Key Theories of Ferdinand de Saussure

Before 1960, few people in academic circles or outside had heard the name of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). But after 1968, European intellectual life was a-buzz with references to the father of both linguistics and structuralism. That Saussure was as much a catalyst as an intellectual innovator is confirmed by the fact that the work – the Course in General Linguistics – for which he is now famous outside linguistics was compiled from three sets of students’ lecture notes for the years of the Course in General Linguistics given at the University of Geneva in 1907, 1908–9, and 1910–11. That Saussure a linguist and, to the wider academic community and general public, an obscure specialist in Sanskrit and Indo-European languages, should become the source of intellectual innovation in the social sciences and humanities, is also cause for thought. It suggests that something quite unique occurred in the historical epoch of the twentieth century, so that a new model of language based on Saussure’s structural approach emerged to become the model for theorising social and cultural life. Saussurian theory has its basis in the history of linguistics, and its implications extend to the whole of the social sciences. We thus need to consider both these aspects.

08d30b5bb2142dcafb52ca6c716be7c6Life and Intellectual Trajectory

Saussure was born in Geneva in 1857, to one of the best-known families of the city, one famous for its scientific accomplishments. He was thus a direct contemporary ofE´ mile Durkheim (1858–1917), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), although there is little evidence of his ever having had contact with any of them. After an unsatisfactory year in 1875 at the University of Geneva studying physics and chemistry, Saussure went to the University of Leipzig in 1876 to study languages. Then, in the wake of eighteen months studying Sanskrit in Berlin, he published, at the age of 21, his much acclaimed me´moire entitled, Me´moire sur le syste`me primitif des voyelles dans les langues indoeurope ´ennes (Me´moire on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages). Fifty years after Saussure’s death, the renowned French linguist, Emile Benveniste, would say of this work that it presaged the whole of Saussure’s future research on the nature of language inspired by the theory of the arbitrary nature of the sign.

In 1880, after defending his thesis on the absolute genitive case in Sanskrit, Saussure moved to Paris, and in 1881, at the age of 24, he was named lecturer in Gothic and Old High German at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes E´ tudes. For just over a decade Saussure taught in Paris until he was appointed professor of Sanskrit and Indo-European languages at the University of Geneva.

Although acclaimed by his colleagues, and devoted to the study of language, Saussure’s published output began to dwindle as the years wore on. As he put it, he was dissatisfied with the nature of linguistics as a discipline – with its lack of reflexiveness, as with its terminology 1 – and yet he was unable to write the book which would revamp the discipline and enable him to continue his work in philology.

The work now famous, Course in General Linguistics, composed from some of Saussure’s lecture notes along with the notes of his students, could be seen perhaps to be a partial fulfilment of Saussure’s belief that language as such needed to be re-examined if linguistics was to move on to a sounder footing.

Saussure’s Approach to Language

Within the history of linguistics, Saussure’s approach, as exemplified in the Course, is generally thought to have opposed two influential contemporary views of language. The first is that established in 1660 by the Port-Royal philosophers, Arnauld and Lancelot in their Grammaire generale et raisonnee (Eng. Tr., The Port Royal Gammar 1975), where language is seen as a mirror of thoughts and based on a universal logic. For the Port-Royal grammarians, language is fundamentally rational. The second view, is that of nineteenth-century linguistics, where the history of a particular language is deemed to explain the current state of that language. In the latter case, Sanskrit, the sacred language of ancient India, believed to be the oldest of languages, was also believed to function as the connecting link between all languages, so that, ultimately, language and its history would become one with each other. Franz Bopp’s Neogrammarian (as the movement was called) thesis on the conjugation system of Sanskrit as compared with other languages (U¨ ber das Konjugationssystem der Sanskrit-sprache (The Conjugation System of the Sanskrit Language)) inaugurated historical linguistics, and Saussure’s early teaching and research did not contradict the Neogrammarian position on the fundamental importance of history for understanding the nature of language. However, the aspect of the Me´moire highlighted by Benveniste on the fiftieth anniversary of Saussure’s death – the role of arbitrariness in language – makes itself felt with a vengeance in the Course.

The historical approach to language and, to a lesser extent, the rationalist approach, assumes that language is essentially a naming process – attaching words to things, whether or not these are imaginary – and that there is some kind of intrinsic link between the name and its object. Why a particular name came to be attached to a particular object or idea, could, it was believed, be determined historically – or even prehistorically. The further back in history one went the closer one was supposed to comec to a coincidence between the name and its object. As Saussure put it, such a perspective assumes that language is essentially a nomenclature: a collection of names for objects and ideas.

Key Elements of the Course

What, then, are the key elements of Saussure’s theory as manifest in the Course? To begin with, Saussure shifts the focus of study from the history of language in general, to a consideration of the present configuration of a particular natural language like English or French. Now, a history of language becomes the history of languages, without there being an a priori link between them, as nineteenth-century linguists had assumed.

