Structural linguistics was developed by Ferdinand de Saussure between 1913 and 1915, although his work wasn’t translated into English and popularized until the late 1950s. Before Saussure, language was studied in terms of the history of changes in individual words over time, or diachronically, and it was assumed that words somehow imitated the objects for which they stood. Saussure realized that we need to understand language, not as a collection of individual words with individual histories but as a structural system of relationships among words as they are used at a given point in time, or synchronically. This is the structuralist focus. Structuralism doesn’t look for the causes or origins of language (or of any other phenomenon). It looks for the rules that underlie language and govern how it functions: it looks for the structure.
In order to differentiate between the structure that governs language and the millions of individual utterances that are its surface phenomena, Saussure called the structure of language langue (the French word for language), and he called the individual utterances that occur when we speak parole (the French word for speech). For the structuralist, of course, langue is the proper object of study; parole is of interest only in that it reveals langue. And these terms are used, as well, by structuralists who study literature: as we’ll see later, structuralist critics look for the langue that structures individual literary works and that structures the system of literature as a whole.
The components of a structure are not merely a collection of independent items: they form a working unit because they exist in relation to one another. They interact. And we are able to perceive those components, as Saussure noted in terms of the structure of language, only because we perceive their difference from one another. Difference simply means that our ability to identify an entity (such as an object, a concept, or a sound) is based on the difference we perceive between it and all other entities. For example, if we believed that all objects were the same color, we wouldn’t need the word red (or blue or green) at all. Red is red only because we perceive it to be different from blue and green. According to structuralism, the human mind perceives difference most readily in terms of opposites, which structuralists call binary oppositions: two ideas, directly opposed, each of which we understand by means of its opposition to the other. For example, we understand up as the opposite of down, female as the opposite of male, good as the opposite of evil, black as the opposite of white, and so on.
Furthermore, unlike his predecessors, Saussure argued that words do not simply refer to objects in the world for which they stand. Instead, a word is a linguistic sign consisting, like the two sides of a coin, of two inseparable parts: signifier + signified. A signifier is a “sound-image” (a mental imprint of a linguistic sound); the signified is the concept to which the signifier refers. Thus, a word is not merely a sound-image (signifier), nor is it merely a concept (signified). A sound image becomes a word only when it is linked with a concept. Furthermore, the relationship between signifier and signified, Saussure observed, is arbitrary: there is no necessary connection between a given sound-image and the concept to which it refers. There is no reason why the concept of a tree should be rep‑ resented by the sound-image “tree” instead of by the sound-image “arbre”; the concept of a book is just as well represented by the sound-image “livre” as the sound-image “book.” The relationship between signifier and signified is merely a matter of social convention: it’s whatever the community using it says it is.
The idea that signifiers, or linguistic sound-images, do not refer to things in the world but to concepts in our mind is crucial for structuralism. As we noted earlier, structuralists believe that our perceptions of the world result from the conceptual framework that is an innate feature of human consciousness. We don’t discover the world; we “create” it according to innate structures within the human mind. Given that language is the most fundamental of these structures, and the one through which our beliefs are passed on from one generation to the next, it makes sense that it is through language that we learn to conceive and perceive the world the way we do. This is why learning a new language carries with it the potential to learn to see the world in new ways.
If native speakers of English learn to speak an Eskimo language, for example, they may learn to see snow quite differently, for they will learn that there are many different words for what English calls snow, depending on the size and texture of the flake, the density of the snowfall, the angle at which it falls, the direction from which the storm originates, and so on. Similarly, if native speakers of English learn to speak Spanish, they may learn a new way to view the idea of human existence, for they will learn that Spanish has two different verbs for the English verb to be: ser and estar. Ser means “to be” in the sense of what one permanently considers oneself. One uses ser to say “I am a human being,” “I am a woman,” “I am Mexican,” and the like. One uses estar to make statements about one’s changeable state of being, such as “I am at the supermarket” or “I am a cab driver.” And one uses neither ser nor estar to say “I am hungry” or “I am sleepy,” for in Spanish these are not considered states of being. In Spanish one has hunger or sleepiness—tengo hambre or tengo sueño—but these are not states of being. Thus, when speaking a particular language, our attention is drawn to particular aspects of our experience, or more precisely, particular experiences are generated by that language. In other words, our language mediates our experience of our world and ourselves: it determines what we see when we look around us and when we look at ourselves.
The belief in the primacy of language in structuring human experience is of great interest to many students of human culture. Before we examine structuralist approaches to literature, let’s take a brief look at two related areas of cultural study in which structuralist thought plays an important role: structural anthropology, which is the comparative study of human cultures, and semiotics, which is the study of sign systems, especially as they apply to the analysis of popular culture. Examples of structuralist activity in both these areas can help us grasp the structuralist enterprise as a whole and prepare us to better understand its applications to literature.