Saussure, Ferdinand de "Nature of the Linguistic Sign"

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In “Nature of the Linguistic Sign,” Ferdinand de Saussure argues that a linguistic sign can be broken up into two parts: a concept (signified) and a sound-image (signifier). He points out how the sign is arbitrary and not based on an inherent relationship between the signified and signifier. He says the sign is both immutable—no one in a community can alter the language at will—and mutable—given enough time, social forces will cause shifts in language, though language is always inherited from the preceding period.

Nature of the Linguistic Sign

Saussure argues that the field of linguistics should be divided into two branches: synchronic and diachronic. He forms this belief by reasoning that symbolic language essentially consists of the signifier and the signified which, together, are the sign. The signifier is the sound-image (the verbally or internally spoken word) and it exists only in time because it belongs to the realm of thought. The signified, on the other hand, is the concept referred to by the sound-image being called to mind. The signified, then, as a “thing” that “is” exists regardless of time because it does not need to be spoken or visualized in order to exist. It continues existing whether it is being referred to or not. This is where Saussure’s concept of continuity enters into the study. The signified is continuous in that it does not change, while the signifier is continuous in that it does change over time. Saussure also refers to this as immutability (signs are abitrary and so they do not change) and mutability (the relationship between the signified and the signifier does shift over time - page ten).

Another way that Saussure describes the time-conscious and the time-less aspects of rhetoric is to name them, respectively, parole and langue. Parole is specifically the use of language. Langue refers specifically to the underlying structures of a language. Synchronic linguistics (the study of linguistics ignorant of time) deals with langue, while diachronic linguistics (the study of linguistics in light of time) deals with parole.

Saussure also distinguishes between the old way of analyzing language, which involved “naming” objects or concepts and did not differentiate between the nature of the name and the nature of the thing being named, and his new way of analyzing language, which is to consider both parole and langue, and not just parole. Saussure argues that there is a difference between the two and that acknowledging this difference matters to the field of linguistics because structure is responsible for meaning. Though the relationship between the signifier and signified may change, it will always fit into the preexisting structure of language.

Possible Implications

Could the ideas in Saussure’s “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” be compared to to Plato’s forms? The forms and the signifed are both the unchanging, eternal essence of a thing. Is it valid to claim similarities between Saussure and Plato in that they both look for the foundational structures that are behind everything?

Perhaps Plato was the first structuralist. He believed in “is” and that the world was highly organized according to structures, whether they be societal hierarchies or predetermined essences, everything that exists, to Plato, fits in with the laws of the universe. It could be argued that Saussure arrived at a similar philosophical conclusion and applied it to the study of language (which, by this time, many argue to be the definition of reality, so in a way, Saussure is not narrowing Plato’s philosophy, only qualifying it). This philosophy, known as structuralism, can be described as follows: people are not of themselves, and they do not generate original meaning and reality and symbols of themselves, but people and meaning and reality and symbols are produced out of structures. The structures are original, that which comes from them is not.

Glossary Terms

The following key terms are defined in the Glossary: antithetical, diachronic, Esperanto, langue, orthographic, parole, phoneme, priori, semiology, signified, signifier, synchronic

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