Saussure-Chomsky: converging and diverging

Atelier: Genève

Auteur: Claire Forel
Co-Auteur(s): Genoveva Puskas, Thomas Robert, Giuseppe Cosenza


In 2002 J. Joseph explained Chomsky’s fluctuating attitude towards Saussure’s proposals, especially about his distinction langue/parole. However, ten years later, Roy Harris thought that “Chomsky n’avait jamais compris la position théorique de Saussure. Et, étant donné la malheureuse traduction de Baskin [du CLG], que Chomsky avait sans doute utilisée, on pouvait bien comprendre pourquoi.” (Harris 2012: 41) The hundredth anniversary of the first publication of the Cours de linguistique générale seems a good opportunity to examine both Saussure’s and Chomsky’s proposals for linguistics, focusing not only on Chomsky’s assertions about Saussure but also on what they share, where there can be no common ground between the two and where Chomsky adopts some aspects of Saussure’s approach while being opposed to other key aspects.


Organization and call for papers:

The workshop will be semi-open in the sense that there will be keynote

speakers: Julie Andresen, John Joseph, Frederic Newmeyer, Luigi Rizzi.

Besides these speakers, we have selected communications from other scholars


Andresen J. T. 2013, Linguistics and Evolution. A Developmental. Approach, Cambridge: CUP

Chomsky, N.1963, “Formal Properties of Grammar”, in Duncan Luce R. & Bush. R.R., Handbook of Mathematical Psychology, London & New York: Wiley

Chomsky, N. 1964, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, The Hague: Mouton

Chomsky, N. 1965, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge Mass: MIT Press

Chomsky, N. 1968, Language and Mind, New-York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Chomsky, N. 1986, Knowledge of Language, New York: Praeger

Chomsky, N. 2007. ‘Of minds and language’, Biolinguistics 1: 9-27

Joseph, J. 2002, From Whitney to Chomsky, Amsterdam: Benjamin

Newmeyer, F.J. 2013, ‘Some Remarks on Chomsky’s Reading of Saussure’. In S.R Anderson., J. Moeschler, and F. Reboul (eds.), L’Interface Langage-Cognition: Actes du 19e Congrès International des Linguistes, Genève, 22-27 Juillet 2013, Genève: Droz, pp. 233-252.

Rizzi, L. 2009, “Some Elements of Syntactic Computations”, Biological Foundations and Origin of Syntax, in D. Bickerton and E. Szathmary, E. Struengmann Forum (eds), Cambridge (Mass) : MIT Press, 2009, 63-87.

Saussure, F. de 1975, Cours de linguistique générale, éd. critique par T. De Mauro, Paris: Payot

Saussure, F de 2005, « Notes préparatoires pour le cours de Linguistique générale 1910-1911 », Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 58, pp. 83-290



Lundi 9 janvier – 10 h 40 – 12 h 20

- Luigi RIZZI, Syntax as a computational engine

- Giuseppe COSENZA, Instruments logico-mathématiques au service de la linguistique: récursivité et quaternions

- Discussion


Lundi 9 janvier – 13 h 40 – 15 h 20

- John JOSEPH, Saussure' s Universal Grammar, Chomsky's Structuralism

- Emmanuele FADDA, Saussure on individual linguistic knowledge: a non-nativist notion of instinct

- Discussion


Lundi 9 janvier – 15 h 40 – 17 h 50

- Julie Tetel ANDRESEN, Linguistics and Evolution

- Thomas ROBERT, Saussure, Chomsky et les origines du langage

- General discussion of the day 17 h 20 – 17 h 50


Mardi 10 janvier – 10 h 40 – 12 h 20

- Frederick J. NEWMEYER, The "Saussurean Sign" in Twenty-First Century Linguistics

- M. Amin SHAKERI, General Grammar vs. Universal Grammar: an unbridgeable chasm between the Saussureans and Chomsky

- Discussion




- Frederick J. Newmeyer, University of Washington, University of British Columbia, and Simon Fraser University

The ‘Saussurean Sign’ in Twenty-First Century Linguistics


In the first part of this talk, I discuss the fact that most current approaches to syntax, from Construction Grammar to Cognitive Linguistics to some varieties of functional linguistics, consider themselves ‘Neo-Saussurean’ in the sense that the concept of the ‘sign’ plays a major role in the particular theory. I argue that for the most part these approaches adopt a very superficial interpretation of the Saussurean sign, while at the same time ignoring other major aspects of Saussure’s ideas.


