To my knowledge, Chomsky and most other modern linguists rarely ever mention Saussure. Do they still agree that language is an arbitrary and differential system? If not, what happened exactly that overturned Saussurean linguistics? Or did it simply fall out of use?


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    I don't really have sources for this, but my impression is that principles like Saussure's arbitrariness are just taken for granted and not considered citation-worthy. Certainly we still teach them to students in intro linguistics classes. There have been some high-profile claims that recursion isn't universal, for example, but I don't think any challenges to the principle of arbitrariness have ever taken the spotlight in the same way—phonaesthetics is a thing, but it's very niche. Is this the sort of answer you're looking for?
    – Draconis
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 2:03

2 Answers 2


There is a difference between "Chomsky" and "modern linguistics". Chomsky is the founder of an influential school of modern linguistics, but there are other schools of modern linguistics. Chomsky's school further fragmented so that a number of arguably generative practitioners nevertheless disagree with Chomsky on some point and perhaps only accept the Chomskyan notion of an abstract mental grammar, and none of the formal details.

Focusing only on the portion of linguistics that is some version of generative grammar, the apt question would be, what direct influence does de Saussure have: who reads Course in General Linguistics? It is not generally required reading in this theory, but then Apects of the theory of syntax is also not required reading, nor is Lectures on government and binding, unless maybe you are going for a PhD in syntax in a strongly-Chomskyan program. Part of the answer is, linguists usually don't read very far back in the history of the field. "History of linguistics" is not usually a required subject. There is a point in one's career where one is likely to read the classics, but getting a job and tenure does not require having read de Saussure (or Panini, or Aristotle, or Bopp, Sweet, Brugmann, Sapir, Bloomfield, Jakobson...).

As for "arbitrariness", there is a more basic issue that language is not entirely arbitrary (or "conventional"), though the phonological form of "signs" is conventional ("dog" is how we say it in English, "chien" is French, and so on). I don't know of any theory of linguistics that held that phonological form follows from some natural function. Since this is not a controversial point, it isn't widely discussed and therefore he is not widely quoted on this matter.

On the other hand, the distinction between langue and parole is given repeated lip-service, though via a translation to "competence" and "performance", and that is where Chomsky cites de Saussure the most.

  • Thanks for your answer. I was also wondering if modern linguists today still believe language is differential in the sense that the meaning of words are determined—at least, in part—by what other words in the lexicon are not.
    – John Smith
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 1:25
  • I think most linguists would not affirmatively embrace that view (I certainly don't), but don't really understand Saussure on this point. So perhaps, the general view of modern linguists would be "What does he really mean?". I.e. you cannot understand "cow" until you know all other concepts and then you know that "cow is what remains"? Surely he doesn't mean that. Or: "if you know 'cow', you can figure out 'non-cow'"? But the concept of "contrast" which seems related is present in our discourse, though we don't really understand what it is.
    – user6726
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 1:49

Not sure what you mean by "overturned Saussurean linguistics". In fact, I have seen quite a few direct quotes of his 1959 work recently. Here is one example:

What is most striking in the organization of language are syntagmatic solidarities; almost all units of language depend on what surrounds them in the spoken chain or on their successive parts. Saussure (1959, p. 127)


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