LINGUIST List 30.4335

Thu Nov 14 2019

Review: History of Linguistics: Seuren (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 18-Aug-2019
From: Marc Pierce <>
Subject: Saussure and Sechehaye: Myth and Genius
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Pieter A.M. Seuren
TITLE: Saussure and Sechehaye: Myth and Genius
SUBTITLE: A Study in the History of Linguistics and the Foundations of Language
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is one of the most famous and most influential figures in the history of linguistics. Saussure was originally best-known for his work on Indo-European, having proposed the laryngeal theory of Indo-European in Saussure (1879); his proposals in this area were later confirmed by data from Hittite, and are now widely accepted among Indo-Europeanists (the literature on this topic is vast; see e.g. Clackson 2007 or Fortson 2010 for the mainstream view of the laryngeal theory and Voyles & Barrack 2015 for an anti-laryngeal theory view). This eventually changed, such that he is now best known as a general linguist (see Percival 1977 for some discussion of how this happened). Saussure’s current fame and reputation rest largely on his posthumous Course in General Linguistics (hereafter Cours, following Seuren’s usage) – he in fact published very little during his lifetime. The Cours is based on notes of Saussure’s lectures taken by his students at various times between 1906 and 1911. This book was originally published in French in 1916; it has since been translated into numerous languages, including English, German, and Italian, and a number of publications, including Godel (1957) and Koerner (1973), trace the origins and developments of the Cours and/or Saussure’s impact on linguistics. Saussure is hailed as the inventor of Structuralism, which eventually came to North America and was the dominant linguistic theory in North America for several decades before being supplanted by Chomskyan linguistics. Leonard Bloomfield, the dean of North American linguistics between the two world wars, for instance, remarked in a 1945 letter to Milton Cowan that his magnum opus Language (Bloomfield 1933) “reflects [Saussure’s] Cours on every page” (quoted in Cowan 1987: 29; Koerner 1989: 60 labels this claim “somewhat hyperbolic,” but it does nicely illustrate Saussure’s impact on North American linguistics). There is also a journal dedicated to Saussure, the Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, which published its 70th volume in 2017. Perhaps the best illustration of Saussure’s influence is that he is the subject of a detailed biography by Joseph (2012); such biographical studies of linguists are vanishingly rare.

Saussure’s high reputation contrasts with that of his Geneva colleague, Charles-Albert Sechehaye (who published under that name until 1908 and as Albert Sechehaye thereafter [103]), who is considerably less well-known. (A search of Google Scholar conducted on August 16, 2019, yielded approximately 74,000 hits for “Ferdinand de Saussure,” and about 9000 hits for “Charles Sechehaye.”) This is despite Sechehaye’s better publishing record, which includes two books, Sechehaye (1908) and (1926). Also unlike Saussure, who found a steady academic position at an early age, being named professor of Indo-European and Sanskrit in Geneva in 1891 (12), Sechehaye struggled to land a permanent academic position, and had to teach in various high schools and as an unpaid ‘Privat-dozent’ in Geneva, before becoming ‘professeur extraordinaire’ in Geneva in 1929, at the age of 69 (104). Just as Saussure is best-known today as the author of the Cours, Sechehaye is probably best-known today as one of the editors of the Cours (106), and not for his other work.

The volume under consideration here challenges the received wisdom about Saussure, arguing that Saussure in fact does not deserve his high reputation and that Sechehaye was a far superior scholar, who should have the kind of reputation today that Saussure enjoys. That is, Seuren contends that “Saussure, when looked at with an uncluttered eye, did not contribute much to present-day linguistic thought or practice on either side of the Atlantic …. I argue that he became the object of mythification” (1). On the other hand, “Sechehaye’s work was, though largely ignored, of the highest possible quality for his day, and, in fact, foreshadowed theoretical developments that have played an important innovative role in linguistic thought since the 1950s on both sides of the Atlantic” (1).

