Referring to two aspects of language examined by Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the twentieth century, langue denotes a system of internalized, shared rules governing a national language’s vocabulary, grammar, and sound system; parole designates actual oral and written communication by a member or members of a particular speech community. Saussure’s understanding of the nature of language and his belief that scholarship should focus on investigating the abstract systematic principles of language instead of researching etymologies and language philosophy led to a revolution in the field of linguistics.
The discussion concerning langue and parole was first suggested by Ferdinand de Saussure and popularized in his Cours de Linguistique Générale (Course in General Linguistics), a series of Saussure’s university lectures collected by his students and published posthumously in 1916. Abandoning the mindset, goals and objectives of historical linguistics, Saussure advocated a synchronic examination of language. Not interested in studying a particular language or the linguistic habits of any one member of a given speech community, Saussure sought to examine language in general and to identify the systems or rules and conventions according to which language functions. Saussure’s views on language influenced linguistics during the twentieth century, and his imprint can be found in theoretical works discussing phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, pragmatics and especially semantics. Indeed, the distinction between langue and parole forms an important part of the theoretical basis of structuralism.
A popular lecturer at the University of Geneva, Saussure suggested ideas and concepts that fascinated his students, yet he did not personally write an authoritative guide to his views. Two colleagues of his, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, collected and edited student notes from three occasions during 1906–11 when he delivered his lectures, publishing the assembled remarks under the title Cours de Linguistique Générale in 1916. In the 1990s newly-edited versions of student notes based on Saussure’s lectures, along with translations into English, appeared. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is still disagreement about a number of Saussure’s statements, and problems surrounding the fragmented nature of some of the student notes have not been fully resolved.
Through Cours de Linguistique Générale, Saussure’s views concerning language and the study of language were introduced to scholars throughout the world. Saussure rejected the nineteenth-century notion that linguistics should be primarily historical and comparative, and disagreed lanvigorously with the idea that substantial effort should be made to identify, codify and promote the standard form of any national language; he felt it was more worthwhile to focus attention on describing language as it exists at a given point in time, and believed that this activity could be conducted in an impartial manner.
For Saussure, three aspects of language could be potential objects of consideration in linguistic study, and he used the French words langage, langue and parole to designate these aspects. Langage refers to the anatomical ability and psychological need or urge of humans to create a system of linguistic signs for expressing ideas. Langue represents a system of rules, usages, meanings and structures that are products of the human ability to create language and are shared by members of a specific speech community. Parole is often equated with speech. It is the concrete realisation of a collectively-internalised system and also reflects the personality, creativity and physiological capabilities of an individual speaker.
Overall Saussure paid little attention to langage, considering it the subject matter of other fields of inquiry, and he regarded parole as too idiosyncratic. Instead, he believed that linguistics should study langue in order to gain a picture of the comprehensive, complex, ordered assemblage of sounds, words and syntactical units. Making use of a concept suggested in the writings of the French sociologist and philosopher Émile Durkheim, Saussure viewed language as a social fact. According to Saussure, language is acquired through the socialisation process; it is not created through a speaker’s ingenuity or experimentation. Moreover, he felt that an individual’s potential influence on language is minimal. An individual might create a memorable turn of phrase, but that person is unable to affect the overall structure or sound system of a given language. Finally, speakers can manipulate language in minor ways, but language imposes its rules, order and possibilities on all speakers without exception.
As part of their intuitive knowledge of langue, members of a speech community share possession and comprehension of a body of signs (signes). According to Saussure, a sign consists of two components: a signifier (signifiant) and a signified (signifié). Linguistic signs can encompass words, units of grammar, and expressions. The signifier is a sound or series of sounds, and the signified is the meaning that the sounds represent. Saussure was careful to note that signs are actually linked to clusters of meanings or associations and not to specific things. For example, the word ‘house’ does not refer to a specific object in the world but rather to a concept involving images and associations that speakers have in mind when they say or write the word. Furthermore, the connection between the series of sounds and the cluster of images and emotions is arbitrary. The words ‘girl’, ‘Mädchen’, and ‘niña’ might all refer to a female child, but there is no direct connection between the sounds of each word and the meaning. Even so, speakers form a strong connection in their minds between sounds and meaning.
