Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure

Start Your Free Trial

Outline the sign theory of language by Ferdinand de Saussure. 

Expert Answers info

Jason Lulos eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2009

write3,297 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and Science

In his "Course in General Linguistics," (which was compiled by his students) Saussure names the science of what constitutes signs and the laws that govern them as semiology. Since semiology deals with signs, it covers psychology, sociology, and linguistics. Saussure believed that to inform each of these applications of semiology, one had to focus on the structure of signs. 

The linguistic sign is made up of a concept and a sound-image. The concept is the abstract idea of, say, a tree. The sound-image is the psychological sensory impression of the sound of a word; as sound-image, Saussure denotes a kind of mental impression which is an sound and sight based. In other words, the sound-image is the sense we get when seeing, hearing or saying a word. 

Saussure then describes the sign (previously as concept/sound-image) as signified/signifier in order to be more descriptive. The bond between signified/signifier is arbitrary. The signified concept (tree) is represented by the signifier, the word "tree." A community decides to call it a "tree" so they have a common word to which they all can refer. But as there are many languages, the concept can be expressed in any number of ways: Baum (German), Arbor (Latin). So, it is not the relationship between signified (tree) and signfier (word "tree") that gives that word meaning. 

However, language does depend upon this link between thought (concepts or signifieds) and sound (sound-images or signifiers). 

There is the linguistic sign (signified/signifier) (tree concept/"tree"). That is how signification works. But the meaning of "tree" (Saussure uses the word...

(The entire section contains 544 words.)

Unlock This Answer Now

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial