Pretty much everyone who’s done a linguistics course has come across the name of Ferdinand de Saussure – a name that’s attached to such...

Pretty much everyone who’s done a linguistics course has come across the name of Ferdinand de Saussure – a name that’s attached to such fundamentals as the distinction between synchrony and diachrony, and the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. Yet when it comes to the man behind the ideas, most people know much less. Who was this man – this aristocrat with a Calvinist upbringing who shook the foundations of the linguistic establishment, and whose influence was felt more strongly after his death than it ever was in life?

When John Joseph started looking into these questions, he found only scattered information. As a result, he ended up having to write the book that he himself had wanted to read. The result, Saussure (OUP, 2012), is a detailed but nevertheless readable account of the life and works of one of the most respected figures in the history of linguistics.

In this interview we discuss some of the questions that arise in connection with Saussure: his major intellectual influences, his remarkable lack of publications during his adult life, the originality (and historical antecedents) of some of his central ideas, and “Calvinist linguistics”.

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