Example Research: Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is considered to be the founding father of modern linguistics. He founded the structuralist school of thought which claims that language can be studied as self-contained and structured system at a single point in time.[1]

Much of the research within the history of linguistics is based on the ideas of language study from the past and this is true of Saussure's work. The development of semiotics can be traced back to Ancient Greece, associated with philosophers such as Aristotle and Stoics who, at this time, were analysing the nature of signs, language and meaning. Many other theories of language have been built upon these early thoughts.

Saussure was a talented linguist who was able to speak French, German, English, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. His theories of language were often based on ancient theories of language. He was an expert on Sanskrit and was heavily influenced by the work of Panini.

Saussure gave lectures between 1907 and 1911 at the University of Geneva. His main theory was semiotics - the idea that human language is a system of signs. He rejected the theory of language as being "a naming process only - a list of words each corresponding to the thing it names" arguing that this "assumes that ready-made ideas exist before words; it does not tell us whether a name is vocal or psychological in nature... finally it lets us assume that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation". [2]

A sign is a unit used to represent and convey meaning. A sign is arbitrary because "the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary".[2] This basically means that the meanings that people attach to signs is subjective, people can apply different meanings to one sign. Also, this link is a matter of societal convention. Signs gain meanings from the associations we give them as a society. For example...

A no smoking sign doesn't directly tell us not to smoke but we know not to because of the meanings we, as a society, associate with the sign when we see it.
Saussure's work goes beyond linguistics and has influenced other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and literary criticism. It has also influenced and inspired many different interpretations.

[1] McGregor, W., (2009). Linguistics: An Introduction. Continuum. The chapter on the history of linguistics can be found here: http://mcgregor.continuumbooks.net/media/1/history_outline.pdf