Ferdinand de Saussure: Course in General Linguistics

[Readings] (01.04.09, 12:16 pm)

Saussure is one of the establishing figures in modern linguistics and semiotics. Saussure’s work is important because it establishes the origin of structuralism in linguistics. The theory of language is important in any investigation of media studies, and the ideas of communication and signification are especially relevant in the perspective of networked discourse and visual culture. However, my approach is going to be to look at Saussure from the perspective of meaning and symbolic systems. Structuralism seems a certain starting point for the logic of traditional AI, but Saussure’s conception encourages thinking much more broadly: he discusses the perception of language both as a fixed system (synchronic linguistics), as well as a system that evolves in time (diachronic linguistics). Both of these depend on a community of speakers to share the meaning of signs. I will focus on the sections of general principles and synchronic linguistics.

Part I: General Principles

Saussure opens by contextualizing his goal in opposition to the existing view of language, which is that words correspond directly to meanings. Instead, he claims that concepts are tied to “sound-images.” This connection is psychological and not associative. The pair of the concept and sound-image is a sign. The sound-image is the signifier, and the concept is the signified. Signs operate according to two principles: Arbitrariness and linearity. Signs are arbitrary because, in terms of words, there is nothing in the signifier alone that naturally implies the signified, and it could easily be any other signifier that could be bound to the signified. The claim of arbitrariness is slightly contestable given recent studies in cognitive science, but for the most part, it is logically sound. Saussure does discuss later how elements of words (prefixes and postfixes that can be tied to other word bases) are signifiers in of themselves. Linearity applies to the fact that we perceive signs, read and hear, linearly. This has to do with our inherent means of perception and ability to read and interpret language.

Language has qualities of both immutability and mutability. Language is immutable in the sense that it is intangible and connot be consciously changed by a single speaker. A speaker who wished to change language would not be able communicate the changes with others by simpy using the changes. Language instead depends on a community of speakers, who use the language through time. The key dimension in this is time. Without movement in time, a language has the potential for life, but it does not live. Through time, the language will suffer inevitable changes. It is productive to think of this at a meta level, in terms of Barthes’ mythologies, and look at texts and readers. Texts too have a life in time, and are interpreted differently over the course of it.

Part II: Synchronic Linguistics

This section is on synchronic linguistics, which is linguistics that have a fixed state and does not change over time. This can also be read as a general interpretation of language meaning and use.  Saussure argues that linguistic entities are concrete, if and only if it has both an expression and meaning. The meaning of an entity may also be considered an intention or representation). Entities must be delimited via difference from, and as separated from other units. The idea is that a linguistic expression (like a word or a phrase or a sentence) is composed of units, such as words or syllables, and these syllables must be delimited from each other, and distinguished by their difference to other units.

Thought and sound are coupled in the understanding of language. This is at outset a troubling argument, as the deaf can use language, but Saussure might refer to images or muscle patterns to account for this case. The argument seems to go in the direction that a union of perception and expression comprises thought. “Linguistics then works in the borderland where the elements of sound and thought combine; their combination produces a form, not a substance.” (p. 113; emphasis in original) Saussure’s goal is to understand the idea of linguistic value, but value differs from signification. This is because signification involves a certain multiplicity, whereas value does not.

There is a paradox in seeing the sign or word-meaning as a linguistic unit, as it is interdependent. Language as used contains interdependent terms, and the spoken word does not stand on its own, but depends on the words around it. Note that GOFAI symbols are independent/universal/objective. There are two elements to linguistic values: (1) Dissimilar things can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined. (2) Similar things may be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined. The essence of these are similarity and exchange. These are the core of the process of transformation. Transformation occurs between signs and reality, as well as between sign systems. Values may be exchanged, but signified may not exactly be exchanged. Saussure gives the example of the English word “sheep” and the French word “mouton,” both of which signify a sheep, but they do not have the same value. The French word “mouton” also signifies the food for which the English word is “mutton.”

Language ultimately comes down to differences. The key element is distinction between elements such as letters and phonemes. Differences are within the system, not before it. Both the signified and signifier exist differentially, in that they are different from other signifieds and signifiers, but the sign as a whole is a positive unit.

A syntagm is framed as a meaningful connection between two linguistic terms. These are structures within the system. Extra-system comparisons form associations, which are formed in absentia, whereas syntagmatic relations are formed in praesentia. A syntagm is two terms effective in a series. Saususre gives an example of a building supported by columns. The relation between the base, column, and roof are syntagmatic relations, whereas the type of column that may be present (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, etc) are associate relations. The syntagm is a role and position within space or time, and an associative relation is the capacity for variance and multiple values. (I think the term for this has been co-opted as a paradigmatic relation.) Terms and meanings are built from syntagmatic and associative relations. Associative relations work via difference, but syntagmatic relations are constructive.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorDe Saussure, Ferdinand
TitleCourse in General Linguistics
Tagsspecials, media theory, semiotics, linguistics
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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