Study Guide

Ferdinand de Saussure Quotes

Don't rub it in, but I didn't publish much. Sure, I had crazy early publishing success—who else do you know who has published something along the lines of Memoir on the Original System of Vowels in the Indo-European Languages the same year they could legally have a scotch and soda?

However, the sad but true point is that during my long years teaching in Paris, all I published was a few brief notes, and therefore, I never got that much-coveted tenure. (I remained a maître de conferences—bummer.) That said, my students saved my rear by publishing their lecture notes as Course in General Linguistics. All the quotes below are from there.

Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.

This one is pretty straightforward: I believe that the most effective way to understand a culture is through the language people use. But language is not only important because it allows one person to communicate with another; it also allows us to formulate and organize our thoughts.

You probably don't remember what it was like being a baby. Life was full of colors and shapes, and the most important question was: where's my mom? Once you acquired language, you started to make sense of the world—you labeled things and came into awareness of how everything is related to everything else. Without language, the world is a pretty hazy place. Words are how we make meaning out of life around us.

The subject matter of linguistics comprises all manifestations of human speech, whether that of savages or civilized nations, or of archaic, classical or decadent periods. In each period the linguist must consider not only correct speech and flowery language, but all other forms of expression as well. And that is not all: since he is often unable to observe speech directly, he must consider written texts, for only through them can he reach idioms that are remote in time or space.

Linguistics concerns all forms of expression with words—spoken and written. Although I was always slightly keener on the spoken word (sound is my thing), you must also study written expression because 1) it gives a broader understanding of a language, and 2) it allows you to study languages of the past.

What I'm also telling you here is that I'm not one of those biased Western scholars who only studies the languages of present-day Europe. I admit I was more interested in language as used at a given time (I wasn't that into studying a language's evolution), but I believe all languages are important, whether spoken by the Queen of England or a kid in Timbuktu.

Finally, of what use is linguistics? […] [I]t is evident, for instance, that linguistic questions interest all who work with texts—historians, philologists, etc. Still more obvious is the important of linguistics to general culture: in the lives of individuals and societies, speech is more important than anything else.

Some people have the gall to question the importance of my work. Once I recover from the shock of such audacity, I move on to explain that speech is simply the most important feature of a culture. Sometimes my confidence shuts down the conversation, but it's worth it to get people to finally grasp that understanding a culture's language is not solely the concern of linguists. Anthropologists, sociologists, historians—everyone benefits. Any further questions?

But what is language [langue]? It is not to be confused with human speech [langage], of which it is only a definite part, though certainly an essential one. It is both a social product of the faculty of speech and a collection of necessary conventions that have been adopted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise that faculty […]

It's always helpful to quickly review my important terms, right? When you move between French and English, things can get a little complex with the vocab. So let's break this down: speech is but one part of language. When I study speech, I am interested in the sounds that people make to express words. Sometimes I refer to these as "sound images."

I refer to language in this quotation as a product, because it really is something that has been made by people as a way of understanding their world. Without language, we'd all be really confused. You know how adults are always telling kids to use their words instead of going around hitting people? Well, if you ask me, that gives you some idea of what would happen if none of us had words.

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.

My slow jam is the synchronic nature of language, and not the diachronic. I look at language in all of its vast systematic glory; I'm not that interested in how it evolves over time. (I leave that to other linguists.) This brief gem suggests that not even language can resist time's winged chariot. Unpoetically put: faces change, trends change, and words change, too. That's why they update dictionaries every year.