Course in General Linguistics

by Ferdinand de Saussure

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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 language but the exceptions, along with the recognition that they are categorized as a special class within the language, tends to support Saussure’s basic assumption that ordinary signs are arbitrary ascriptions.

To say that the ascription of signs is arbitrary does not imply that signs function anarchically or with autonomy. Rather, they are ordered members of a self-contained sign system, and they function relationally to every other member of the system. Each member gains its meaning from its individual differentiation from the other members within that system. A distinction drawn by Saussure regarding the differentiation process may be seen as he addresses phonetic-and phonemic-level differences. On the one hand, differences which are not distinguished for the purpose of meaning are known as phonetic differences. No nonnative speaker of English would think of calling the p in pot and the p in spot “the same.” Yet native speakers of English typically think of them as the same since the difference is not a meaning-bearing difference. On the other hand, certain differences are meaning-bearing,...

(This entire section contains 1132 words.)

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for example, when the c in cane is changed to an l creating lane, the meaning shifts along with the sound. This meaning-bearing differentiation is termed a phonemic difference. Growing out of the work of Saussure, it was seen thatthe phonetic difference between two sounds only becomes meaningful to the native speaker when it coincides with the phonemic structure . . . of the language in which it occurs. Moreover, that structure has a considerable “anaesthetic” effect on the native speaker’s perception of his own language. He finds it very difficult to hear distinctions that the phonemic structure does not “recognize.”

Undoubtedly, this is what causes people from different countries, and even those from different regions of the same country, to bear diverse accents in their speech.

Another essential distinction found within the Course in General Linguistics is that of language (langue) and human speech (parole). These terms have taken on a technical status in contemporary literary theory, retaining their French rendering. The langue is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification. It is the abstract, overarching system out of which individual utterances and everyday speech acts occur. Saussure uses the analogy of the rules and conventions of “chess” as opposed to the actual playing of the game. Certainly the rules are essential to the game and make its enacting possible, but “chess” is only actualized in the performance by two players. Up until that time it has a virtual existence. Only those who are very confused would mistake a set of rules for the game itself. So it is within linguistics—there are rules and conventions, langue, and there are individual speech occurrences, parole.

The necessity for carefully distinguishing between langue and parole stems from the arbitrariness of the sign. Since the meaning of signs is determined relationally, one must look at the unit within the context of the system of which it is a part. One will then be equipped to recognize meaningful differentiation as opposed to that which is incidental.

As suggested above, changes can occur in the language system. In looking at those changes that occur to the language through time, the linguist is viewing the language with a “diachronic” approach. In fact, he is examining the historicity of the language. Conversely, if he chooses to examine the language system at a point in time, he is taking a “synchronic” approach. Prior to Saussure, linguists had been studying languages according to a diachronic model, this being the typical pursuit of philology. The displacement of one form by another over time can be seen through diachronic analysis. It must be noted, however, that these changes do not occur initially at a systemic level. They take place, rather, in the individual speech occurrences (paroles), gradually gaining currency among the populace, eventually finding their place within the system, and thus displacing the old form with the new. A synchronic approach articulates the relationship between two forms which exist simultaneously. Indeed, meaning is determined by viewing the unit in relation to other units within the context of a systemic whole. Without question, the addition of this synchronic viewpoint brought into existence a brand new approach to the field.


Critical Context