Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a Swiss linguist whose ideas about the scientific study of language provided the basis for what came to be known as structuralism. In the field of linguistics proper, he is widely recognized as the father of 20th-century linguistics. More broadly in the humanities and social sciences, his ideas are linked to those of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, to make Saussure a cofounder of semiotics, the all-encompassing study of sign systems, of which language is but one.
Saussure's most radical departure from previous views of language lies in the distinction he made between langue and parole. The colloquial meaning of langue is “tongue; language,” while parole means “speech; word,” as in “take my word for it.” Saussure meant something very different by these terms. Locating them in two distinct portions of the neuropsychological circuitry that underlies listening and speaking, he said that langue is the portion in which auditory images become associated with concepts, while parole is the portion in which speakers’ communicative intentions become associated with producible output. Saussure went on to say that of these two components, the proper focus of the scientific study of language is langue, because it is shared by everyone in a given speech community. In fact, it is the shared ability to associate specific auditory input with the same concepts that defines a speech community. In contrast, Saussure said, parole is diverse and confusing because speakers use their language in idiosyncratic and unpredictable ways. Even though linguists are forced to infer the contents of langue from the messy evidence provided in parole, they must maintain a strict commitment to the description of langue, on which the structural stability of language depends.
Saussure himself frequently drifted away from his own langue-focused definition of linguistics to talk about the vagaries of parole, in which are found the ingredients of potential changes in langue when meaning-to-sound connections made by individual speakers come to be widely understood by the collective, and thus incorporated into langue. Despite such internal confusion and occasional inconsistencies, Saussure maintained a constant emphasis on structure: the interdigitated and oppositional nature of systems of sound, of systems of meaning, and of the sign systems they define. For this, Saussure is widely recognized as the founder of structural linguistics.
Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to a Calvinist family famous for having produced a long line of accomplished scientists and scholars. During his lifetime, Saussure published only one work of lasting note. Finished and printed when he was only 21, his Memoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Dissertation on the Primitive Vowel System in the Indo-European Languages) employed the rigorous comparative method developed by his mentors at the University of Leipzig, where he had gone at the age of 19 after a year of studying Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit at the University of Geneva.
Saussure's Leipzig professors were the most prominent of a group of mostly German Indo- Europeanists known as Junggrammatiker (Young Grammarians), who were doing fierce battle with other linguists of the time regarding the regularity of sound changes in the Indo-European languages. The neo-grammarians (as the Junggrammatiker are known in English) held that changes in the pronunciation of words follow a strictly regular pattern: A change in a given sound simultaneously affects all of the words in which the conditions for that change are met. Apparent exceptions to this principle, the neo-grammarians insisted, could be resolved by a more careful and detailed examination of the conditions and timing of the changes observed. For example, a sound in initial position in a word may undergo a shift without affecting that same sound in the middle or at the end of a word. This principle eventually proved to be overstated: Some changes do take place in only one or a few words and spread gradually, if at all, to words that the neo-grammarian hypothesis would predict they should apply to immediately and without exception. But the neo-grammarians succeeded in resolving a number of otherwise irregular patterns of sound change. And the strict regularity of relations among the sounds in a language at a given point in time became a key component and arguably the guiding principle for many other aspects of the as yet unborn Saussurean structuralism.
On the basis of observed but previously inexplicable variations in the vowel systems of languages in the Indo-European family, Saussure's Memoire put forward a reconstruction of the sound system of the family's common ancestor that contained consonantal elements, which Saussure called sonorant coefficients, later called laryngeals, which were absent from all the then known members of the family. This revolutionary departure from previous work in the field provoked skeptical displeasure from his professors at Leipzig, who found it far too speculative. They nevertheless awarded Saussure a doctorate in 1880, but only after he submitted a dissertation on the genitive absolute in Sanskrit that he wrote during a year of study at the University of Berlin. Shortly afterward, Saussure took a position at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, but after a decade, he had not managed to rise above the rank of maître de conférences (assistant/associate professor or senior lecturer). In 1891, he accepted a professorship at the University of Geneva, where he spent the rest of his career.
