In the text Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure is established as a major figurehead of linguistics and the founder of the school of Structuralism. The text, compiled by Saussure’s students after his death, developed modern approaches to language study. Saussure’s work emphasized that the meanings attributed to words are purely arbitrary and maintained only through social convention. This means that there is no inherent connection between a word (signified) and the thing it designates (signifier). For instance, there is no reason why the word “tree” should designate a tree; it is completely arbitrary. In making this claim, Saussure suggested that language is not a reflection of the world but, instead, a system that is removed and defined through social order. This is an incredibly important claim because it places the focus of linguistics on the larger structures that make language possible. In this way, linguistics, as an interpretive lens, allows critics to “read” culture as one might “read” a language. For instance, using linguistics scholars can analyze literature for the larger, underlying structural elements, such as:
1. The conventions of literary genre
2. A network of thematic connections
3. A model of reoccurring patterns or motifs
Using this mode, scholars can approach literature in terms of underlying parallels. This allows the scholar to analyze literature for dominant patterns and structures, which help determine the underlying perspectives within a work. Thus, linguistics adds to the analysis of literature by allowing the scholar to uncover the major structures at play within any given text.