Course in General Linguistics

by Ferdinand de Saussure

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Ferdinand de Saussure has been widely acclaimed as the father of modern linguistics. That may seem surprising to those marginally aware that his publications total only six hundred pages—and that the work responsible for his renown was not published by him but by his students. Following his death in 1913, several of his students (led by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye) undertook to publish his insightful contributions to the field of linguistics. To their surprise, they found that the master had destroyed the drafts of lecture notes he had compiled for the three times he had taught the course between 1906 and 1911. Thus, their project became immeasurably more difficult, as they had to depend upon a compilation of notes provided by former students. Course in General Linguistics is the result of their unflagging effort in collating, synthesizing, and critically reconstructing the careful thought of their teacher.

Considerable deliberation went into the question of how the book should be constructed. No two of the three renderings of Saussure’s series of lectures had been essentially the same. Hence, the natural question was raised about limiting the presentation to one of the series—but which one? Unable to achieve unanimity on that question, they finally agreed to attempt a complete accounting of the theories and methods of Saussure. Since the third course (1910-1911) was the most definitive of the three, they chose it as the starting point and used the other two courses to supplement it. The result of this process was, they thought, the presentation of a master’s total schema, which would certainly have been distorted by a fragmentary approach.

Given the fact that Saussure himself had made no pretense to covering every aspect of linguistics, his students/editors followed suit. Nor did they attribute the same relative weight to every area that was examined. Instead, they sought to explicate through foundational principles and examples those fundamentals which served to weave together the fabric of his thought’s design. For this reason, certain areas—for example, semantics—do not receive broad treatment. Yet such “omissions” should be acknowledged in the light of their relative importance to the project as a whole, while at the same time granting a healthy sense of respect to the editors, given the constraints within which they were working.

Jonathan Culler, in his work on Saussure, has shown something of the scope of influence embodied by the Course in General Linguistics, and in turn he has emphasized Saussure’s primary concern. Culler states:Someone who knows Saussure only by reputation, as the founder of modern linguistics, promoter of a new conception of language, and inspiration for anthropologists and literary critics, might expect to find the Course in General Linguistics a book full of broad generalizations, portentous observations about the nature of language and mind, elaborate and eloquent theories about social and communicative behavior. What strikes one most forcibly in the Course is Saussure’s active and scrupulous concern for the foundations of his subject.

The introduction attempts to survey the history of linguistics and linguistic concerns. This section sets the context within which assumptions may be challenged and alternative concerns may be addressed. In part 1, general principles are presented. These principles, related to the sign, signifier, and signified, are viewed in terms of speech communities at a point in time, as well as their changes within a language system through time. Parts 2 and 3 go into much greater depth in constructing a view of synchronic and diachronic linguistics. The synchronic viewpoint provides the linguist with a view of the linguistic system in a particular state. It has no reference to time and...

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includes things characteristically thought of as “general grammar.” The diachronic study of language, on the other hand, is the study of the evolution of language in time. Interestingly, though the language system experiences historical changes, it is not the linguistic system which produces them. Rather, changes which conclude by affecting the system originate in individual linguistic performances. Part 4 continues the major portion of the book by attending to matters of geographical diversity as related to linguistic concerns. Herein questions of idiom, dialectics, and provincialism are addressed. Finally, the course concludes with a section titled “Retrospective Linguistics.” Any retrospective viewpoint requires a diachronic reconstruction based upon comparison. This inductive enterprise yields the truer reconstructions only in the light of sufficient data being available and as many comparisons as possible being made.


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When Ferdinand de Saussure delivered a series of lectures on linguistics in Geneva in 1907-1911, he prompted an entirely new direction in philosophy, one that came to be known as the philosophy of language. Before Saussure’s time, philosophers saw their task as trying to solve classical philosophic problems by carefully considering how certain words were used. For example, is it more exact to say “entrance” and “exit” or to say “entrance” and “not an entrance”? The philosophy of language does not concern itself with these issues, but rather aims to provide philosophically illuminating descriptions of certain general or universal features of language such as structure, reference, truth, meaning, and necessity.

Saussure considered himself a linguist rather than a philosopher, and his ideas about language as a sign system had been proposed by others such as philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. At the turn of the century, philosophy was crossing new frontiers, spinning off new disciplines such as sociology and anthropology and new approaches such as that followed by the ordinary language school at Oxford University, which sought to solve perennial philosophic problems by appealing to linguistic theory. However, it remained for Saussure to lead twentieth century philosophers to seek answers in a new philosophy of language.

