Ferdinand de Saussure

Till Saussure, the study of language was a diachronic practice, which is to say language was studied by analyzing the changes that have been taking place in the language through history. Saussure introduced a synchronic approach to study the language.

A synchronic approach would mean to consider language as a structure and to study it in its entirety at a given point of time. Saussure contributed ideas and theories to the world of linguistics that theorists like Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, etc. were under the influence of his insights.

Saussure was born in a Swiss family, studied at universities of Berlin and Leipzig. He taught in Paris, and later at the University of Geneva. His Course in General Linguistics in fact was a posthumous compilation of the lecture notes done by his collogues. Like his introduction of the synchronic study of language, he has made various other claims regarding language.

Firstly, he denies that there is any natural connection between words and things, implying that reality isn’t independent of language and language cannot be reduced to ‘name-giving system’. Saussure seems to be suggesting that we make our understanding of the world by language and sees the worlds through language.

Furthers, Saussure argues, language is a system of signs which has no meaning and place in isolation, but can only understood in relation to the difference with other words; for example, Saussure is theorizing that we think of Cat, the word, as Cat, the object because the Cat is not Dog; Dog is understood as Dog because it is not table.

Saussure later introduces the concepts of ‘langue’ and ‘parole’. Langue and parole are two dimensions of language as the former refers to a structured system of the language, based on certain rules and latter refers to personal or a specific understanding of the language, or the utterance of the thought in a personalized way but which is based on the rules of the langue.

Saussure makes a distinction between speech and language: he argues, language is heterogeneous and speech is homogeneous. That is to say, in the process of construction, language, gets collectively approved by communities and all the people who are sharing a common language; therefore, language is a social institution which is uniquely different from legal and political institutions—on the other hand, speech is, as Saussure writes: “It is a system of signs in which the only essential thing is the union of meanings and sound-images, and in which both parts of the sign are psychological.”

In the Course, Saussure explains the ‘Nature of the Linguistic Signs’, which is, in some way, his understanding of the concept of sign that was unknown to us before him and has impacted literary and cultural theory to an un-ignorable extent. Saussure subdivides ‘sign’ into ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’; and, he argues, that both concepts of the sign are psychological.

The sign doesn’t unite a name and a thing but a concept and a sound-image. And to further break this terminology, Saussure suggests: ‘sign’, the whole, ‘signified’, the concept, and ‘signifier’, the sound-image. A sign, therefore, consists of a signifier and a signified. For instance, the object table is a sign; the concept of a table is signified by using the signifier, the word or sound image, table.

In other words, Saussure says: a sign that refers to the object consists of signified and signifier which has no relation with the object. Signifier and signified are psychological concepts; therefore, language cannot be understood in the conventional sense, where it is understood as having a ready-made structure and is reduced to having the purpose of naming. This profound understanding of the language actually motivated him to argue to have an entirely new discipline, that would be called, as he suggested, ‘semiology’.

This profound understanding of the language actually motivated him to argue to have an entirely new discipline, that would be called, as he suggested, ‘semiology’.