About "Course in General Linguistics" by Ferdinand de Saussure

Essay, 2010

7 Seiten

Mahrukh Baig (Autor:in)




Saussure's Definition of the Linguistic Sign

Saussure’s Structuralist approach towards Linguistics

Criticism of Saussurean Model

Comparison between Saussure and other Linguists

Conclusion: Redefining the Linguistic Sign


“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 systems.”
(de Saussure 1973:13)

Looking back at the history of linguistics, the first systematic attempt to incorporate the study of language into a semiotic discipline can be attributed to the Swiss linguist and scholar Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who is credited with being “the father of modern linguistics”. He explicitly announces in his lectures and articles that ‘linguistics is only one part’ of the general science which he terms as semiology: “A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology” (Saussure 1973:13). He states that semiology being the science of sign-system is a whole, of which linguistics is merely a part, for language is a set of signs and linguistic signs when added together constitute language behavior.

Linguistics is only a part of general science of semiology; the laws covered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics… if I have succeeded in assigning linguistics a place among sciences, it is because I have related it to semiology.

(de Saussure 1973:13)

Saussure's Definition of the Linguistic Sign

In his Course in General Linguistics (1915), a summary of his lectures at the University of Geneva from 1906 to 1911, Saussure examines the relationship between speech (parole) and language (langue), and investigates language as a structured system of signs. Being the founder of both modern linguistics and semiotics, Saussure’s elaboration of the linguistic sign from a semiotic perspective has affected much of subsequent discussions about language. It is, therefore, important to re-examine the model he proposes for explaining the phenomenon of linguistic signification. He rejects the theory of language as a naming-process only--a list of words, each corresponding to the thing that it names. He rather introduces linguistic sign as the basic unit of language, for a language simply is a large number of signs related to one and other in various ways. The internal structure of a sign is binary: it consists of a sound-image which he calls a “signifier”, combined with a thought or concept called a “signified”. Moreover, Saussure defines the sound-image, not as the physical sound but as the psychological imprint upon our senses. The psychological character of our sound-images becomes apparent when we observe our own speech. Without moving our lips or tongue, we can talk to ourselves or formulate a concept in our mind. For example, let’s use the word ‘circle’. The word ‘circle’ is the signifier. The concept of a circle, the 360 angular shape is the signified. We can say the word ‘circle’ mentally without moving our lips. In the same way, we can picture the image of a circle without actually looking at a physical rendering of one.

“Suppose that the opening of the circuit is in A’s brain, where mental facts (concepts) are associated with representation of the linguistic sounds (sound-image) that are used for their expression. A given concept unlocks a corresponding sound-image in the brain; this purely psychological phenomenon is followed in turn by a physiological process…

Next, the circuit continues in B, but the order is reversed… Indeed, we should not fail to note that the word-image stands apart from the sound itself and that it is just as psychological as the concept which is associated with it.”

(de Saussure, 1915:11)

The key to understanding Saussure’s theory of linguistic sign is his “principle of arbitrariness”. According to him, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is “arbitrary”, which means that there is no natural or logical connection between the sound-image and the concept. It is a result of ‘social convention’: speakers of the same language group have agreed that these letters or sounds evoke a certain image. For instance, when we as speakers of English identify a 360 angular shape as a ‘circle’, it is only because that is the excepted word in our language. There is nothing inherent in a circle that causes us to use that specific term. However, it doesn’t mean that we can use any signifier of our choice to refer to an object or a concept. It simply means that language, as a system of signs, is arbitrary.

“Human language is not fundamentally representational. It is basically and essentially arbitrary. The form of an expression is generally independent of its meaning except for the associations that have been established by social convention.”

(Finegan 1999: 10)


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Mahrukh Baig (Autor:in), 2010, About "Course in General Linguistics" by Ferdinand de Saussure, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/153228


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