Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure begins his essay “The Object of Study” with a question: What, indeed, is the object of study in the field of linguistics? The answer, he explains, is not as simple as it may first seem, for depending on their perspectives, linguists examine many different linguistic objects, including the sounds of language, the concepts and thoughts behind sounds, the social aspects of language, linguistic systems, and even language change. The whole problem can quickly become overwhelming and even, as de Saussure says, “a muddle of disparate, unconnected things.”
De Saussure, however, presents a solution to the problem of multiple objects in linguistic study. He recommends that linguists take “the study of linguistic structures” as their “primary concern” and “relate all other manifestations of language to it.” He goes on to define linguistic structure as “the social product of our language faculty” and as “a body of necessary conventions adopted by society to enable members of society to use their language faculty.” In other words, linguistic structure is our shared system of signs and concepts that allows us to understand each other when we communicate through language.
Some might object to this focus, de Saussure recognizes, and claim that linguists should give priority to natural faculties of language instead, but de Saussure responds that linguistic structure is what gives language unity and that, regardless of people's abilities to use language (stroke victims, etc.), most retain their ability to recognize and use systems of signs and concepts. Linguistic structure, therefore, stands higher than mere natural faculty (although such is still important), and natural faculty should be viewed in conjunction with linguistic structure.
De Saussure then proceeds to give an overview of the “speech circuit.” He identifies the psychological and physical phenomena that take place when two people speak to one another. Person A has a concept that they wish to communicate. They choose certain linguistic signs and sound patterns to represent that concept. This happens psychologically in their brain. Person A then physically speaks the signs and patterns they have chosen. Person B physically receives the signs and patterns through their ears and then psychologically processes them in their brain to grasp the concept Person A has communicated. Therefore, in the speech circuit, there are external and internal parts as well as an executive or active player and a receptive or passive player.
With time and experience, linguistic structures arise in the brains of a group of receivers, allowing them to communicate through shared signs and sound patterns and giving language its social form. De Saussure distinguishes this social aspect of language from individual speech, which uses the structures already in place in the speaker's mind. Linguistic structures, he maintains, can and should be studied as objects in their own right, for they exist in reality and can even be made “tangible” and fixed through the act of writing.
De Saussure ends his essay by placing linguistics, with its primary object of study as linguistic structures, within the larger, to-be-developed discipline of semiology, the study of signs and their role in society. Linguistic structures, he maintains, are a special type of signs, agreed upon and used by large groups of people. Therefore, they can contribute to semiology by revealing the function of signs in society and communication, and they can also be compared to other systems of signs to help form a broader picture of communication even beyond language.