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Saussure, Ferdinand de

Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Paul J. Thibault

Saussure, Ferdinand de 


Swiss linguist and comparative philologist best known to semioticians for the posthumously published Cours de linguistique générale (CLG; Course in General Linguistics, 1916). The cycle of lectures on which this text is based occupied a relatively brief period in Saussure's scholarly life, which was mostly spent working within the tradition of comparative and historical linguistics with which CLG is generally presented as a decisive break. Saussure draws on his comprehensive knowledge of the historical processes of linguistic change, a theme ever present in CLG, as it is throughout Saussure's career. There is considerable continuity in both theory and methodology between Saussure's first published study, Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo‐européennes (Essay on the Early System of Vowels in Indo‐European Languages, 1879), and the discussion in part 3 of CLG of sound change. In the earlier work, Saussure already demonstrates an explicit awareness of the systemic imperatives that are assumed to drive sound change.

Saussure makes a basic distinction between an “internal” linguistics of the language system (langue) and an “external” linguistics of the “individual part of language” (parole). Saussure privileges langue as a way of delimiting the object of study, which he sees as an internal system of terms regulated by the differences, or oppositions, among them. “External” linguistics, which Saussure conceives of as secondary to the more “essential” internal linguistics, is concerned with the individual's use of language. This includes the study of language in relation to its historical development, social institutions such as church and school, its literary development, and its political history.

This dichotomous way of thinking about the study of language remained the dominant reading of Saussure throughout mainstream European twentieth‐century linguistics. Some linguists and semioticians take it for granted that this is a description of what language is, though these dichotomies are merely constructed by a theory of linguistics. This fallacy continues to cause confusion between description or methodology, on the one hand, and ontology, on the other. A careful reading of CLG shows that the separating of langue and parole does not pertain to the “reality” of language but is a methodological tool for gaining a useful perspective on language. Saussure is not talking about language itself but about the theoretical and descriptive activities that the linguist performs in the process of transforming—“demarcating,” “approximating,” “demonstrating,” and “simplifying”—the data into terms compatible with his science of a “static linguistics.”

This emergent linguistics is based in part on the concept of the linguistic sign, which requires Saussure to define this new approach to language in ways fundamentally different from the then‐prevailing historical and comparativist perspectives. Philologists had to that point been unable to offer any analysis of language as a coherently organized system of relations at any given point in time and as seen by the current users of the language. Saussure uses the term synchronic linguistics to describe this perspective on the study of the abstract linguistic system. He conceives of the synchronic study of langue in terms of two analytical dimensions: relations based on the linear combinations of words, phrases, and other components into sequences, or syntagmatic relations; and relations of association that words have in common with other words in memory (i.e., those “outside of discourse”), or paradigmatic relations. Saussure's starting point is that linguistic signs are the products of, and are not independent of, a complex system of differences or contrasts among the various elements that make up the system of language or that occur in some structure. Signs thus have values along both the associative and the syntagmatic dimensions. These differences are, according to Saussure, recognized implicitly by language users on every occasion of language use.

Saussure needs, then, to explain the apparent disjuncture between concrete, individual acts of communication, which are characterized by the irreducible and irrepeatable physical dimensions of communication, involving particular soundings and writings at given times and places with particular individuals, and the fact that language users attribute to these soundings and writings on particular occasions specific meanings that are approximately replicable from one occasion to another, in spite of differences in, say, their physical and material manifestations, or the persons, places, and so on involved. Accordingly, Saussure maintains that the physical and material dimensions of these soundings and writings are merely the material or concrete vehicles through which meanings are expressed: they occur at the level of what Saussure calls substance, and they are not the same as the meanings that they, in some sense, carry. Saussure understands that the variability of sound and writing materials in this physical and material sense contrasts with the fact that individuals who share the same linguistic code succeed more often than not in communicating with each other through the use of the soundings and writings to which meanings are attributed in regular, fairly predictable ways from one occasion to another.

In order to explain the meanings themselves and to avoid equating them with their physical manifestations, Saussure proposes a more abstract level of analysis, which he characterizes as the level of form. At this level, soundings and writings and the meanings attributed to them are interpretable as classes of abstract units, independent of their physical manifestations as phonic substance (sound waves) or graphic substance (written marks on the page). These abstract classes of formal elements or sign types are dependent only on their contrasting relations with the other elements or terms in a given system. Thus, the sign is not the same thing as the phonic or graphic physical medium that embodies it. The sign is a formal and abstract relation derived from the innumerable actual occasions of its use. The emptying of the sign of any consideration of the physical substance that manifests it entails a high level of idealization. This is theoretically consistent with the requirements of a purely “internal” linguistics, which is in principle concerned only with the abstract relations among linguistic forms in a system.

