Saussure’s work in linguistics had been historically preceded by a traditionally accepted view which held that the world is composed of independently existing objects, which are capable of precise objective observation and classification. The natural conclusion to be drawn from such an assumption was that a language is essentially a huge set of names for the stuff of reality. Yet if a language were merely a nomenclature—an aggregate of “words,” each having a distinct “meaning”— then translation from one language to another should be a relatively simple task. The translator would need only to insert the meaning of the thing as it is found in the host language into the slot provided by the translation language, thus providing precise equivalency of meaning between languages. This is obviously not what happens in translation. Thus, as Terence Hawkes has so aptly stated, “Saussure’s revolutionary contribution to the study of language lies in his rejection of that ‘substantive’ view of the subject in favour of a ‘relational’ one.”
Several key concepts function interdependently within the Course in General Linguistics to express the reality that differing languages not only articulate the world differently but belie a differing understanding of the world as well. The first, and perhaps the most notable, of Saussure’s distinctions is that of the linguistic sign. The sign, according to Saussure, is a two-sided psychological entity, both parts of which are necessary and functional. The two elements, the “sound image” and the “concept” to which it refers, are intimately related, each recalling the other. Saussure proposed the retention of the word “sign” as the designation for the whole, while he replaced the term “sound image” with “signifier” and “concept” with the term “signified.”
Critics of Saussure often note but rarely explicate the implications of his position that signs are themselves arbitrary ascriptions. In other words, there is no inherent reason that the leafy shade-bearer should be called “tree” rather than “spoon.” Nor is there any intrinsic prohibition against one person calling it “tree” while another calls it “arbor.” The only basis for the ascription is to be found in the conventionalization of one term over another. The term “spoon” would serve equally well as “tree” given a consensus among the users of the language that the substitution were in order. Onomatopoeia would be an obvious exception to the general principle of arbitrary ascription; to call a dog a “bow-wow” does indicate a substantive link between the sound image and the concept to which it refers. Nevertheless, the very fact that these word formations are not the staples of a...
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Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics marked a turning point in the history of linguistic pursuit. The importance of this work, however, does not rest only in its contribution to the field of linguistics proper. Indeed, the insights contained therein have provided the premises upon which semiotics and structuralism have proceeded. The book has fueled anthropological pursuits through Claude Levi-Strauss’ Anthropologie structurale (1958; Structural Anthropology, 1963). It has given rise to much fresh work in literary criticism, the proponents of its tools being far too numerous to mention. One cultural and literary critic who deserves mention in this regard, however, is Roland Barthes. His Mythologies (1957; English translation, 1972) bears the indelible mark of Saussurean categories. Furthermore, the fact that Barthes actually bridges structuralism and poststructuralism makes him a preeminent figure with reference to these concepts, many poststructuralists being adherents of Saussure as well.
Saussure redirected the work of linguistics. The breakthroughs resulting from the distribution of his principles tend to confirm that the Course in General Linguistics provided a paradigm shift, to borrow Thomas Kuhn’s terminology. Saussure outlined the linguist’s task as the analyzing of a language as a system of units and relations. The linguist must define the units of a language, determine the relations between them, and acknowledge the conventions and rules of their combination. The reason that these principles have proved so dynamic in disciplines other than linguistics is obvious in that sign systems are integral to every aspect of human endeavor. Thus, disciplinary provincialism may have suffered a mortal blow at the hands of Ferdinand de Saussure.