Although the controversial reconstruction in the Memoire was largely vindicated in 1927 by means of newly discovered inscriptions in Hittite, and would therefore have sufficed to put Saussure's name on the all-time list of brilliant historical linguists, none of Saussure's writings during his lifetime explain the depth and breadth of Saussure's long-term intellectual impact. This derives overwhelmingly from lectures he gave late in his life. Until the end of his fifth decade, Saussure's teaching, like his few writings, had focused entirely on Indo- European historical linguistics. It was only with the unexpected death of a colleague that Saussure, in 1907, took up responsibility for a first-year course in linguistics, which he taught three times before his death from cancer at the age of 55. Not long after, his colleagues and students, impressed by the originality and scope of Saussure's lectures, pieced together and expanded on Saussure's and his students’ surviving notes to create the Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics, 1916; revised 1922).
Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, who became in turn the successors to Saussure's Geneva professorship, the Cours gave rise to innumerable and often contradictory commentaries. The Cours not only smooths over problematic discrepancies among Saussure's three series of lectures— not always in favor of the later versions—but also contains material not found in anyone's notes, thus ensuring a continuing debate over Saussure's actual beliefs and original intent. Even so, the Cours came for many to define the field of linguistics and to contribute vitally to the intellectual movement known as structuralism, characterized by key ideas such as langue versus parole (mentioned above), diachrony versus synchrony, signifier and signified, the arbitrariness of the sign, meaning versus value, and syntagmatic versus paradigmatic. Although each of these ideas can be described in turn, they are interdependent in ways that exemplify the central tenet of Saussurean theory: that any system of signs—linguistic theory included—consists of inextricably interrelated components.
To recapitulate briefly, Saussure defined langue as the largely homogeneous, socially shared knowledge of how to interpret the signs of a given language, while parole, which provides the observable evidence on which linguistic description depends, is the heterogeneous, idiosyncratic linguistic output of individual users of a language.
Saussure's langue/parole distinction has probably been more misunderstood than any other distinction in modern linguistics. Chief among the sources of misunderstanding is Saussure's observation in the Cours that langue is the social part of language, beyond the control of individuals, who depend on its shared nature to make their parole intelligible to others. This identification of langue as a social fact resonated with the work of Émile Durkheim and others who sought to identify values and social structures that transcend the individual and exercise control over the thoughts and the behavior of people in a given society. However, as shown by Saussure's clear localization of langue in the receptive portion of each individual's language-processing system, the notion that langue resides in a realm of reality outside of individual members of a speech community in no way corresponds to Saussure's clear intent. Furthermore, when Saussure goes on to observe that parole lies solely in the domain of the individual, with no two speakers employing exactly the same connections between meanings and sounds in their speaking, this does not mean that parole has no social effects. Parole is after all the sole source of changes in langue, as new meaning-to-sound connections come to be used by other speakers and, over time, take their place in the shared langue of the community. Thus, some individual facts become social facts in Saussure's theory.
Another common misconstrual of the langue/parole distinction consists of equating it to Noam Chomsky's famous competence/performance distinction. On this reading, langue loses its place in receptive language processing and becomes a set of abstract structure-defining rules (in Chomsky's view, a generative grammar), which somehow apply in both receptive and expressive processing, while parole becomes the victim of innumerable factors that impinge on the perfect realization of langue in listening and speaking. This bears no similarity to anything Saussure is known or thought to have said or believed. Clearly, despite the best efforts of Saussure and the many proponents of his ideas, the auditory image of the word langue has as yet failed to become associated with a shared concept in the langue of the speech community known as Academe, thus disconfirming Saussure's claim that linguistic signs are by definition shared.
To understand diachronic patterns of change in signs over time, we must first possess accurate synchronic descriptions of sign systems at particular points in time.
