I’ve just started Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents, by Boris Gasparov, and it’s already looking like an excellent read. Saussure was started on the path to linguistics by Adolphe Pictet, a pioneer I must have heard about when I was first learning the history of Indo-European studies but whom I’d long forgotten; since I myself was set on that same path by my fascination with dictionary etymologies, I thought I’d pass along this paragraph from page 20:
When Saussure first met Pictet—during summers in Vufflens, where they were neighbors—he was full of enthusiasm for the “magic” of etymology. According to Saussure’s own account, he caught the etymological fever from his maternal uncle, whose two hobbies—pursued “without a method, but with a wealth of ideas”—were building yachts after a mathematical system of his own devising and making etymologies; as Saussure noted wryly, both tended to sink equally fast (Saussure 1960 : 16-17). (This healthy irony notwithstanding, Saussure never lost his own passion for venturesome etymologies.)
He goes on to discuss the fifteen-year-old Saussure’s attempt to reduce all Proto-Indo-European syllables to twelve proto-roots (e.g., RAK represented a proto-idea of “violent power,” on the basis of Latin rex ‘king,’ German Rache ‘vengeance,’ etc.); he adds, “It is curious the extent to which this naive exercise recalls Velimir Khlebnikov‘s attempt to create a universal poetic language some forty years later, an intellectual event that (alongside Saussure’s Course) had a major impact on Jakobson‘s theory of phonological universalia,” which shows the value of having a Russian write this book.
One odd toponymic note: on page 16, Gasparov says the Saussure family “originated in Lotharingy”; I had never encountered this anglicized form of Lotharingia [or rather Lorraine] before, and as far as Google Books can tell, this is only the fifth time it’s been used in English (the others being in 1913, 1975, 1999, and 2009).