Saussure, Ferdinand de (1857–1913), Swiss linguist, whose ideas about language structure influenced the development of the linguistic theory known as structuralism. He was born in Geneva, and attended science classes for a year at the University of Geneva before turning to language studies at the University of Leipzig in 1876. As a student he published his only book, Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Memoir on the Original Vowel System in the Indo-European Languages, 1879), an important work on the vowel system of Proto-Indo-European, considered the parent language from which the Indo-European languages descended.
Saussure’s scholarship in the early part of his career focused on philology, the study of language history, but he later shifted his attention to the study of general linguistics. He taught at the École des Hautes Études in Paris from 1881 to 1891 and then became a professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Grammar at the University of Geneva. Although Saussure never wrote another book, his teaching proved highly influential. After his death two of his students compiled his lecture notes and other materials into a seminal work, Cours de linguistique générale (1916; Course in General Linguistics,1959). The book explained his structural approach to language and established a series of theoretical distinctions that have become basic to the study of linguistics. In addition to linguistics, Saussure’s work has affected disciplines such as anthropology, history, and literary criticism.
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