Saturday, 18 August 2012

Overview of ‘Course in General Linguistics’ by Ferdinand de Saussure

When we deal with the separation of language from speech we are removing what is a social construct from that which is purely individual. Language is essential whereas speech is a mere accessory of the same. What Saussure does is examine the relationship between speech (parole) and evolution of language (langue). Also, being a structuralist he examines language as a system of signs. Speaking is an individual activity while language can be termed as a social manifestation of it. It links both thought and sound or it articulates them.
Characteristics of language

(1)    Language can be localized in a limited system in order that phonic images can be associated with concepts. Language is social in the sense that there is a general consensus as to meaning of words that cannot be altered by an individual. Also, one assimilates language and so it is something learned

(2)    Unlike speech, languages that are dead can even now be studied by their linguistic features

(3)    While speech is heterogeneous, language is defined as homogeneous. It can be called a system of signs that have psychological basis where the main thrust is the union of the meaning and sound-image

(4)    Just because linguistic signs are arbitrarily based they are not abstract. Language is concrete because collective approval leads to the acceptance of signs, their concepts and sound-images which makes language have its own little place in the brain.
Relationship of Sign, Signifier and Signified

Language is not a mere naming process as it would mean that an idea existed before it could be given words. It is not easy to link a name and thing as a linguistic unit is a double entity formed by the associations of two terms. Both terms of the linguistic sign are psychological and have an associative bond. Sign unites not a thing and its name but a concept and a sound-image. The sound image is not the physical sound but the silent imprint of it. That is how we can read aloud, silently or even speak to ourselves.  There is no precedence or sequence in the recall of the sound-image or concept. We do not first mentally picture a tree and then link it to its concept or vice versa. Both the sound-image and concept have to be united and are thus, recalled together.
Linguistic Sign
The combination of a concept and a sound-image is a sign. The signified is the concept whereas the signifier is the sound-image.

Signifier (sound-image 't-a-b-l-e)
Signified (concept of 'table')                                                     Sign (the actual 'table')

Arbitrary Nature of the Sign

As discussed before, the signifier and signified are arbitrarily based and the sign which is the product of these two parts is also arbitrary. Sound-images or signifiers do not in any way really give some idea of the sign. The sounds “t-r-e-e” do not resemble a tree in any case. Also, the term arbitrary when used in reference to the signifier indicates that it has no natural connection with the signified.
Ø  Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeic formations are limited in number and they vary in their representation across languages. While to an English speaker a dog barking may sound like “bow-wow”; French speakers may hear “oua-oua” instead while Gujarati speakers might understand it to be “bow-bow”. Thus, onomatopoeia is not natural it is a product of culture.
Ø  Interjections

Like onomatopoeia, interjections too are a product of culture as if a French cook spills the butter she might say “aÏe” while an English one will say “ouch”. Also, many interjections were words which one had their own specific meaning.

Linear Nature of the Signifier
 The signifier is auditory and so the changes that occur are best studied through time. The characteristics of the signifier: (a) represents a span (b) the span can be measured only through a line. To study a signifier diachronically would be through the axis of simultaneities (AB) which would be a more evolutionary study for it would deal with changes over a period of time. A synchronic study, the axis of succession (CD); would concern studying a particular part of a whole at a given point of time.

Static or synchronic linguistic studies are based on the study of language at a particular point in time whereas the evolutionary or diachronic mode studies historical and evolutionary within language. By nature, linguistic signs are linear as they represent a span in one dimension. Auditory signifiers are linear as they form a chain and so can also be termed a speech chain.
Linguistic Value from Conceptual Viewpoint

When we think of a word we tend to think of the idea associated with it which to an extent encompasses its linguistic value. But, one must remember that value differs from signification. Value from a conceptual viewpoint, is one element of signification. Signification is different from value whoever for had it been similar, language would have been a naming-process. Looking at the example of the union of sound-image with concept would lead one to believe a word to be both independent and self-contained. While the concept may seem to be a counterpart of the sound-image; the sign itself is a counterpart of other signs in a language.

