.D.S., The Greatest Linguist of All Time, The Word Scientist



Home town

Geneva, Switzerland: City of Cheese, Chocolate, Finance, and a Super Big Lake

Work & Education


Ah, Paris. After fusty old Geneva, Paris was a 24-hour booze cruise. But I still managed to hold down a day job at the École des Hautes Études (School of Advanced Studies). I was even knighted for my contributions—just call me Chevalier de Saussure.

After a decade in the City of Lights, I moved back home to Geneva, where I served as a professor of Indo-European linguistics, Sanskrit, and general linguistics at the local university. I taught there until my dying day.

Ever heard of "publish or perish"? Well, thank God I didn't have to fulfill those ruthless tenure standards, or I never would have made it. Though I am enviably famous for my Course in General Linguistics, my students are the ones who cobbled the thing together from their lecture notes and sent it off to be published. Heck—I wasn't even alive anymore. I always longed to write a book about general linguistics, but I was just too busy.


Is it enough to say that I completed my doctoral thesis on Sanskrit when I was 22 years old? Or that I wrote an earth-shattering essay on Proto-Indo-European vowels entitled Memoir on the Original System of Vowels in the Indo-European Languages when I was 21? May I quote my very own private tutor on the subject of my intellectual capacity?: "What an unusually gifted boy is our Ferdinand. He learns with extreme ease, and he is not superficial as overly-gifted children too often are" (source).

I give Dad credit for a lot of my smarts: he was a taxonomist, entomologist, and mineralogist, which means he was better than a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon put together. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My education merged into the fast lane when I was in my late teens studying at the University of Geneva. (Mom thought dorm life would distract me, so she kept me at home.) After gaining mastery of Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, I moved on to the University of Leipzig, where I studied under the finest scholars and picked up my Ph.D. My dissertation title: De l'emploi du génitif absolu en Sanscrit ("On the Sanskrit Genitive Absolute").

I didn't stop there: I continued to study Sanskrit and Celtic languages, and then I burst on to the scene as a professor in the Parisian academic world.


Political views

My interest in politics began at around age 12. I read all of the local rags and always kept up with the political issues of the day, which I enjoyed talking about with any adult who would listen. I got really pumped about the Franco-Prussian War, which broke out in 1870. We Swiss did not like the idea of Prussians stepping over national boundaries into our territory—even though, as always, we were technically neutral.

I always had some commentary about current political issues, like the skirmishes on the Venezuelan border, not to mention the British oppression in South Africa and India. It was already an era of tumultuous colonial politics, and I've always been against exploitation.

On top of that, anti-Semitism was on the rise, and stirrings of Aryan superiority were making things very hot under the proverbial collar. During my time, a dramatic incident occurred when a Jewish officer named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of espionage. The issue divided people between those who condemned Dreyfus and those who supported him (the so-called Dreyfusards).

I took a stand against Dreyfus's accusers because I believed that he was an innocent victim of an anti-Semitic witch-hunt. Let's just say that sometimes family dinners got awkward because... well, Dad was kind of racist. This apple fell pretty far from that tree.

Religious views

I was not raised in a religious household; as a family, we were into science. Still, you don't have to be a religious person to care about religion, and I was always interested in the role religion played in semiotics—that's the study of signs, if you remember.

If you're interested in signs, you've gotta pay attention to religion (and politics), which had its own set of important signifiers, and those signifiers reveal a lot about how a specific society organizes meaning. From Catholicism to Voodoo, signs abound.

Activities & Interests


Hidden meanings
Good acoustics
Geneva in the summer
Chinese characters
Charles Peirce


Trying to publish
Bad conversationalists
Grammar know-it-alls
Being outdated
Face value
Sentences (slow down and look at the words!)
Noise (but I do love sound)
Some American linguists


Posting messages on Facebook in Sanskrit
Putting it out there—you know, being gutsy with my ideas
Being social
Saying a word so many times it starts to sound funny
Loaning out ideas
Charting out my ideas on butcher paper
Extemporaneously lecturing
Reciting poems in Hittite
Holding debates over the relative merits of Proto-Indo-European language (PIE)


Linguists on Parole
Swiss Semiologists and Semioticians Support Group
Early Bloomer Linguists for a New Doctrine of Language
Synchronic Analysts
Linguists for the Arbitrary Nature of the Linguistic Sign
The Legion of Honor
Laryngeal Theorists
Proto-Indo-European Philologists Supper Club
Theorists who Influenced Roland Barthes
The Hittite Text Reading Group

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