Saussure and structural phonology

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Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) had a shaping impact on modern phonology with two books. The Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européenes (Memoir on the primitive system of vowels in the Indo-European languages, 1879), which appeared in December 1878, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, was hastily composed in a compressed and jejune style that has always limited its readership. The Cours de linguistique générale (Course in general linguistics, 1916) was produced posthumously, and has found a vast audience. While faithful to his teaching, it retains certain paradoxes he would have wanted to resolve, and is silent on matters he would likely have filled in. In addition, he published some twenty articles, several of which had an impact with regard to specific issues, but nothing like the Mémoire and the Cours. This chapter traces the itinerary of Saussure’s phonological thinking from his earliest work to his final lectures (sections 2 to 4). It then discusses certain widespread misunderstandings of his work (section 5), and surveys its heritage in modern linguistics (section 6), followed by a brief conclusion (section 7).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford History of Phonology
EditorsB. Elan Dresher, Harry van der Hulst
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780198796800
Publication statusPublished - 24 Mar 2022


  • Saussure, Ferdinand de
  • phonology
  • structural linguistics


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