- Saussure, Ferdinand de
- (1857-1913)A Swiss linguist who is generally considered to have been the founder of modern structural linguistics and, therefore, the grandfather of structuralism . The revolutionary nature of Saussure's work only became clear somewhat fortuitously when, three years after his death, some of his former students published a book based upon notes they had taken in the course of his lectures. This is the text that has come down to us as The Course in General Linguistics.According to the traditional representational theory, language consists of humanly created and ceaselessly modified symbols which name, and so may be understood more or less complicatedly and problematically to stand for, the things and happenings that humans wish to talk about.Saussure deploys two sets of oppositions (langue versus paroleand synchronic versus diachronic) in order to demarcate a rather different object of study: that is, not the diachronics (historical changes or dynamics) of parole (language in use), but the synchronics (system of relationships) of langue-or, the socially embedded, structural and tangible aspects of language, that explain its persistence and hence its capacity to serve as a medium of communication.What persists, and how, is specified and explained by two further sets of oppositions: signified versus signifier, and syntagmatic versus associative (the latter of which is today usually termed paradigmatic). A ‘signifier’ is a differentiated graphic or sound image. A ‘signified’ is a differentiated item of thought or a mental image (note, not the thing or happening that the image might be about, which is commonly termed ‘the referent’). Together, signifier and signified produce a ‘sign’, which according to Saussure is an ‘unmotivated’ or arbitrary combination which is the product of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations specific to a particular language. In this context, a syntagmatic relationship unites elements present in a speech chain, whereas paradigmatic relationships unite terms in a mnemonic series. Thus, in the syntagm (or sentence) ‘I'm cold’, the word ‘cold’ has a syntagmatic relationship with ‘I'm’, but a paradigmatic relationship with the words ‘cool’, ‘chilly’, and ‘freezing’. To elaborate this thesis further, we may note that a sign gains value or meaning syntagmatically according to its linear position in discourse , for example as determined by grammar; it also gains value paradigmatically according to what signs could have been substituted for it but were not (as determined, for example, by the nature of a particular lexicon).In sum, for Saussure languages do not consist of individually created and recreated representations, but rather of signs that are the product of extra-individual structures or systems of differences (such as alphabets, grammars, and lexicons). This displacement of the individual from the centre of concern in the analysis of so manifestly social a phenomenon as language is the move that initiated the so-called structuralist revolution. As a result, there remains no better or more essential introduction to this revolution than Saussure's Course. Sadly, however, a large number of sociological advocates as well as critics of structuralism appear never to have read it, with the result that their writings are replete with confusions, especially over what is meant by the term ‘signified’. See also semiology.
Dictionary of sociology. 2013.