De Saussure, Ferdinand

Assigned: De Saussure, Ferdinand. From Course in General Linguistics (824-40). Also read the editors’ introduction (820-23).

From Course in General Linguistics (1906-13/1916)

From Introduction, Chapter III: The Object of Linguistics

2. Place of Language in the Facts of Speech

1. On 824 (“To summarize, these are the…”), Ferdinand de Saussure provides a list of “the characteristics of language.” Briefly list and discuss the four characteristics he mentions. What short definition does he offer in the first of these? What distinctions does he go on to make between “language” (in French, langue) and “speech” (parole)? In what sense is language the project and possession of an entire community, not just of an individual? What is the relationship between an individual speaker and language? Finally, how does de Saussure characterize the significant relationship between the written word (for this he uses terms such as “graphic form” and “written symbols”) and the system of language?

3. Place of Language in Human Facts: Semiology

2. On 825-26 (“The foregoing characteristics of…”), how, according to de Saussure, is language “comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc.” (825)? What place does he give language within his projected science of “semiology”? What is, or will be, the province and mission of this science? What factors, according to de Saussure, have hitherto kept people from properly studying and understanding language properly as a sign system? Why is it vital to understand about language in this regard that “in some way it always eludes the individual or social will” (825)?

From Part One. General Principles. Chapter I: Nature of the Linguistic Sign

1. Sign, Signified, Signifier

3. On 826-28 (“Some people regard language, when…”), what three shortcomings, according to de Saussure, belong to the idea that language is simply a “naming-process” (826)? Instead, what two elements does a “linguistic unit” or “sign” unite? What description does de Saussure offer for each of these two elements and of the manner in which they combine? In what sense is the sign “a two-sided psychological entity” (827) rather than a purely material phenomenon? Why does he alter the name of the sound-image and concept respectively to signifier and signified? How do those terms result in a clearer understanding of the nature of the “sign” (827)?

2. Principle 1: The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign

4. On 828-29 (“The bond between the signifier…”), de Saussure posits two basic characteristics of the sign: “arbitrariness” and “linearity.” What is meant by the first characteristic, “arbitrariness,” and how is this quality itself rooted in the “collective” and “conventional” (828) nature of the association between signifier and signified? Why is the term “symbol,” according to de Saussure, not a good substitute for “sign” (828)? Why don’t onomatopoeia and interjections pose any significant threat to the theory of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign? (829)

3. Principle 2: The Linear Nature of the Signifier

5. On 829-30 (“The signifier, being auditory, is…”), why, according to de Saussure, is it important to note that signifiers are linear; i.e., that utterances unfold across a given span of time and that they are perceived by human listeners that way? How does writing help us make this critical but often-ignored characteristic of signification obvious?

From Part Two. Synchronic Linguistics

Chapter IV: Linguistic Value

1. Language as Organized Thought Coupled with Sound

6. On 830-31 (“To prove that language is only…”), de Saussure focuses on the social nature of the sign. He points out that “There are no pre-existing ideas” (830), and then offers two distinct metaphors to illustrate the true relationship between sound and thought. What are those two metaphors, and what relationship between sound and thought do they suggest? In what sense, according to de Saussure, is it true that linguistic value can only be determined by the action of a “community” (831), and not by an individual? Furthermore, why is it wrong “to consider a term as simply the union of a certain sound with a certain concept” (831)—what is the only proper way to reach an accurate sense of how a linguistic system functions?

2. Linguistic Value from a Conceptual Standpoint

7. On 831-34 (“When we speak of the value of a word…”), de Saussure points out that it would be misleading to conflate value with signification. How, then, does he distinguish between these two concepts? How do we arrive at the value of a term, as opposed to its mere signification? Of what two things, according to de Saussure, is every value composed? (832) How does his “monetary” illustration involving coins and a loaf of bread help him explain the way value works? Consider also his example of the difference between “sheep” and “mutton” in English and “mouton” in French—how does this example illustrate what is meant by value? How does value also apply to “grammatical entities” (833) such as the plural and to the temporal inflection of verbs in different languages?

