Course in General Linguistics (French: Cours de linguistique générale) is a book compiled by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye from notes on lectures given by historical-comparative linguist Ferdinand de Saussure at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. It was published in 1916, after Saussure's death, and is generally regarded as the starting point of structural linguistics, an approach to linguistics that was established in the first half of the 20th century by the Prague linguistic circle. One of Saussure's translators, Roy Harris, summarized Saussure's contribution to linguistics and the study of language in the following way:
Although Saussure's perspective was in historical linguistics, the Course develops a theory of semiotics that is generally applicable. A manuscript containing Saussure's original notes was found in 1996, and later published as Writings in General Linguistics.
Following a brief introduction to the history of linguistics, Saussure sets the tasks of linguistics. He largely equates general linguistics with historical-comparative and reconstructive linguistics arguing that "the scope of linguistics should be
A core task of Saussure's Course in General Linguistics is to define the subject matter of general linguistics. To do this, a definition of 'language' is required. Saussure distinguishes between language (la langue) and speech (la parole) introducing his concept of the 'speech circuit' (le circuit de la parole). The speech circuit emerges when at least two persons (A and B in the picture) interact verbally. It consists of two physical elements: the brain, representing the personal-psychological aspect of speaking; and speech, which is the result of the vocal organs producing sound waves. Third, language (not visible in the picture), with its rules, arises from the speech circuit socially and historically as a non-physical phenomenon. However, Saussure considers it "concrete" and not an abstraction, making language the suitable subject of linguistics as a natural science.
In practice, Saussure proposes that general linguistics consists of the analysis of language itself by way of semantics, phonology, morphology, lexicology, and grammar. Moreover, general or internal linguistics is informed by the related disciplines of external linguistics such as anthropological and archaeological linguistics. While language is the ultimate object of research, it must be studied through speech, which provides the research material. For practical reasons, linguists mostly use texts to analyse speech to uncover the systemic properties of language.
The publication a century ago of the Course in General Linguistics, allegedly by Ferdinand de Saussure, was a main impetus behind modern linguistics as well as the structuralist and post-structuralist movements. Going back to the "founding father" of these movements is therefore not only of historical interest but also of great philosophical importance, in particular since this influential book was the product of a rather high-handed editorial process by Saussure's colleagues, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, who had not been present at the actual courses.
Stawarska writes well; her book is often both pleasant to read and thought-provoking. However, the richness of ideas and interconnected themes is perhaps also one of its weakest points: while an important groundwork is laid down for English-speaking philosophers and linguists, the positive theses are difficult to sort out. We get a critique of earlier interpretations that sometimes borders on straw-man arguments. For one thing, the structuralist development of Saussure's linguistics were not intended to be a truthful exegesis. In addition, this multifarious movement is more often than not presented as equivalent to the rather unsophisticated dogma of closed and rigid structures. Moreover, even though Stawarska is absolutely right in pointing out the distortions of Saussure's ideas by the editors, the claim that the Saussure they produced is a "metaphysical traditionalist who maintained the received notion of a sign considered as a positive unity of sound and sense" (p. 79) is a perfect hyperbole. The editors put together an often highly equivocal work, but enough of Saussure's original ideas transpired for early interpreters to discern their ingenuity.
In fact, Saussure repeatedly emphasises the importance of upholding a distinction between these perspectives for a reason: for him, general linguistics should help us understand thefunctioning of language, and this requires us to take the viewpoint of the speaking subject. In contrast to the dominant paradigm in linguistics at the time, according to which general linguistic principles must be based on historical facts, Saussure took linguistic practice as his point of departure. Since the speaker does not necessarily know anything about the history of his or her language, it is not through the diachronic perspective that we can gain an understanding of its functioning. This is clearly a methodological choice, but one that must be maintained. As Stawarska herself points out, linguistic facts are not given independently but are contingent on the viewpoint adopted (p. 117). In other words, the synchronic point of view constituteslanguage as a system of oppositional, differentially and negatively determined values and cannot simply be intertwined with the diachronic perspective. The latter will constitute a different theoretical object.
In her discussion of the analogy, Stawarska reveals a fundamental paradox in Saussure's linguistics presented by him as a general principle of creativity in language (and thus, one would imagine, of change). However, since Saussure insists (also in the manuscripts) that analogy is a synchronic phenomenon, he admits a problem: if there is innovation there is change, and thus one enters the diachronic perspective. This is definitely a part of Saussure's thought that merits investigation, but to some extent Stawarska dodges the paradox when she claims that the analogy implies "a logic of chiasmatic interdependency" (p. 148). But the question remains how such an interdependency would be possible: according to Saussure's own principles, the analogy must occur in the synchronic realm and the distinction with diachrony be maintained, since the whole of the language system is needed in order for the analogy to have meaning.