This distinction grew directly out of Saussure's training by the neo-grammarians. The regularity of sound change discerned by the neo-grammarians derives, Saussure believed, from the synchronic structure of a language at a particular point in time: A system of sounds constitutes not merely a helter-skelter collection but rather a well-tuned constellation of what is usually a very small set of distinctive sounds. The exclusive focus on the synchronic description of language by many linguists since Saussure, unheard of in prior generations, clearly shows the impact of this fundamental shift of attention.
Another effect of the diachronic/synchronic distinction relates to matters of prescriptive grammar and word usage. Would-be rule givers cannot legitimately appeal to the diachronic origins of particular constructions or words as the basis for condemning or condoning their deployment by present-day members of a speech community: The “proper” use of a language is strictly and entirely determined by langue, which prescribes how the members of that community understand it. If that understanding changes over time, then the language has changed.
This pair defines every sign; in language, the pair consists of an auditory image and an associated concept.
Despite extensive discussion in the Cours of physiological-articulatory aspects of speech sounds, and occasional use of dual or bidirectional arrows (some of which were erroneously added by the editors of the Cours) to show the connections between signifiers and signifieds, Saussure explicitly states that langue (the proper primary object of linguistic interest) is located in the receptive rather than the executive part of the human brain. Drawing directly on the work of the French surgeon Paul Broca and the German neuropathologist Carl Wernicke of the last decades of the 19th century, Saussure identifies the executive portion of language in what is now known as Broca's area in the left frontal lobe of the cortex and the receptive portion in Wernicke's area in the left temporal lobe. It is in the latter that auditory images (constructed in Heschl's gyrus immediately below Wernicke's area) become associated with concepts (which, we now know, triggers a host of additional semantic processing in the posterior lobes). Later linguists, most notably Edward Sapir, maintained the primacy of the receptive mode of language, but many, including Leonard Bloomfield, abandoned this principle, and by the last decades of the 20th century, with the rise of generative grammar in the work of Noam Chomsky and his followers, most descriptive linguistics took either a processing-neutral or an execution-oriented approach.
Partial exceptions to this principle exist in the form of onomatopoetic words (buzz, oink, plink, etc.) and sounds (long vs. short; slip, slide, slurp, etc.), but even these differ across languages, thus confirming the lack of universal a priori connections between sounds and meanings. A warning must be borne in mind, however: Once a particular connection has been established, both the signifier and the signified are, to some extent, fixed; associating an existing signifier to a new signified creates ambiguity or confusion and creates a point of tension in the sign system. For example, once the signifier south has been associated with one of the four points of a compass, it becomes very unlikely that an attempt to associate it with a second of those points will stick, but the signifier bank is associated with both financial institutions and rivers. Such homonyms create little problems for understanding unless they occur in very similar contexts. If someone asks me if I saw a bat on the front lawn when I pulled into the driveway, I might well not know whether I am being asked about a flying rodent or a length of wood. When a particular ambiguity becomes frequent, speech communities can resolve it by adopting a new signifier for one or another of the signifieds to which it is attached, but existing tensions nevertheless often persist, and new ambiguities arise over time.
Because of the arbitrariness of signs, the association of signifiers to signifieds must be acquired anew in every generation through exposure to language input. At the same time, this sociocultural transmission makes possible the inevitable and constant shifts in connections between signifiers and signifieds that result from changes in sound systems and the value of signs (see below) brought about by the multifarious structures and functions of parole.
A sign's meaning, with respect both to its reference to a particular object, event, or quality in the world and to what it conveys regarding that referent in a given instance of use in parole, is shaped by circumstance, while its value depends on how it contrasts in conceptual function with other signs in langue, the entire sign system. Meanings, as products of parole, are rich in contextual content while values, as elements of langue, are minimalist distinctive semantic features that serve to distinguish signs from each other. An example is the word dog, the value of which is simply the set of characteristics that distinguish members of the canine species from other species and from other physical objects, while its meaning in the sentence “Suddenly the dog jumped up and came running toward the open door” will depend on the hearer's or reader's general and specific knowledge of how dogs move and why this particular dog might be running to this particular door.