The second part of the talk is devoted entirely to Chomsky’s evolving views on Saussure. For decades Chomsky’s published opinions on Saussure could be described as ‘respectful, but highly critical’. However, in more recent years the evaluations of Saussure by Chomsky (and his cothinkers) have been uniformly positive. I attribute this fact to a convergence between the Minimalist Program and some central ideas found in Saussure’s Cours.



- John Joseph, University of Edinburgh

Saussure's Universal Grammar, Chomsky's Structuralism

The standard narrative of the development of linguistics in the 20th century is that the publication of Saussure's Cours in 1916 initiated a structuralism that endured until the rise of Chomsky's Universal Grammar put an end to it. All good historical plots are simplified, and their suppressed complexities eventually demand to be reconsidered. This paper focusses on two of them. The first is that the gap between Chomsky and Saussure on the "universal" nature of language(s), both FLB and FLN in Chomsky's terms, is not so great as it appears. Chomsky has long maintained that language as an internal, individual phenomenon is perfect, and that "a large range of imperfections", including the messiness of phonology, and the very existence of morphology, "may have to do with the need to 'externalize' language. If we could communicate by telepathy, they would not arise" (Chomsky, Language and Mind, 1968, 3rd ed. 2006, p. 405). It is impossible to imagine Saussure writing anything comparable; and yet, his formulation of langue, for all his proclamations that it is a social fact, takes the idealised form of an internal, perfect system, with all the difficulties of individual difference airbrushed out, and issues of communication not actually dealt with. The second complexity concerns the conception of structuralism. In its prototypical meaning, elements of Saussure's approach are its starting point, but are developed in a way that makes them more foreign to Saussure than to Chomsky, with whom, I have argued (in From Whitney to Chomsky, 2002), "American structuralism" should be said to begin, not to end”. The overarching theme of the paper is that, as we move further away from 20th-century linguistics, the continuities within it become more visible, and disjunctures narrow that once seemed definitive.


- Luigi Rizzi, University of Geneva

Syntax as a computational engine

I have chosen to address the conception of syntax as the computational engine of our linguistic capacities, a conception which Chomsky has expressed since the 1950 and which has remained central to his research program for about 60 years. I will compare that to what Saussure says about syntax, in various passages of the Cours, also looking at his students' notes. A good way to organize the comparison is the following. Any system aiming at capturing the human capacity to master an unlimited set of possible linguistic expressions must specify at least two components:

1. a finite inventory (typically, the lexicon)

2. a computational procedure, putting together elements from the inventories to form complex expressions

Chomsky has clearly focused on 2. Saussure looked primarily at the structured nature of 1. This may be a reasonable basis to address the comparison on this issue.


- Julie Tetel Andresen,

Linguistics and Evolution

What is needed for a twenty-first-century linguistics is an understanding of language that is inspired not by Descartes but by Darwin. A linguistics inspired by Descartes is beautiful but static. A linguistics inspired by Darwin is messy and dynamic. A linguistics inspired by Descartes assumes that communication occurs and proceeds to explain how it occurs. A linguistics inspired by Darwin is motivated by the whys: why communication occurs, why a group has the particular language it has, why on any given occasion an individual says this or that or nothing at all. A linguistics inspired by Descartes abstracts linguistic universals away from time and space and lets them disappear into the mysteries of the genome. A linguistics inspired by Darwin tethers itself to whole bodies whose feet are on the ground and seeks to understand the possible relationship between brain development genes such as ASPM and Microcephalin and the degree of difficulty in learning a tonal language like Chinese or a non-tonal language like English. A linguistics inspired by Descartes operates in a framework where the terms nature and nurture function in familiar opposition, precludes investigation into the explanatory dimensions of both evolutionary time and an individual’s lifetime, and accommodates with difficulty micro-variables in the human genome. A linguistics inspired by Darwin dispels the conceptual chaos of the nature-nurture opposition and recasts explanations within the framework of a developmental system that has evolutionary stability.