To focus on the present configuration of (a) language is, automatically, to focus on the relationship between the elements of that language and not on their intrinsic value Language, Saussure says, is always organised in a specific way. It is a system, or a structure, where any individual element is meaningless outside the confines of that structure. In a strong and insistent passage in the Course, Saussure says: ‘in language [langue] there are only differences. Even more important a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language, there are only differences without positive terms’ (Saussure 1976: 166 and 1993: 118). The point is not only that value, or significance, is established through the relation between one term and another in the language system – so that, in the example used by Saussure, ‘t’ can be written in a variety of ways and still be understood – but that the very terms of the system itself are the product of difference: there are no positive terms prior to the system. This implies that a language exists as a kind of totality, or it does not exist at all. Saussure uses the image of the chess game to illustrate the differential nature of language. For in chess, not only is the present configuration of pieces on the board all that matters to the newcomer to the game (no further insight would be gained from knowing how the pieces came to be arranged in this way), but any number of items could be substituted for the pieces on the board (a button for a king, etc.) because what constitutes the game’s viability is the differential relationship between the pieces, and not their intrinsic value. To see language as being like a chess game, where the position of the pieces at a given moment is what counts, is to see it from a synchronic perspective. To give the historical approach precedence – as the nineteenth century did – is, by contrast, to view language from a diachronic perspective. In the Course, Saussure privileges the synchronic over the diachronic aspect because it provides a clearer picture of the factors present in any state of language.

Arbitrary Relation Between Signifier and Signified

Of equal importance for grasping the distinctiveness of Saussure’s theory is the principle that language is a system of signs, and that each sign is composed of two parts: a signifier (signifiant) (word, or sound-pattern), and a signified (signifie´) (concept). In contrast to the tradition within which he was brought up, therefore Saussure does not accept that the essential bond in language is between word and thing. Instead, Saussure’s concept of the sign points to the relative autonomy of language in relation to reality. Even more fundamentally, however, Saussure comes to enunciate what has become for a modern audience the most influential principle of his linguistic theory: that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. In light of this principle, the basic structure of language is no longer assumed to be revealed by etymology and philology, but can best be grasped by understanding how language states (that is, specific linguistic configurations or totalities) change. The ‘nomenclaturist’ position thus becomes an entirely inadequate basis for linguistics.

Langue and Parole

Perhaps the terms which have caused more conceptual difficulties and drawn more criticism of Saussure’s theory than any others, are langue (individual natural language viewed as a structure, or system), and parole (individual speech acts, or acts of language as a process). This conceptual couple introduces the distinction between language as it exists as a more or less coherent structure of differences, and language as it is practised by the community of speakers. While Saussure propose in the Course that a specific linguistic structure is distinct from speech, and while he argued that the basis of language, as a social fact, is to be grasped exclusively at the level of structure, it is also true that nothing enters into the realm of the linguistic structure without first becoming manifest in individual speech acts. More significantly, the very extent of the totality of the structure could only be known with certainty if the totality of speech acts were also known. In this sense, the domain of the structure always remains, for Saussure, more hypothetical than the domain of speech. However, much depends here on whether one looks at speech from an individual, psychological perspective, or whether one focuses on the whole community of speakers. In the first case, to view language through the speech of the individual qua individual is one thing; to view it through the speech acts of the whole community is quite another. Saussure’s point is that language is fundamentally a social institution, and that, therefore, the individualist approach is inadequate for the linguist.

Language is always changing. But it does not change at the behest of individuals; it changes over time independently of the speakers’ wills Indeed through a Saussurian optic, individuals are as much formed by language as it is they who form language, and the question arises as to whether such a vision might have implications for other disciplines in the social sciences. In fact, his was the case for those theorists working under the rubric of ‘structuralism’ in the 1960s.

Saussure and the Human Sciences

With the emergence of the Saussurian model in the human sciences, the researcher’s attention was turned away from documenting historical events, or recording the facts of human behaviour, and towards the notion of human action as a system of meaning. Such was the result of emphasising, at the broader societal level, the arbitrary nature of the sign and the corresponding idea of language as a system of conventions. Whereas a search for intrinsic facts and their effects had hitherto been made (as exemplified when the historian supposed that human beings need food to survive, just as they need language to communicate with each other – therefore events turned out this way), now the socio-cultural system at a given moment in history, becomes the object of study. This is a system within which the researcher is also inscribed, much as the linguist is inscribed in language. A greater concern to be more reflexive thus also becomes the order of the day.

