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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.”

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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...

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