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...
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