This feature of Saussurean theory, without acknowledgment, has become well-known to the 21st-century linguists in the design of neural networks for the modeling of language processing (see, e.g., Hudson, 2007). As they undergo what network modelers call “spreading activation,” the nodes in these networks act very much like Saussure's “values” as they, along with input from other sources, trigger the activation of increasing numbers of semantic nodes to result in a full-blown “meaning” as a configuration of activated nodes. Notice, too, that the train of thoughts that might arise as the result of receiving a sign clearly goes well beyond the minimalist workings of langue: Saussure did not claim that langue could account for the explosion of interpretive events but merely the first-phase mapping of signifiers onto the values of their respective signifieds. This same modesty applies to neurolinguists’ claims about what happens in Wernicke's area: Words are recognized there as meaning-triggering units, but the full interpretation of a received utterance can involve vastly larger expanses of the cortex.
Every sign relates both syntagmatically to other signs that might occur before or after it in a syntactic or other linear construction and paradigmatically to signs that might replace it in a particular position in such a construction.
In other words, syntagmatic relations necessarily exist among the signs that occur in a particular sequence of signs, while paradigmatic relations exist among the signs that might be placed into each of the slots in that sequence. For example, the verb-object relation between love and peace in the sentence I love peace is syntagmatic, while the synonym-antonym relations between love and hate and between peace and war in the sentences I love peace and I hate war are paradigmatic. In the end, the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations among signs—and also among the elements of a sound system—are what constitute the formal and functional oppositions that make them a structured system as opposed to a mere collection.
By the middle of the 20th century, these two analytic dimensions had gradually become the basis for description of what structural linguists recognized as separate “levels” of structure in language (see “Prague School of Linguistics”). It was already clear that the syntagmatic/paradigmatic distinction applied not only to sign systems as a whole but also to the perceptible constituents of signs, that is, signifiers: Syntagmatic relations exist among paradigmatically related elements in the sequential ordering of articulatory gestures and auditory cues (“distinctive phonetic features”) and individual speech sounds (“phonemes”), as well as among meaningful strings of sounds (“morphemes” or “words”), or “signs” as linkages of signifiers to signifieds. By extension, these same syntagmatic/paradigmatic relations can be seen in a cascade of increasingly complex forms (“sentences” and “discourses”) constructed from simpler signs and also in the semantic values of words, which can be broken down into “sememes,” such as male versus female or fast versus slow. The most extensive elaboration of this approach can be found in the work of Sydney Lamb and his students. Parallels also exist in analysis of the structure of pragmatic interactions and narratives, which can be broken down into interdependent “speech acts,” such as conversations containing pairs such as question versus request or acceptance versus denial, or stories with sections identifiable as exposition, development, climax, and dénouement. The last examples show why structural linguistics has had such a profound impact in the field of literary criticism.
Applications of the principles described above have occurred in a wide variety of scholarly disciplines. Within anthropology, understanding of archaeological remains, nonverbal communication, myths and rituals, and a host of other cultural artifacts and practices have benefited from structural semiotic analysis. The structural approach gave rise not only to the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the various branches of structuralist theory and reactions to it that arose over the past century, but also to rich developments such as cognitive and symbolic anthropology (see Colby, Fernandez, & Kronenfeld, 1981; D'Andrade, 1995) and biogenetic structuralism (see Laughlin & d'Aquili, 1974). In fact, for field after field across the arts and sciences, it is hard to imagine how they would look in the absence of the principles articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure.
See also Aristotle; Boas, Franz; Cultural Relativism; Hymes, Dell; Sapir, Edward; Whorf, Benjamin Lee
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