But just as Saussure does not make any specifically ontological claims concerning the system of internal value‐producing oppositions or differences, neither does he privilege the system per se. Saussure does not stop at the claim that language is a system of differences. No less important is his discussion of the formation of “syntagmatic solidarities” through the linguistic “groups” that linguistic units combine to form. Saussure's linearity principle concerns one of the two main ways in which we can speak about meaning as “function in context”—that is, what a given linguistic unit is doing in grammatical structure (some group of linguistic units) rather than simply what it is. The linearity principle thus provides a way of talking about the combinations of linguistic units into structures larger than, say, the single word. Further, Saussure's arbitrariness principle begins to show that a given linguistic form is always functionally related—in various ways that Saussure did not clearly distinguish—to the “higher” level meaning(s) it realizes or expresses. In other words, the meaning of a given linguistic form is a part of the “higher” level context that the form expresses, and it must always be related to that context. This is so because functional accounts of linguistic meaning additionally seek to understand what linguistic forms are doing in the contexts in which we use them. This is not an explanation in terms of language form sui generis. It is in this sense that Saussure's account of linguistic form needs to be understood.

Saussure does not fully develop the implications of his insights for the theory and analysis of grammar. He mostly restricts his discussions to single, isolated sign units at the level of the morpheme, word, and phrase. Further, Saussure places considerable emphasis on the linear character of the linguistic syntagm, thereby playing down the fact that the functional basis of linguistic meaning does not depend entirely on the linear nature of linguistic structure. Nevertheless, in CLG Saussure provides a blueprint and a set of foundational principles for many subsequent developments in twentieth‐century linguistics and semiotics.

Latter‐day commentators such as Jonathan Culler (1976) and Terence Hawkes (1977) have tended to emphasize the Copernican revolution, as Roy Harris puts it in his introduction to his translation (1983) of CLG, that Saussure inaugurated. Saussure's achievement, according to this view, lies in his systematic elaboration of a general science of signs: a semiology. In CLG, these principles are elaborated with respect to language, which Saussure envisages as just one component in a more comprehensive “science which studies the life of signs as part of social life.” Thus, Saussure stakes out this future science of semiology right from the outset. Further, Saussure does not view this science of semiology as an autonomous science. “It would,” Saussure claims, “form a part of social psychology, and consequently of general psychology.”

It is doubtful that Saussure used the terms social psychology and psychology in exactly the contemporary sense of these terms. Saussure does not take this point any further. Instead, he undertakes a quite precise division of labor, leaving it up to the psychologist “to determine the exact place of semiology” in the overall field of human knowledge. The more specific and limited task of the linguist, Saussure continues, “is to define what makes the language system a special type of system within the totality of semiological facts.” In making such a claim, Saussure is enacting a strategic move that is both political and theoretical in its implications. Linguistics becomes constituted as an “autonomous” realm of scientific inquiry. Saussure is intent on shifting the study of language from the purely instrumental basis that had prevailed up till then, in which language was a means of studying something else, to one in which it is an object of systematic inquiry in its own right.

In effecting this shift, most commentators have assumed that for Saussure the concrete social and historical production and use of signs is necessarily split off from his envisioned science of semiology. Wlad Godzich (1984) has suggested that Saussure's notion of social psychology might constitute the locus of just such a renovated semiotics. Far from the closed and static system that an oversimplified reading of Saussure reiterates as a form of doctrine, Saussure's conception of the sign is entirely compatible with such a project. In this way, CLG gives voice to two distinct models of scientific inquiry.


Culler, J. Ferdinand de Saussure. London: Fontana, 1976.Find this resource:

    Godzich, W. “The Semiotics of Semiotics.Australian Journal of Cultural Studies 2.2 (1984): 3–22.Find this resource:

      Hawkes, T. Structuralism and Semiotics. London: Methuen, 1977.Find this resource:

        Lévi‐Strauss, C. Structual Anthropology. Translated by C. Jacobson and B. Grundfest Schoepf. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane and Penguin, 1972.Find this resource:

          Saussure, F. de. Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo‐européennes. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1968.Find this resource:

            Saussure, F. de. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by R. Harris. London: Duckworth, 1983.Find this resource:

              —Paul J. Thibault