Marr and Saussure: A hundred years later

2021. №1, 104-120

Boris M. Gasparov
Columbia University, New York, USA; National Research University Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg, Russia;


The article explores parallels between Nikolai Marr’s and Ferdinand de Saussure’s views concerning the fundamental nature of language and methodological challenges faced by modern linguistics. These parallels take their roots in the philosophical revolution at the turn of the twentieth century, whose principles the two scholars reflected, each in his own way, in their efforts to revise fundamental postulates of linguistic studies. Saussure’s approach highlighted the need of an explicitly constructed concept of language as the object of linguistic studies, while Marr made the principal target of his critique of nineteenth-century linguistics its selective and normative treatment of linguistic data, which held linguistic studies captive of pre-established conventional categories and perspectives. What was common between the two linguists was their assertion that language is a cognitive phenomenon rather than a material entity similar to those described by natural sciences. This radical change in understanding the nature of the meaning of linguistic communication and linguistic signs stood behind a number of theoretical ideas that were common to both scholars. Among those ideas were an emphasis on an elemental nature of language development, and the ensuing rejection of the idea of its singular beginning point; an emphasis on the relative character of linguistic signs; and a strong opposition to the organicist approach to language as a coherent unity.

For citation:

Gasparov B. M. Marr and Saussure: A hundred years later. Voprosy Jazykoznanija, 2021, 1: 104–120.