Course in General Linguistics

by Ferdinand de Saussure

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

What's the difference between "langue" and "parole" according to Ferdinand de Saussure?

Quick answer:

The difference between "langue" and "parole" according to Ferdinand de Saussure is that langue refers to the rules behind the way the language is arranged and used, while parole refers to the actual utterances of language, both written and spoken.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is believed to have originated the fundamental principles behind structural linguistics with the posthumous publication of the Cours de Linguistique Générale (Course in General Linguistics).

In this publication, he examined the dichotomy of language, captured in its langue versus parole. Parole refers to the actual use of language in people's everyday lives, both written in spoken. Parole is the verbalization of language and the act of transcribing language to paper. Saussure argued that parole can never really be studied because it is too inconsistent. Langue refers to the social structure of language—the way it is arranged and the rules governing usage.

Saussure used the analogy of a chess game to illustrate the differences between these two concepts. To play chess, both players must understand the rules and strategy behind the game. This is the langue of chess. When they sit down and begin moving pieces around the board based on those rules and strategy, they make continuous choices that reflect their understanding of the rules governing the game. These movements reflect the parole of chess.

Langue and parole are interdependent. It is through hearing a language countless times that we begin to develop our native tongue as young speakers of language. As children begin their first utterances, they modify their speech based on the way language is organized by the speakers around them. A child quickly learns that the rules, or langue, of language have exceptions; for example, they might at first try to apply an -ed ending to all verbs in the past tense, saying things like eated or runned. Yet in listening to the parole of others around them, they begin to modify their own understanding of the langue behind their verbalizations, altering specific words based on the parole of the language to words like ate and ran because of the usage of others.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In his Course of General Linguistics,  Ferdinand de Saussure introduced terms that explain the different ways in which we communicate.

Among the terms he introduced, he included “langue” and “parole.” First, let us establish that these two terms comprise some of the basic elements of communication. They are types of “building blocks” within language. As such, let us define language. 

Language itself is a faculty of speech; an ability to speak is part of what makes humans unique. We all possess the ability inherently.

Now, within language, there is langue, or the system and capacity of communication that we all possess.

Parole is the actual action that we engage in when we speak. It is, essentially, speaking. Another way of saying it:  langue is the universal system, while parole is the pivotal agent that contributes to the expansion of the system.

Let us expand a bit more:

Langue is a composite of all the traits of a language; think of it as a big container that hosts all the parts of language as we use it, particularly, the images and words that come to mind and the sound-to-symbol connection that occurs when we speak. All of those stored images, words, meanings, and sub-meanings comprise “langue.”

Parole is speaking. "Palabra," its meaning in Spanish, shares a similar meaning: the act of activating langue through the use of speech. Parole is the enabler of the langue. Langue embraces parole.

If you ever get confused with Saussure’s use of the terms “langue” and “parole,” just check out Noam Chomsky’s version of it.

He applies langue et parole to the field of pedagogy and education, particularly in the area of second languages. He also uses it to study individuals who have the ability to engage in other languages.

The equivalent of “langue,” in Chomsky’s point of view, is what he calls “competence”; this is the ability, capacity, and potential that is there to be tapped.  For “parole,” which remains an action word in Chomsky’s version, he uses the name “performance.”  

In total, the langue (Chomsky’s “competence”) is the sum of all the combined aspects of a language system, while the parole (Chomsky’s “performance”) is the actual exercise of language through speaking.

Check out eNote’s super awesome analysis of Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics and take a look at the eNote’s study guides on Chomsky’s most salient works in linguistics for more information. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Parole refers to the individual language acts which occur when anyone audibly voices letters, words, sentences, etc. Parole is the physical manifestation of speech. Langue is the abstract system of principles language out of which acts of speech (parole) occur. Consider the analogy that the game of chess are the langue and the individual moves of chess itself comprise the parole.

Writing, like speech, is an example of parole because each act of writing a letter, word, or sentence is similar to voicing a letter, word, or sentence. Philosophers such as Jacques Derrida have made this agrument. For Saussure, however, writing is more systemic. In other words, he sees writing as the visual system of communication (speech). Writing is the categorized system of speech acts and sound-images.

Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc. But it is the most important of all these symbols.

Saussure's wording can get confusing because sometimes he uses "language" to refer to writing, speech, and then writing and speech. Just remember that parole is speaking and langue is the abstract system of principles language.

Langue represents the “work of a collective intelligence,” which is both internal to each individual and collective, in so far as it is beyond the will of any individual to change. Parole, on the other hand, designates individual acts, statements and utterances, events of language use manifesting each time a speaker’s ephemeral individual will... (John Phillips, National University of Singapore)

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial