Who is Who in Terminology: Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

de SaussureFerdinand Mongin de Saussure was a linguist and semiotician born in Geneva, Switzerland. At 15 he was already a polyglot (being familiar with French, German, English, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit) and was already attempting to develop a ‘general system of language.” He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig, where he studied Indo-European languages. By the age of 21 he had already published a book on the vowel system in Indo-European languages. His most influential work, “Course in General Linguistics”, was published posthumously in 1916 by two of his former students. A curious fact, since Wüster’s Theory of Terminology was also published posthumously and de Saussure was one of his major influencers!

His ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments both in linguistics and semiology in the 20th century (Wikipedia), but also his work contributed to the development of terminology: In her PhD thesis, Ángela Campo explains that “Wüster’s research was based on theories established by de Saussure (the difference between language as a system, langue, and speech, parole)” (Felber, 1980a, p. 11). Pierre Lerat (1989, p. 54) has also shown how Wüster adheres to Saussure’s ideas: “la division principale est saussurienne : en haut la langue (“Sprachsystem”), en bas la parole (“Sprechen”).”

“Eugen Wüster was heavily influenced by Saussure’s ideas on linguistics, specifically the distinction between language as a system and the way a language is actually used for communication. Saussure’s work on signs and symbols led Wüster to elaborate a conceptual system of signs and symbols which became the DIN draft standard 2338. The complex relationships between concepts in terminology work and specialized dictionaries led him to establish an additional system, which became the ISO standard 1951 ‘lexicographical symbols particularly for use in defining vocabularies’.”

Wüster included de Saussure on his list of “intellectual fathers of the terminological theory” during a brief tribute (“International Activity in Terminology: 75 Years of Research – Foundations and Challenges for the Rest of the Century”) to “four dynamic and forward-looking men” who, during the first half of the century, fostered the development of terminology (alongside Schlomann, Dresen, and Holmstrom). (Cabré/Campo). He was, according to Wüster, “the first one to have drawn attention to the systematic nature of language”. (Protopopescu).

On a more personal note (Source 3 highly recommended on his life), John Joseph referred to de Saussure’s poetic vein: “The best of his poems is “Le Feu sous la cendre” (The fire beneath the ashes), the portrait of a Huguenot family of the sixteenth century:

Et les voilà tous trois, rêveurs et sérieux / And there are the three of them, rapt in sombre thought,

Cherchant dans ce chaos un sens mystérieux / Searching the chaos for a mysterious meaning

Et si le destin sombre aussi leur fait attendre / And whether dark destiny also has in store for them

Quelque vague malheur qui couve sous la cendre. / Some vague misfortune smouldering beneath the ashes.

“It is the one poem in which Saussure holds something back – a mysterious meaning that smoulders beneath the text. The family portrayed is undoubtedly Saussure’s own. In his veins ran the Calvinist doctrine that one must express ideas clearly and directly. Any revelling in the beauty of language would be doubly frowned upon, both because it was pleasurable and because it must stand in the way of clear expression. Saussure’s poetic nature provides an insight into his synaesthesia, his fascination with anagrams and his belief in a structure lurking within the chaos.”

Ultimately, for his influence and clarity into linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. He died in 1913 of arteriosclerosis and influenza.

Sources: (extracted/adapted from)

  1. CABRÉ, M. Teresa. Terminology Today: A Science, an Art or a Practice? Some Aspects on Terminology and Its Development
  2. CAMPO, Angela The Reception of Eugen Wüster’s Work and the Development of Terminology
  3. Joseph, John E., The poet who could smell vowels. The Handstand (2007)
  4. PROTOPOPESCU, Daria. Theories of terminology – Past and present.
  5. Ferdinand de Saussure Biography. The European Graduate School.
  6. Wikipedia: Ferdinand de Saussure

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