Saussure‘s circuit de la parole takes for granted that communication, in the sense of duplicative transmission, simply occurs by means of the langue (the code) deposited in two heads. For Chomsky, it is the use of language, “the ordinary use of language in everyday life”, detached from control by external stimuli or inner states, that linguist should describe.

Hence, neither have dealt with what is now the object of linguistic enquiry.




- Giuseppe COSENZA, Instruments logico-mathématique au service de la linguistique: récursivité et quaternion


Un point, très connu, dans la conception linguistique de Chomsky est réductible à l’aphorisme Humboltien reformulé « la langue est l’emploi infini de moyens finis » (cf. Chomsky, 1965). Au fin de formaliser cette conception linguistique, Chomsky a trouvé dans la logique-mathématique l’instrument adapte : la récursivité. Chomsky-même a contribué aux études de logique établissant la classification des langages formels (cf. Chomsky, 1959). Une formulation linguistique très simple de la récursivité – mais déjà très puissante – est la règle récriture, c’est-à-dire la possibilité théorique de itérer à l’infini n’importe quel phrase et d’être, toujours théoriquement, représentable par une structure formelle très simple : l’arbre porfirien (parmi le plus connu).


Moins connu est la recherche de Ferdinand de Saussure d’instruments logico-mathématique pour la description et la représentation de sa théorie linguistique, surtout parce que il n’a jamais développé ce point. Toutefois nous avons des schémas et des termes techniques qui peuvent nous indiquer le type d’instrument logique que Saussure cherchait pour sa conception linguistique ; dans le manuscrits nommé Essence Double on trouve le terme de « quaternion final » lié au quaternion mathématique conceptualisé par sir Hamilton en 1835 (cf. Russo, 2009); dans le même manuscrits on trouve un schéma pour la représentation linguistique selon le quaternion final version de Saussure (cf. Saussure, 2011).


Même si le premier a développé la formalisation de sa conception linguistique et le deuxième ne l’avait pas fait, dans ma communication je décrirai ces deux instruments logique, leur puissance et leur limite dans les études linguistique et certaines conséquences dérivées en adoptant l’une ou l’autre de ces instruments logique en tant que symbole des caractéristiques générales de la langue.





Chomsky Noam, 1959, On Certain Formal Properties of Grammars, in “Information and Control”, II, pp.137-167.

Chomsky Noam, 1965, Aspect of the Theory of Syntax, Mit Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

Chomsky N., Hauser M.D., Fitch W.T., 2002, The Faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? in “Neuroscience”, 22 November 2002, Vol. 298, pp. 1569-1579.

Chomsky N., Hauser M.D., Fitch W.T., 2005, The evolution of the language faculty: clarifications and implications, in “Cognition”, 15 February 2005, Vol. 97, pp.179-210.

Russo (Cardona) T., 2009, Négativité, récursivité et incalculabilité. Les quaternions dans “De l’essence double du language”, in “Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure” vol. 61-2008, Librairie Droz S.A., Ginevra, pp.87-100.

Saussure Ferdinand de, 1972, Cours de linguistique générale, publié par Ch. Bally et A. Sechehaye avec la collaboration de A. Riedlinger. Introduction, commentaire et notes par T. De Mauro, Payot, Paris-Lausanne.

Saussure Ferdinand de, 2011, Science du langage. De la double essence du langage et autres documents du ms. BGE Arch. de Saussure 372. Editions critique partielle mais raisonné et augmentée des Écrits de linguistique générale établi par René Amacker, Genève, Droz.



- Emmanuele FADDA, Saussure on individual linguistic knowledge: a non-nativist notion of instinct ?