For many, like the anthropologist Claude Le´vi-Strauss, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, or the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as for Roland Barthes in literary criticism and semiotics, Saussurian insights initially paved the way for a more rigorous and systematic approach to human sciences – an approach that would genuinely attempt to take seriously the primacy of the socio-cultural domain for human beings. Just as Saussure had emphasised the importance of not studying speech acts in isolation from the system of conventions which gave them currency, so it was deemed inadequate to study social and cultural facts independently of the social or cultural system which gave them currency. Society or culture at a given state of development, and not discrete individual human actions in the past or present, became the focus of study. Whereas the generation before (the generation of Sartre) had sought to discover the natural (intrinsic) basis of human society in history – much as nineteenth-century linguists had sought to reveal the natural elements of language – the structuralist generation’s effort was directed towards showing how the differential relations of the elements in the system – whether the latter be a series of texts, a kinship system, or the milieu of fashion photography – produced a meaning, or meanings, and thus had to be ‘read’ and interpreted. In other words, the study of socio-cultural life is seen to entail deciphering signs through focusing on their differential value, and not on their putative substantive value (often equated with the ‘natural’), and also paying attention to the symptomatic level of signification, as well as to the explicit level.


Structure, as inspired by Saussure’s theory of language, can thus refer to the ‘value’ of elements in a system, or context, and not to their mere physical, or natural existence. Now it has become clear that the physical existence of an entity is complicated by the effects of the linguistic and cultural milieu. Structure, then, is a reminder that nothing social or cultural (and this includes, of course, the individual) exists as a ‘positive’, essential element outside it in isolation from all other elements. Such an approach reverses the one taken in the political philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where the biological individual is placed at the origin of social life. And just as this philosophy saw no society as existing prior to the individual, so it also denied the relative autonomy of language.

Probably the main objection that can be raised against the translation of Saussure’s emphasis on structure into the study of social and cultural life, is that it does not make sufficient allowance for the role of practice and individual autonomy. Seeing human freedom as a product of social life, rather than as the origin, or cause, of social life, has made it seem, in the eyes of some observers, to be quite limited. A conservative bias, denying the possibility of change, would thus be the consequence of structure While this problem is still unresolved, it is perhaps important to recognise the difference between the freedom of the hypothetical individual (whose very social existence would be equivalent to a limit on freedom), and a society of free individuals, where freedom would be the result of social life understood as a structure of differences. Or, rather, we could say that perhaps researchers should begin to explore the idea that, to paraphrase Saussure: Society is a system of freedoms without positive terms. On this reading, there would be no essential, or substantial freedom – no freedom incarnate in the individual in a state of nature.

1 Cf. ‘I am more and more aware of the immense amount of work required to show the linguist what he is doing. . . . The utter inadequacy of current terminology, the need to reform it and, in order to do that, to demonstrate what sort of object language is, continually spoil my pleasure in philology’ (Sausssure 1964: 95, cited in Culler 1986: 24).

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Arnauld, Antoine and Lancelot, Claude (1975), The Port-Royal Grammar: general and rational grammar, ed. and trans. Jacques Rieux and Bernard E. Rollin, The Hague: Mouton.
Culler, Jonathan (1986), Ferdinand de Saussure, Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press.
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1976), Cours de linguistique ge´ne´rale, ed. Tullio de Mauro, Paris: Payot. In English as Saussure (1993) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris, London: Duckworth.
Saussure, Ferninand de (1986), Letter of 4 January 1894, in ‘Lettres de F. de Saussure a` Antoine Meillet’, Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 21 (1964), 95, cited in Culler, Jonathan (1986), Ferdinand de Saussure, Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press.

Saussure’s Major Writings
(1993) Course in General Linguistics, trans Roy Harris, London: Duckworth.
(1976) Cours de linguistique ge´ne´rale, critical edn Tullio de Mauro Paris: Payot.
(1967) Cours de linguistique ge´ne´rale, 2 vols, critical edn by Rudolf Engler, Wiesbaden: O. Harrassowitz.

Further Reading
Benveniste, E´ mile, (1971), ‘Saussure after half a century’ in Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary E. Meek, Miami Linguistics Series No. 8, Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press.
Culler, Jonathan (1986), Ferdinand de Saussure, Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press.
Gadet, Franc¸oise (1989), Saussure and Contemporary Culture, trans. George Elliott, London: Hutchinson Radius.
Harris, Roy (1987), Reading Saussure: A Critical Commentary on the Cours de linguistique ge´ne´rale, London: Duckworth.

Holdcroft, David (1991), Saussure: Signs, System and Arbitrariness, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Saunders, Carol, ed. (2004), The Cambridge Companion to Saussure, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Strobinski, Jean (1979), Words upon Words, the Anagrams of Ferdinand de Saussure,
trans. Olivia Emmet, New Haven and London: Yale University
Thibaut, Paul (1996), Re-reading Saussure: the Dynamics of Signs in Social Life,
London: Routledge.


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  1. Excellent


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