8. On 834 (“Now the real interpretation of…”), de Saussure offers a summary example of how we may determine the value of a term, and how value differs from signification. He reproduces a diagram depicting the French signifier or word “juger” (pronounced jyoo-jháy), which in French signifies the concept “to judge.” If this is all we indicate, we are only talking about the process of signification: the signifier (or sound-image) juger refers us to the signified (or concept) “to judge,” considered in isolation. So we have an isolated signifier pointing to an isolated signified. Do we really know what we are saying when we refer to the concept, “to judge”? Not yet—it seems like an empty shell. How does the differential determination of a word’s value lead to a fuller and more useful sense of its “meaning,” as we say in everyday language? List several terms that you find similar to the concept “to judge”: to assess, to weigh, etc. Then work out a constellation of terms out of which emerges a finer sense of what it means “to judge.”

3. Linguistic Value from a Material Standpoint

9. On 834-36 (“The conceptual side of value is…”), de Saussure makes the same point about how “difference” functions in linguistic systems, but this time with regard to the material dimension of language: “The important thing in the word is not the sound alone but the phonic differences that make it possible to distinguish this word from all others…” (834). What illustrations of this principle does de Saussure offer? Why can’t “sound alone” properly be said to “belong to language” (835 top)? Why shouldn’t we think of phonemes (individual units of sound perceived as distinct from others) as having any “positive quality” but instead as being “opposing, relative, and negative entities” (835)? How, according to de Saussure, do variations in the pronunciation of, say, certain letters in a word (think of a person speaking English with a French accent) prove this point about phonemes? Finally, how do certain features in any system of writing also help de Saussure make his point about the differential quality of the material dimension of language?

4. The Sign Considered in Its Totality

10. On 836-37 (“Everything that has been said…”), de Saussure writes that “Although both the signified and the signifier are purely differential and negative when considered separately, their combination is a positive fact” (836), and he goes on to state that between two complete signs (each “sign” is a unit consisting in the combination of the signifier and signified) there is not difference but opposition. Why might it be important that such oppositions form the basis of the “entire mechanism of language” (837)? In what sense is de Saussure, by emphasizing opposition’s centrality within linguistic systems, offering us a view of how those systems can lend us a considerable degree of stability and coherence, rather than seeming like an endless flux of signification out of which nothing distinct can emerge?

From Part Two. Synchronic Linguistics

Chapter V: Syntagmatic and Associative Relations

1. Definitions

11. On 837-38 (“In a language-state everything is…”), de Saussure says that “Relations and differences between linguistic terms fall into two distinct groups, each of which generates a certain class of values” (837). How does he define the two groups—namely, the syntagmatic (from the Greek σύνταγμα, sýntagma,“element of syntax”; also the verb συντάσσω, syntássō, “to arrange in order”) and the associative? What are the basic differences between them? How does de Saussure’s illustration involving a classical building’s supporting column help him explain the difference between syntagmatic and associative relations?

2. Syntagmatic Relations

12. On 838-39 (“The examples have already indicated…”), de Saussure tries to deal with the complexity of syntagmatic relations. Why, according to him, is it misguided to claim that since sentences, which belong to speech (parole) and not to language (langue), are the perfect example of syntagms, so ought syntagms to be regarded as belonging only to speech? How, in de Saussure’s view, do syntagms in fact belong to language? Even so, what ambiguity does he underscore with regard to the classification of syntagms as language—why is it in fact sometimes not possible to locate them fully in one camp or another, speech or language?

3. Associative Relations

13. On 839-40 (“Mental association creates other groups…”), in discussing associative relations, de Saussure says, “A word can always evoke everything that can be associated with it in one way or another” (840). What are some of these ways of associating a word with other words outside the immediate stream of discourse? In what sense does de Saussure’s examination of “associative relations” pay tribute to the prolific signifying potential of linguistic systems?

14. General question: On the whole, what is Ferdinand de Saussure suggesting in Course in General Linguistics about the way linguistic meaning is created and stabilized? Why might this structural linguist’s views be rather unsettling to us if we hold common notions about using language and arriving at the meaning of what we and others say? What attitude does de Saussure himself seem to adopt towards his insights about the way language works? For example, when he says of the arbitrariness principle that “its consequences are numberless” and even “primordial” (828) in importance, what implications might positing linguistic arbitrariness hold for the way we look at ourselves and the world around us? Why do most of us, even though we accept the principle of arbitrariness, act as if signs and real-world referents or “things,” are indeed intimately connected? What need drives us to think that way about language?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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