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Saussure and his Interpreters

Roy Harris

Edition: 2

Paperback (Printed to Order)

Reviews of the First Edition

'In a very readable study, Roy Harris examines the mis/representation of Saussurean ideas by certain linguists and by French thinkers of a Structuralist and post-structuralist persuasion. This is therefore essentially a study in intellectual history dealing with the thorny question of "influence" of one thinker's ideas on another … Harris has done us a favour by bringing his critical eye to bear on a range of (mis)interpreters of the Cours who had hitherto largely been considered in isolation.' - Modern Language Review

This book is the first major reassessment of the reception of Saussure's ideas in the academic world of the twentieth century. It is well known that Saussure's work profoundly influenced developments in such diverse fields as linguistics, anthropology, psychology and literary studies. But what exactly were Saussure's views taken to be by his interpreters? How well were Saussure's ideas understood by those who took them up? Or how badly misunderstood? And why? The answers to these questions address central issues in the history of Western culture.

Each chapter focuses on one particular interpreter of Saussure's work, but many others are mentioned in context for purposes of comparison, and attention is drawn to connections and disparities between their interpretations. Those whose interpretations are examined in detail include Bloomfield, Hjelmslev, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Chomsky, Barthes and Derrida.

In an important supplement to the new edition, account is taken of recently found notes in Saussure's hand. The discovery re-opens the whole question of the extent to which the Cours de linguistique générale, posthumously published in 1916, accurately reflects the stage that Saussure's thinking about language and communication had reached by the time of his death. It suggests a new interpretation of Saussure that differs significantly from any of those previously advanced.

Key Features

  • The only comprehensive survey of this field
  • Up-to-date coverage of recent developments in Saussurean studies
  • Analysis by one of today's leading authorities on Saussure.

About the Author

Roy Harris is Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics in the University of Oxford. His prize-winning translation of Saussure’s Cours de Linguistique Générale appeared in 1983. He is also the author of many publications on the work of Saussure.


In the last century, Ferdinand de Saussure has been both saviour and straw man, his Cours de linguistique générale having been the object of misunderstanding, distortion and plain error. In what is by far the best book on the heritage of Saussure - now in a second edition that features a discussion of the recent, explosive findings about the notes for the Cours - Harris puts the record straight. The volume should be read by everyone who is interested in communication and should be the first port of call after the Cours for anyone involved in teaching Saussure’s ideas.
- Paul Cobley, London Metropolitan University
Saussure and his Interpreters is meticulously researched, powerfully argued and of fundamental importance. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in language, literature or the history of ideas.
- The Use of English