After a brief preface and an ‘Introduction’ (1-8) outlining the aims and contents of the book, the study itself gets under way with Chapter 2, “Who was Ferdinand de Saussure?” (9-42). This chapter sketches Saussure’s life, the history of the Cours, Saussure’s intellectual environment and outlook, and what Seuren labels “the Saussurean myth” (i.e. the view of Saussure and his contributions to linguistics presented above). In this chapter, Seuren contends, among other things, that “Saussure had a problem relating to his intellectual environment” (17), e.g. he often did not cite relevant work by others (as Seuren notes, see Morpurgo Davies 2004: 23-25 or Joseph 2012: 244-245 on this issue as it pertains to Saussure 1879); that there were crucial gaps in Saussure’s knowledge and outlook (e.g. “he appears to have been unaware of the immediately obvious fact that the Port-Royal grammar stands outside the French tradition of descriptive grammar writing” [27]); and that Saussure’s “reputation took on the proportions of a fully-fledged myth, based, first, on his teaching of Indo-European linguistics and then, unaccountably, shifting to his teaching of what was seen as general linguistic theory” (29; one footnote omitted).

Chapter 3, “The Cours: A Critical Look” (43-102), offers a detailed criticism of the Cours. It takes up many of its most famous ideas and views, e.g. synchrony vs. diachrony, the nature of the linguistic sign, the distinction between langue (language in general, roughly speaking) and parole (individual speech, again roughly speaking), and the famous comparison of language to a game of chess, and generally argues that the Cours is just not a very good book. In Seuren’s view, many of Saussure’s ideas are muddled, his writing is obscure or even bad, and some of the most famous aspects of the Cours are not original to Saussure. To give an example of each of these, Seuren argues that the comparison of language to a chess game “brings more confusion than clarity” (90); refers to Saussure’s “unclear, or at any rate incomplete, description of the tasks of linguistics” (52); and contends that the distinction between langue and parole is due not to Saussure, but instead to Sechehaye (1908), which contains a chapter “devote[d] … to the distinction between langue and parole” (57; italics removed).

Chapter 4, “Charles-Albert Sechehaye” (103-159), closely resembles Chapter 2 in structure. It gives a brief biographical sketch of Sechehaye, discusses his contributions to linguistics and his relationships with his colleagues (especially Saussure and Charles Bally, Saussure’s successor in Geneva), and addresses the question of why Sechehaye is so little-known in the history of linguistics. Seuren’s views on Sechehaye differ sharply from his views on Saussure: he contends that Sechehaye was “independent and intellectually fearless, of a clear mind, and … a visionary, anticipating not only many modern insights … but also the questions and discussions that come with them” (106; one footnote omitted), argues that both Saussure and Bally treated Sechehaye badly (Seuren in fact argues that one chapter of Bally 1932/1944 “closely paraphrases large sections of Sechehaye [1926], with only one casual and badly inadequate reference … to the true originator of the ideas in question” [121]), and suggests that Sechehaye was “eclipsed by Saussure’s undeserved glory” (125) and rejected by other linguists largely because of “his free use … of the notion, if not the term, proposition, against the overwhelmingly dominant trend among the linguists of his day to stay away from anything remotely reeking of logic” (126; italics removed).

Chapters 5 and 6, “Sechehaye and the Great Subject-Predicate Debate” (160-196) and “Structuralism, Rationalism and Romanticism in Psychology and Linguistics” (197-241), treat broader topics. The first of these chapters is intended to position Sechehaye and Saussure within the discussion of what Seuren calls “a central section of grammar and semantics that has, so far, hardly been explored but offers the prospect of a much more profound and thus more adequate insight into basic features of natural language” (160). The second is intended to position Sechehaye and Saussure within an even broader intellectual context, i.e. what Seuren refers to as “the complex force field created by, in particular” the interaction of structuralism, rationalism, and romanticism” (197). Seuren concedes that these two chapters take readers “a long way from … Saussure and Sechehaye,” but contends that this is necessary, as “a wider perspective allows for a wider bundle of light” (195).

Chapter 7, “Conclusions” (242-244), summarizes many of the points made in the book. Seuren’s bottom lines are that Saussure’s reputation “is not justified by the historical facts” (242), that “Sechehaye … stands out as a powerful and independent thinker, who, without getting carried away by fashionable but superficial trends, developed ideas that have proved substantial and even prophetic” (242).