Saussure stated that langage, the psychological and physiological faculty to produce meaningful language, does not manifest itself solely in the creation of individual sounds, words or units of meaning, and he stressed that parole, individual communication within a speech community, does not take on the form of a string of unrelated utterances. Langage becomes a reality in langue – and ultimately in parole – through the rules governing the use and organisation of signs. These linguistic conventions are expressed in the form of syntagmatic and paradigmatic rules, two types of systems that enable language to convey messages by organising and sequencing the building blocks of sound and meaning. Syntagmatic relationships refer to the limitations governing sequences of sounds, parts of words, and complete words offered by a given national language to create meaning. Paradigmatic relationships concern the existence of words of similar meaning or grammatical form that can substitute for each other in a given context.
Saussure’s views concerning langue and parole, as well as his understanding of the purpose and goals of linguistics, have exerted immense influence on linguists in Europe and North America. Leonard Bloomfield, Franz Boas and Edward Sapir adopted Saussure’s method of objective, synchronic language study as the basis for their descriptive analyses of various North American Indian languages. Bloomfield also incorporated elements of Saussure’s innovative teachings into his writings, most notably Language (1933). Roman Jakobson and other members of the Prague School of Linguistics were inspired by Saussure as they investigated sound systems and developed theories of phonetics and phonology. On occasion, agreement or disagreement with Saussure’s beliefs can be traced back to an individual’s political and philosophical leanings. The Marxist linguist Mikhail Bakhtin disapproved of Saussure’s efforts to distinguish individual production of language (parole) from collective knowledge and linguistic awareness (langue), a division that, to Bakhtin’s way of thinking, isolates an individual from society; he was much more in favour of a theory of language that portrays speech as dependent on, and a product of, a specific social context. Stimulated by Saussure’s discussion of the sign and its two components – the signified and the signifier – Roland Barthes investigated the contrast between the message of our speech and its form and articulation, and Kenneth Pike advanced his system of tagmemics, a type of grammatical analysis developed in the 1950s. Noam Chomsky, too, responded to Saussure’s ideas when he transformed Saussure’s concepts of langage, langue and parole into ‘language capacity’, ‘competence’ and ‘performance’, and achieved a new understanding of the Saussurean concepts. Twenty-first-century linguists remain attracted to Saussure’s concept of the dual nature of language and to his theory of meaning.
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1996). Premier Cours de Linguistique Générale (1907): d’après les cahiers d’Albert Riedlinger. French ed. Eisuke Komatsu. English ed. and trans. George Wolf. Oxford: Pergamon.
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1997). Deuxième Cours de Linguistique Générale (1908– 1909): d’après les cahiers d’AlbertRiedlinger et Charles Patois. French ed. Eisuke Komatsu. English ed. and trans. George Wolf. Oxford: Pergamon.
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1993). Troisième Cours de Linguistique Générale (1910– 1911): d’après les cahiers d’Émile Constantin. French ed. Eisuke Komatsu. English ed. and trans. Roy Harris. Oxford: Pergamon.
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1966). Course in General Linguistics. Cours de Linguistique Générale. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill. First French edition 1916.
Chomsky, Noam (1964). Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. The Hague: Mouton.
Harris, Roy (1987). Reading Saussure: A Critical Commentary on the ‘Cours de Linguistique Générale’. London: Duckworth.
Harris, Roy (2004). Saussure and His Interpreters. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Koerner, E. F. K. (1973). Ferdinand de Saussure: The Origin and Development of His Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
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Source: Key Ideas in Linguistics and the. Philosophy of Language. Edited by Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge. Edinburgh University Press. 2009.