Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics

Source: Saussure\'s Third Course of Lectures on General Linghuistics (1910-1911) publ. Pergamon Press, 1993. Reproduced here are the first few and last few pages of what are notes taken by a student of Saussure\'s lectures.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1910)

Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics

[28 October 1910]

Introductory chapter: Brief survey of the history of linguistics

The course will deal with linguistics proper, not with languages and language. This science has gone through phases with shortcomings. Three phases may be distinguished, or three successive approaches adopted by those who took a language as an object of study. Later on came a linguistics proper, aware of its object.

The first of these phases is that of grammar, invented by the Greeks and carried on unchanged by the French. It never had any philosophical view of a language as such. That\'s more the concern of logic. All traditional grammar is normative grammar, that is, dominated by a preoccupation with laying down rules, and distinguishing between a certain allegedly \'correct\' language and another, allegedly \'incorrect\'; which straight away precludes any broader view of the language phenomenon as a whole.

Later and only at the beginning of the 19th century, if we are talking of major movements (and leaving out the precursors, the \'philological\' school at Alexandria), came 2) the great philological movement of classical philology, carrying on down to our own day. In 1777, Friedrich Wolf, as a student, wished to be enrolled as a philologist. Philology introduced a new principle: the method of critical examination of texts. The language was just one of the many objects coming within the sphere of philology, and consequently subjected to this criticism. Henceforth, language studies were no longer directed merely towards correcting grammar. The critical principle demanded an examination, for instance, of the contribution of different periods, thus to some extent embarking on historical linguistics. Ritschl\'s revision of the text of Plautus may be considered the work of a linguist. In general, the philological movement opened up countless sources relevant to linguistic issues, treating them in quite a different spirit from traditional grammar; for instance, the study of inscriptions and their language. But not yet in the spirit of linguistics.

A third phase in which this spirit of linguistics is still not evident: this is the sensational phase of discovering that languages could be compared with one another; that a bond or relationship existed between languages often separated geographically by great distances; that, as well as languages, there were also great language families, in particular the one which came to be called the Indo-European family.

Surprisingly, there was never a more flawed or absurd idea of what a language is than during the thirty years that followed this discovery by Bopp (1816). In fact, from then on scholars engaged in a kind of game of comparing different Indo-European languages with one another, and eventually they could not fail to wonder what exactly these connections showed, and how they should be interpreted in concrete terms. Until nearly 1870, they played this game without any concern for the conditions affecting the life of a language.

This very prolific phase, which produced many publications, differs from its predecessors by focussing attention on a great number of languages and the relations between them, but, just like its predecessors, has no linguistic perspective, or at least none which is correct, acceptable and reasonable. It is purely comparative. You cannot altogether condemn the more or less hostile attitude of the philological tradition towards the comparativists, because the latter did not in fact bring any renewal bearing on the principles themselves, none which in practice immediately opened up any new horizons, and with which they can clearly be credited. When was it recognised that comparison is, in short, only a method to employ when we have no more direct way of ascertaining the facts, and when did comparative grammar give way to a linguistics which included comparative grammar and gave it a new direction?

It was mainly the study of the Romance languages which led the IndoEuropeanists themselves to a more balanced view and afforded a glimpse of what the study of linguistics was to be in general. Doubtless the growth of Romance studies, inaugurated by Diehls, was a development of Bopp\'s rules for the