Because the Course in General Linguistics was not published by Saussure but compiled from lectures and notes after his death, there is some controversy about whether the 1916 French edition accurately reflects Saussure’s intentions, and a revised edition was published in 1922. Although the editions differ on the details, certain concepts and lines of thought are clear in both versions. Saussure argues that a theory of language is part of a larger theory, not a theory of actions but a theory of signs, and therefore it is part of a theory of society or culture. Before discussing his theory of signs, Saussure presents two fundamental concepts: langue and parole.

Langue and Parole

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Parole is our experience of language in everyday life. Whenever we attempt to communicate through speech or through writing, we are engaging in parole. Parole is as various as the number of people sharing a speech community and the number of attempts each of them makes to communicate. Nothing in the way of universal principles can be formed from parole, nor can any general idea be inferred from studying its multitudinous instances. All that can be asserted is that parole is infinitely diverse.

Underlying parole is langue, the general structure of a language, which Saussure defines as the sum of impressions deposited in the brain of each member of the speech community. Every speaker and listener can draw on this sum of impressions in the construction or reception of particular speech acts or instances of parole. In our daily lives, we give little conscious thought to langue. Instead we employ parole, the multitudinous varieties of langue, as a communication tool.

Langue underlies—and makes possible—every instance of parole. Langue is a universal structure that is innate in all functional human brains. It may have certain grand variations—such as French, Japanese, and English—but the tendency to overarching linguistic structure is common to each of these speech communities.


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The fundamental structure of langue is not sentences but signs. Each sign, Saussure argues, has a twin aspect. Each sign signifies a concept and is also signified by an auditory unit, a sound pattern. In writing, the auditory unit is represented by visual symbols substituting for the sound pattern. However, the auditory unit is fundamental, for there are some speech communities that have no written system. These two aspects, the sign and its signification by an auditory unit or pattern, are as inseparable as the two sides of a coin. Where there is no signifying, there is not a sign but only noise. Hence, if some one shouts “run” to a tree, that person is only “making noise.” Conversely, where there is nothing being signified, there is no sound, only a shapeless intellectual blur. Consequently, if a non-French speaker overhears a conversation in French, he or she knows something is being signified but is powerless to make any connections.

Individual sounds, or phons, in the total pattern are used to distinguish one sign from another. Hence, the initial sound in the signs “cat” and “rat” differentiate the feline from the rodent. Sometimes the differentiation requires a full sound pattern, as in the phonic distinction between “cat” and “dog.” Signs so distinguished may be called signifiers, for they signify an external reality or another sign, which may be called the signified. Saussure, in disagreement with his predecessors, argues that the relationship between the signifier and that which is signified is completely arbitrary. Hence, in English, we may signify a particular color by the sign “red.” In French, the same color is signified by the sign “rouge.” One sign has no particular advantage over another, nor does its use in any way alter the phenomenon signified. In a particular speech act, we may speak of a color as “red” when others choose to signify it with the sign “scarlet.” The color will not change simply because the sign changed.

A Synchronic Theory of Language

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Saussure borrows a metaphor from chess to develop his idea of the arbitrary relationship between signifier and concept signified. It matters not at all whether the chess piece is made of wood or ivory. The game may be played with either. What is not arbitrary, and therefore absolutely necessary to the construction of a linguistic theory, is the relationship between the signs. Such relationships resemble the “grammar” or rules of the chess game. These “grammatical structures” are what determine the value of a chess piece in a rule-governed universe.

Of course, the value of the piece varies with the state of the game at a given moment, and we can describe that state without knowing any previous moves. It is this argument that Saussure uses against the long tradition of philology, which assumes that the basic understanding of a language is discovered in its developmental history. Saussure claims that this approach is unnecessary. A linguist can develop a synchronic theory of language; that is, the linguist may learn just as much or more by analyzing a language as it exists at any given moment, just as the current state of a chess game may be described. The linguist may disregard diachronic, or historical, issues. Saussure, of course, admits that there are fundamental differences between chess and language. The chess player may alter the conditions of the game at will, just as the parole may be manipulated by the individual, but langue, language’s underlying structure, always eludes the individual and the social will.

Relations Among Signs

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Just exactly what is this structure? Saussure proposes that the irreducible linguistic structure is the relationship of one sign to another or to a group of other signs. This relationship is found not in the similarity of one sign to another but in the differences between signs. This difference is what makes them independent signs, as in the difference between the initial sounds of “cat” and “rat.” At the signifying level, sounds are differentiated if they distinguish one word from another; if they do not, we ignore the sounds. In Japanese, for example, no word is differentiated from another by whether it uses the sound “l” or “r.” Consequently, Japanese ignore the distinction between these sounds: They simply do not hear the difference. From this, Saussure concludes that the auditory pattern is not simply “given” as a “sense-datum”; our language itself determines what we hear as a “distinct sound.”