In language, terms are interdependent so, the value of each term results from the simultaneous presence of others. Value is based on other entities even outside language like in the case of money. The value of a one rupee coin will be considered higher or lower based on the coins placed with it. Thus, the same paradoxical principles are at play:

(1)     a dissimilar thing can be exchanged for a thing of which value has to be determined – 99Rs can equate to 18000 seconds of talktime; thus, a dissimilar thing is used to set a value

(2)    similar things can be compared with the things of which value has to be determined

Therefore, a word can be exchanged for an idea (something dissimilar. Since it can only be exchanged for a given concept its value is not fixed. A word has to be compared with other words sharing similar values and those opposing it. Other words may have similarity but not sameness. Like ‘house’ is similar to ‘home’ but has differences within it. Since the word is a part of a system the signification and also the value are based on the other members or words in the system. Two words with the same idea will result in the death of one eventually. When a plural or inflectional change is added to the word we get a whole new signifier and signified.
Had there been concepts existing before language then all words would have the same equivalents of meaning across languages.  Since pre-existing ideas do not exist values come from the system. Values are said to correspond to concepts but these concepts are not defined by their positive content but negatively by their relations with other terms in the system. They are more precisely defined by what characterizes them from being not the others. Thus, the concept “to write” is linked to the sound-image ‘writer’ symbolizing signification. The concept here is a value determined by its relations with similar values without which, signification would not exist.          

Linguistic Value from a Material Viewpoint
Value from a conceptual and material view is based on its relations and differences with other terms or language. It is differences that carry signification, so a word is not just a sound but the phonic differences hat make it up. Language has to be based on its noncoincidence with the arbitrary and differential as correlative qualities. The alteration of linguistic signs is the best examples, a/b have sufficient difference to make an impression on the consciousness. A linguistic signifier isn’t merely phonic but though incorporeal has a material substance by the difference that separate ‘m-a-t’ from ‘c-a-t’. The signs used in writing are arbitrary as well as there is no connection between the sound and symbol of designation. The value of letters is negative and differential and letters can be written in any font so long as there can be differentiated from each other. Besides, the values function only in that particular fixed system as a Chinese alphabet in English would have no meaning as there is no opposition with the other letters.

Sign Considered in Its Totality
In language there are only differences without positive terms. Before the linguistic system there were neither ideas nor sounds and with the establishment of the system one has phonic or conceptual differences. The value of a term can be changed if the value of a term near it changes though its meaning and sound may stay the same.

Signified and Signifier as Differential and Negative
When signified and signifier are considered separately then it can be said that language is negative, when the sign is considered in its totality, a positive relation comes about.  When we look at a linguistic system we see that is consists of differences of sound combined with differences of ideas. A combination of a particular number of sound signs with those many concepts forms a system of values; this value system is a link between the phonic and psychological aspects within each sign. Signifier and signified, are differential and negative when considered as separate entities. But when you bring the two together you have something positive as can be seen from the value derived. The combination of the signified and signifier is a positive fact even though looked at separately a negative difference is found.

Comparison Exists between Signs
In the case of sign though, difference cannot be spoken of as comparison leads to positive terms. There can be opposition between two signs but not difference like that which exists between signified and signifier. Like take for example a burger and pizza, they are both types of food but they oppose each other. The concept of a burger is completely different in our minds to that of a pizza and so though they are both junk food we won’t mix up one for the other.

Like a value, a unit is a double entity; it exists due to the association of two terms i.e. concept and sound-image which constitutes a sign. The linguistic value of a word (signifier) comes through its correspondence to a certain concept (signified). The value of a concept stems from its relationship with other concepts. And the value of the sign in whole comes from the relationship of sound-image and concept. Thus, a unit is a segment of speech (spoken chain) – sound aspect- that corresponds to a concept. What sets the unit apart is what defines it for a differential relationship exists. Whatever distinguishes on sign from the other defines it or constitutes it.

Language is a form and not a substance. It is composed of a particular linguistic system and though you cannot see language, it exists as a reality within the brain.


  1. A good one. Good selection of points.
    Explained in simple words.

  2. Thank you for this! I am teaching a quick bit on Saussure to end the semester with my Philosophy 101 students.

    Your whole blog is a great find!

    -Robyn (

  3. OMG you are amazing. Thank you so much.

  4. OMG this is amazing! you saved the day:)

  5. I am a teacher myself and I feel so elated to see a student of literature like you lending a helping hand to other students of literature. I wish there were more people like you who would come forward to make learning a better experience. God bless you Joy.
    Dr. Sujatha Menon

  6. you're a peach :D this really helped me understand the theory!!

  7. Still don't understand Saussure after reading this, but thanks for the effort.

  8. Hai... Joy D bamre.. ...thank you so much for this wonderful note!!! I was so desperate regarding saussure as my exam is tomorrow and i absolutely had no idea till i saw this!! I appreciate ur kindness in posting notes like this which are truly helpful..... Thank u so much...