The classic (i. e. of classic European structuralism) account of Saussurean theory describes it as completely objective, taking language (la langue) as a social, abstract object having no relation at all with the speaker/listener and her knowledge. This vision was assumed by Chomsky and his followers as an example of e-language, theory, so that Generativism could present itself as as an absolute novelty, because it takes into account the speaker’s (although it is an ideal speaker) knowledge, and even states that every biological individual as such, by virtue of her native, encapsulated modules, has language in her mind.

In spite of this (almost) unquestioned opinion, a close reading of Saussure’s texts shows hints of a clear focus on the linguistic knowledge and conscience of the speaker, as the only way to justify the morphological parsing of the linguist. Namely, the notions of conscience and sentiment de la langue, which can be found widely throughout Saussure’s works and notes, namely in the first course in general linguistics (1907/1996), the note on morphology (see Saussure 2002: 180 ff.), and the unpublished course in Greek and Latin Morphology given in 1910, represents a form of very weak conscience (also referred to in 1891 conferences), guiding the speaker/listener in her linguistic activity, and also allowing analogic formations. Actually, the word sentiment is usually employed (at least from 1907 on) to designate this very weak conscience.

Closely related to this notion of conscience/sentiment, it is also possible to find some occurrences of the word instinct, or rather of the adverb instinctivement (“instinctively”). By means of this adverb, Saussure refers to linguistic (semi-)automatic activity, which is not, indeed, operated by native mechanisms, but works just like native instincts, i. e. without any questioning and hesitation.

This shows how Saussure, just as Chomsky, considers (semi-)automatic mechanisms which guide linguistic behavior as an important object for linguistics; but, unlike Chomsky, he thinks that this kind of linguistic mechanism is not related to a native device.





Chomsky Noam, 1965, Aspect of the Theory of Syntax, Mit Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

Chomsky Noam, 1988: Language and the Problems of Knowledge, Cambridge (Ma.), MIT Press.

Chomsky Noam, 2000: New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge UP.

Chomsky N., Hauser M.D., Fitch W.T., 2002, The Faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? in “Neuroscience”, 22 November 2002, Vol. 298, pp. 1569-1579.

Saussure, Ferdinand de, 1910 : Cours de morphologie gréco-latine (unpublished manuscripts : notes from E. Constantin, A. Riedlinger, Ch. Patois), BGE.

Saussure, Ferdinand de, 1907/1996 : Premier cours de linguistique générale (d’après les cahiers d’Albert Riedlinger), ed. by E. Komatsu, Oxford, Pergamon.

Saussure, Ferdinand de, 1910-11/1993 : Troisième cours de linguistique générale (d’après les cahiers d’Émile Constantin), ed. by E. Komatsu, Oxford, Pergamon.

Saussure Ferdinand de, 1972, Cours de linguistique générale, publié par Ch. Bally et A. Sechehaye avec la collaboration de A. Riedlinger. Introduction, commentaire et notes par T. De Mauro, Payot, Paris-Lausanne.

Saussure, Ferdinand de, 2002 : Écrits de linguistique générale, éd. par S. Bouquet et R. Engler, Paris, Gallimard.


- Thomas ROBERT, Saussure, Chomsky et les origines du langage

Alors que la question de l’origine du langage a souvent passionné les linguistes, deux des figures majeures de la linguistique, Saussure et Chomsky, semblent s’en être désintéressées. Or, cet accord sur une certaine défiance au sujet des origines masque un désaccord épistémologique profond. En effet, le refus de la question des origines est, pour Saussure, l’occasion d’affirmer l’appartenance de la linguistique aux sciences historiques, tandis que Chomsky, bien qu’il prenne ses distances avec le programme adaptationniste, réaffirme une lecture tout à fait biologique du langage en exprimant l’origine sous le prisme de la faculté de langage.

L’enjeu majeur de la question de l’origine du langage pour la linguistique consiste alors en l’intégration de l’évolutionnisme, Saussure et Chomsky représentant deux approches diamétralement opposées. Dans cette communication, nous proposerons une conciliation entre théorie darwinienne et linguistique saussurienne à partir de la question des origines. L’incompatibilité de l’approche chomskyenne avec la pensée darwinienne sera parallèlement mise en évidence. Pour ce faire, nous nous concentrerons principalement sur les conférences données par Saussure en 1891 et sur le texte, désormais célèbre, co-signé par Chomsky, Hauser et Fitch.