Further, Saussure postulates that the significance of a sign is that it occurs where other signs might have been used. Consider, for example, “She danced home,” when other signs such as “walked” or “ran” might have been used instead of “danced.” The sign “danced” signifies by virtue of its being chosen over other possible signs. For comparison, Saussure examines a statement such as “It is a short distance . . . walk,” where only “to” will fill the gap. In this instance, “to” does not signify; it is not a sign. Indeed, Saussure concludes, concepts are purely differential and are defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relationship to other parts of the system. This is the essential nature of langue. A concept is not simply there waiting to be named. If it were, Saussure argues, words in different languages would be exactly equivalent. They are not. However, in all languages, signs exist only in and through negating other signs.

Impact on Other Disciplines

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Saussure’s work had a profound and widespread impact on twentieth century thinking. Fellow linguists such as the Russian theorist Roman Jakobson translated Saussurean concepts to aesthetics where they influenced the so-called formalist critics of art and literature. Previously, paintings and works of literature were thought to refer to the world outside the artist and writer, or at least to the artist as a person. After Saussure, works of art were considered formal structures, like language, which referred mainly to patterns inherent in the art form itself.

Soon the theory of inherent structures spread to other disciplines, including psychology as practiced by the influential Jean Piaget in his study of the stages of childhood and human development and cultural anthropology in the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Roland Barthes, the influential French literary critic, looked to Saussure for instruction, as did the eminent psychoanalyst and philosopher, Jacques Lacan. Among philosophers, the entire continental structuralist school—led by Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida—owe a deep debt to Saussure, as do the influential Anglo-American philosophers of language such as Noam Chomsky, who followed Saussure’s lead in developing his widely debated concept of the “deep structures” of language. Ludwig Wittgenstein, along with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, extended Saussure’s ideas to a belief in language’s universality as a “prison house” for individuals. To complete this illustrious company, Umberto Eco and other linguists have built modern semiotics, the science of signs, upon Saussurean foundations.


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Additional Reading

Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986. This is a very readable account of Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory and legacy in linguistics and semiotics, with suggestions for additional reading.

Furton, Edward J. A Medieval Semiotic: Reference and Representation in John of St. Thomas’ Theory of Signs. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. A look at Saussure’s theory of semiotics.

Gadet, Françoise. Saussure and Contemporary Culture. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989. Part 1 offers extended quotations from Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics with exegesis, and part 2 deals with the editorial fortunes of the book and its reception and influence.

Harris, Roy. Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein: How to Play Games with Words. New York: Routledge, 1988. Outlines several points of contact between the linguistic approach to language taken by Saussure and the philosophical approach taken by Wittgenstein. Argues that the analogy between language and rule-governed games is central for both views.

Harris, Roy. Reading Saussure: A Critical Commentary on the “Cours de linguistique générale.” London: Gerald Duckworth, 1987. A personal reading of Saussure with chapter-by-chapter commentary and summations of general issues by the author of a controversial translation; assumes basic background in linguistics and some familiarity with Saussure’s place in intellectual history.

Harris, Roy, and Talbot J. Taylor. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. New York: Routledge, 1989. The chapter on Saussure provides a brief introduction to his major ideas, aimed at students approaching his work for the first time.

Holdcroft, David. Saussure: Signs, System, and Arbitrariness. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Offers a revised ordering for Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics and a detailed exposition of the work’s central theses. Each chapter ends with a useful summary of its major points.

Koerner, E. F. K. Ferdinand de Saussure, Origin and Development of His Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language: A Contribution to the History and Theory of Linguistics. Braunschweig, West Germany: Vieweg, 1973. The most extensive biographical information available in English, with considerable coverage of possible sources of Saussure’s thought. Includes a substantial bibliography.

Sampson, Geoffrey. “Saussure: Language as Social Fact.” In Schools of Linguistics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1980. Sampson provides a clear and engaging discussion of several of Saussure’s most influential concepts, including the distinction between langue and parole. Other chapters treat a variety of twentieth century approaches to linguistics, most of which deal with issues raised by Saussure.

Thibault, Paul J. Re-reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life. New York: Routledge, 1997. An examination of Saussure’s work and its influence in the language of philosophy.


Critical Essays