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Ferdinand de Saussure

Course in General Linguistics
Saussure is credited with
being the father of structural
Structural linguistics is
based on the idea that
language is a self-regulating
and self-contained system.
Parole and Langue
Parole - living language or individual
speech acts.
Langue - the shared system of language
in a society.
operates only on
a language-state,
and the changes
that intervene
between states
have no place in
either state
Synchronic and Diachronic
Synchronic: to describe the pieces on the
board at any given moment (Static
Diachronic: To describe how they have
reached these positions (Evolutionary
Language as a system of signs
Language is a process of naming, but this
does not mean that ready made ideas
exist before words (Saussure 65), but
The linguistic sign unites, not a thing
and a name, but a concept and a sound-
image (66).
The Nature of the Linguistic Sign
Signifier (the
mental impression
of the sound image
+ Signified (the
concept tree)
= Sign
The relationship between signifier and
signified is purely arbitrary.
There is nothing that logically links a
particular sound image to a concept.
Words are arbitrary
Arbor = Tree =
Equus = Horse =
Saussure acknowledges two possible
objections to the principle that all signs
are purely arbitrary: onomatopoeia and
However, he claims that these also only
have meanings that have been agreed
upon within the community.
Arbitrariness cont.
Linguistic Value
Psychologically our thought--apart
from its expression in words--is only a
shapeless and indistinct mass (Saussure
Thought and sound are like the front and
back of a piece of paper -- and the paper
makes up the linguistic sign.
Linguistic Value, cont.
Value is determined by relations between
signs within the system of signification,
not by the relationship between signified
and signifier:
Language is a system of interdependent
terms in which the value of each term
results solely from the simultaneous
presence of the others (Saussure 114).
Linguistic value depends on Difference:
Each linguistic term derives its value
from its opposition to all the other terms
(Saussure 88).
This aspect of language leads to binary
opposites and the linearity of language,
themes taken up in structural and post-
structural literary theory.
Saussure and Structuralism
Literary structuralism flourished in the
1960s as an attempt to apply to literature
the methods and insights of the founder of
modern structural linguistics, Ferdinand
de Saussure (Eagleton 84).
Saussure and Structuralism
The application of the linguistic theory of
structuralism to literature is informed
primarily by three elements defined by
Language as sychronic rather than diachronic
The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign
Linguistic value depends of DIFFERENCE
Literary Structuralism
One example of the application of literary
structuralism comes from the
anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who
examined myths in terms of a language,
closely mirroring Saussures theories of
language (Eagleton 90).
Narrative is ultimately a type of
Saussure and Post-Structuralism
Because Saussure posits meaning as a
result of differences, his linguistic theory
is important for post-structuralism. Post-
structuralism is, however, rather more a
departure from the structure of Saussure,
but it is a departure in the sense of
extension rather than corruption.
Saussure and Post-Structuralism
The signifier does not yield us up a
signified directly, as a mirror yields up
an image: there is no harmonious one-to-
one set of correspondences between the
level of the signifiers and the level of
signifieds in language....there is no fixed
distinction between signifiers &
signifieds (Eagleton 110-11).
Post-Structuralism Cont.
Meaning is always in some sense
suspended, for you never reach the end of
the possible meanings - the end of the
relationship between signifiers and
This suspension of meaning is sometimes
described in terms of a chain of
Works Consulted
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction.
Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Matthews, P.H. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Sanders, Carol. Ed. The Cambridge Companion to
Saussure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Ed.
Charles Bally and Albert Reidlinger. Trans. Wade Baskin.
New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.