Darwin, C.R. (1874), The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London : John Murray [2nd ed.]

--, (1890), The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London : John Murray [2nd



Hauser, M.D. Chomsky, N. Fitch, W.T. (2002), "The Faculty of Language : What is it, Who has it, how did it evolve ?", Science 298 : 1569-1579


Saussure, F. de. (1974 [1891]), Conférences inaugurales à l’Université de Genève, in Cours de linguistique générale, édition par R. Engler, Wiesbaden : Harrasowitz



- Mohammad Amin SHAKERI, General Grammar vs. Universal Grammar: an unbridgeable chasm between the Saussureans and Chomsky

As Harris (2003: 152-170) has illustrated -especially by his concentration on the notion of ‘creativity’- ‘Chomsky the Saussurean’ is nothing but “an academic fable”. This fable is a result of misreading –by Chomsky himself (1964) and also by others- of Saussure’s la langue (in the singular form) as generativist concept of ‘competence’ and, therefore, its grammar as the Universal Grammar (UG).

Chomsky’s approach to the deviant utterances in his standpoint of individual psychology never brings him to a concept of ‘grammar’ the function of which is also to explain the poems, the puns and any kind of wordplay. The contradiction here is that, on the one hand, he demands just to speak about ‘individual faculty of language’ (which can lead to an infinitive number of individual grammars), and on the other hand, his aim is to discover the UG which means “a framework of principles and elements common to attainable human languages” (Chomsky, 1986: 3) (which for him would be a concrete unique absolute one). Such situation leads him to assume a completely transcendental postulate which claims that all human beings share an innate, genetically determined language faculty that contains/knows the rules of UG. As a result, Chomsky and others in the huge generativist camp put their attempts to seek a vouchsafed ‘universal rule-and-concept system’ which is a reproduction of an old traditional dream of ‘universal language of thought’. In a Saussurean perspective, this assumption, aside from its failure to observe the diversity and specificity of languages, is a metaphysical and, therefore, an incoherent base for linguistic theory.

Basing linguistic theory on language acquisition or biological facts is not at all acceptable for Saussure because any understanding of the faits de parole and ‘substantive facts’ premises an understanding or an implicit definition of language which is in Chomsky’s case the common modular understanding of language. The generativist modular conception of language, therefore, turns a deaf ear to the fundamental problems being propounded by Saussure concerning the very essence of language, especially the arbitrariness of linguistic sign.

How does Saussurean linguistics define its own grammar as General Grammar, and how does it deal with the common or universal linguistic facts which are the main goals for the Chomskyans? This is a main concern in the present study, which I intend to consider as a matter of ‘algebra of language’ and also as a question of typology by investigating the few indications by Saussure in the CLG and ELG and the explications by Hjelmslev. In this regard, we will see there are only the universal arbitrary structural rules just for seeking a general framework/calculus susceptible to describe all possible languages and language types.

Finally, in agreement with Harris and De Mauro, we will claim that the Chomskyians and the Sausureans are in two fundamentally different paths in dealing with grammar, where the latter –and notably Hjelmslev- provides a broader possibility for theorizing language.

Giuseppe COSENZA
Instruments logico-mathématiques au service de la linguistique. Récursivité et quaternion
in 103 - Saussure-Chomsky: converging and diverging
> lire résumé...
Emanuele FADDA
Saussure on individual linguistic knowledge: a non-nativist notion of instinct ?
in 103 - Saussure-Chomsky: converging and diverging
> lire résumé...
Frederick J. NEWMEYER
The 'Saussurean Sign' in Twenty-first Century Linguistics
in 103 - Saussure-Chomsky: converging and diverging
> lire résumé...
Mohamad Amin SHAKERI
General Grammar vs. Universal Grammar: an unbridgeable chasm between the Saussureans and Chomsky
in 103 - Saussure-Chomsky: converging and diverging
> lire résumé...