This book is ultimately a mixed bag. Seuren does an excellent job of expounding on Sechehaye’s ideas, and demonstrates convincingly, in my view, that Sechehaye merits more attention than he has received to date. He also shows nicely that studies of Saussure and his insights and ideas have too often been rather hagiographical and that Saussure does not deserve quite as much credit as he often receives. The writing is clear and the arguments largely persuasive. All of these are major strengths.

There are also some weaker aspects of the book that should be mentioned. First, Saussure should be cut a bit more slack for the Cours, as we cannot tell precisely what the book would look like if Saussure had actually written it himself, and it were not based on student lecture notes. (This is in fact probably the case for just about every scholar.) Seuren does acknowledge this early on in the book (“when we speak of Saussure in the context of the Cours, what is meant is the reconstitution of his words and views as we know them through the text of the Cours” [13]), but immediately thereafter stomps on this idea, as it is “on the basis of … [the Cours], not Saussure’s own words, thoughts or notes revealed to the world at large … that Saussure gained his great fame” (13-14). Second, although it is understandable and commendable that Seuren wants to place Saussure and Sechehaye within their larger intellectual contexts, and his arguments in favor of including Chapters 5 and 6 are clear, in my view, they do take the reader too far away from the main focus of the book (Chapter 5, for instance, consists of 36 pages, of which about 6 are dedicated to Sechehaye, while Saussure gets one sentence). Condensing these two chapters considerably would have streamlined the book, while still giving the reader the necessary context. Third, there are some places in the text where a few more details would have been welcome and one or two surprising omissions from the bibliography (e.g. pp. 46-48 address the beginnings of sociology in France, but there is no justification for the authors and texts discussed there; and Anderson 1985, which includes a thorough discussion of Saussure’s views on phonology, is not cited). Fourth, Seuren’s rhetoric is too often too extreme, as when he labels the chapter in Bally (1932/1944) mentioned above “a rambling and undigested hodge-podge of hetereogeneous notions” (121). The rhetoric in the book in fact gives me the impression that Seuren genuinely does not like Saussure as a person, and that he therefore takes Saussure’s scholarly reputation, which he sees as undeserved, as a personal affront.

In sum, then, the book is sometimes very strong, sometimes a bit frustrating, and sometimes rather over the top. I suspect that many readers will disagree strongly with it, while others will embrace its views and claims, and still others will steer the kind of middle course that I myself did. But no matter what one ultimately thinks of the book, it should not be ignored by those interested in Saussure, Sechehaye, or the history of linguistics in general.


Anderson, Stephen R. 1985. Phonology in the twentieth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bally, Charles. 1944. Linguistique générale et linguistique française. 2d edition. Bern: Francke. [1st edition 1932]

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Holt.

Clackson, James. 2007. Indo-European linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cowan, J. Milton. 1987. The whimsical Bloomfield. In Robert A. Hall, Jr. (ed.), Leonard Bloomfield: Essays on his life and work, 23-37. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Fortson, Benjamin W. IV. 2010. Indo-European language and culture: An introduction. 2d edition, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Godel, Robert. 1957. Les sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure. Geneva: Droz.

Joseph, John E. 2012. Saussure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Koerner, Konrad. 1973. Ferdinand de Saussure: Origin and development of his linguistic thought in Western studies of language. A contribution to the history and theory of linguistics. Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg & Sohn.

_____. 1989. Leonard Bloomfield and the “Cours de Linguistique Générale.” Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 43. 55-63.

Morpurgo Davies, Anna. 2004. Saussure and Indo-European linguistics. In Carol Sanders (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Saussure, 9-29. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Percival, Keith. 1977. Review article on Koerner 1973. Language 53. 383-405.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1879. Mémoire sur la système primitive des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes. Leipzig: Teubner.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot.

Sechehaye, Ch. Albert. 1908. Programme et méthodes de la linguistique théorique: Psychologie du langage. Paris: Champion.

Sechehaye, Albert. 1926. Essai sur la structure logique de la phrase. Paris: Champion.

Voyles, Joseph and Charles Barrack. 2015. On laryngealism. A coursebook in the history of a science. Munich: Lincom.


Marc Pierce is an associate professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include Germanic linguistics, historical linguistics, the history of linguistics, and phonology.

Page Updated: 14-Nov-2019