Saussurean Structuralism

images.jpgSaussure introduced Structuralism in Linguistics, marking a revolutionary break in the study of language, which had till then been historical and philological. In his Course in General Linguistics (1916), Saussure saw language as a system of signs constructed by convention. Understanding meaning to be relational, being produced by the interaction between various signifiers and signifieds, he held that meaning cannot be understood in isolation. Saussure illustrated this relationality of language, with the terms paradigmatic axis (of selection) and the syntagmatic axis (of combination), and with the example of 8.25 Geneva to Paris express. Further he challenged the view of reality as independent and existing outside language and reduced tang cage to a mere “naming system”. He questioned the conventional “correspondence theory of meaning” and argued that meaning is arbitrary, and that language does not merely reflect the world, but constitutes it.

As Jacques Derrida pointed out, Saussure’s theory is based on binary oppositions or dyads, i.e., defining a unit in terms of what it is not, which give rise to oppositional pairs in which one is always superior to the other. The most fundamental binary opposition is related to the concept of sign, the basic unit of signification. In Saussure, the previously undivided sign gets divided into the signifier (the sound image) and the signified (the concept). Saussure stressed that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is conventional and arbitrary, and that both terms are psychological in nature. There is no one-to-one relation between the signifier and the signified. For instance the sound image “tree” may refer to different kinds of trees or it may even be a metaphor for forest. Therefore, it is inferred that meaning is arbitrary and unstable.

The second binary opposition is-that of the langue and parole, where langue refers to language as a structural system based on certain rules, while parole refers to an individual expression of language. The terms langue and parole are parallel to the terms competence and performance formulated by Chomsky. The binary opposition of synchronic and diachronic refers to the study of the structure and functions of language at a particular point of time, and over a period of time respectively. Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic axes refer to the axes of selection and combination respectively, where syntagmatic denotes the relationship of units/words in a linear pattern, while ‘paradigmatic, axis constitutes of the interchangeable units in a language.

The most significant of the binary oppositions that has been criticized by Derrida is that of speech and writing. Saussure privileged speech over writing owing to the subjectivity, authority and presence of the speaker. Derrida called this phonocentrism, a manifestation of the logocentrism, which literally means the centrality of the logos. “Logos” etymologically and historically means the “Word of God” and by extension, rationality, wisdom, law – all synonymous with power. Derrida describes logocentrism as the metaphysics of presence, and is opposed to the concept of the centrality of presence, because presence contains within itself, traces of absence, thereby deconstructing its very centrality. In connection to and in opposition to logocentrism, Derrida introduces “ecriture”, a French term roughly translated as writing – which exists beyond the logos and is characterised by absence and differance, where meaning is constantly under erasure, and does not have the authority of the logos, and is hence anti-logocentric. A related word, archi ecriture, refers to writing as an ultimate principle than as a derivative of logos. According to Derrida, even speech can be considered as a form of writing — writing on air waves, or into the memory of the listener. Thus the concept of ecriture subverts the superiority of speech over writing.

Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics proved to be of seminal influence in various fields such as Anthropology (Levi-Strauss), Semiology (Roland Barthes), the literary and philosophical concepts of Derrida, Marxist analysis of ideology by Althusser, psychoanalytical theories of Lacan, and analysis of language conducted by Feminists like Kristeva, Cixous, Irigaray.

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7 replies

  1. I liked this explanation, it helps to understand the binarity of structuralist linguistics.


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