The Education of Ferdinand de Saussure and the Shape of Modern Linguistics

The Course in General Linguistics (1916), assembled posthumously from the lectures of Ferdinand de Saussure, has always been recognised as the point of departure of modern linguistics. For decades, those studying the history of the field have been puzzled by unacknowledged continuities that exist between Saussure's synchronic account of language and accounts from the 18th and earlier centuries, which had been lost sight of by the historically-focussed linguists of the second half of the 19th century. This paper will present the first detailed information on Saussure's education, heretofore known only in rough outlines. Among the points it will discuss are how:

- as a consequence of the Revolution of 1846-8, private education in Geneva became extremely conservative, with instruction in rhetoric continuing into the 1870s to be grounded in grammaire générale, a tradition which in France had died out in the 1820s-30s;

- a particular grammar of Latin written by a dominant figure in the school Saussure attended may be linked to Saussure's first essay on language, from which there is more continuity to his celebrated Mémoire on the primitive Indo-European vowel system than has been previously noted;

- the ethos of the school included the principle that one should rewrite everything many times in order to find the wording the would express the precise nuance, giving a moral grounding to the perfectionism that ultimately prevented Saussure from publishing any of his ideas on general linguistics;

- his experience at the University of Leipzig led him to break with the German linguistics establishment that was dominant in his time, ultimately with consequences of major importance for the future development of linguistics in the 20th century.

The paper will conclude with a consideration of statements to the effect that the history of linguistics somehow loses objectivity by considering personal factors rather than purely intellectual ones. Such a view manages to be naïvely utopian, credulously mystical and wilfully ignorant all at once, leading not to objective history but to fantasy. Understanding textual meaning requires interpretation, which is richer and truer in proportion as factual information, grounded in documentary evidence, is brought to bear.

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