Saussure Ferdinandde

Saussure Ferdinandde

(1857-1913) Swiss theorist who is generally regarded as the founder of modern structural linguistics. He was also a major influence on the wider intellectual movement known as STRUCTURALISM. His seminal work, Cours de linguistique générale (1916), was published posthumously, compiled from notes taken by his students. In this, SEMIOLOGY, the general study of all SIGN systems, is first distinguished from the more specific study of language. A number of interrelated distinctions are then introduced which have become central in theoretical linguistics and are often the taking-off points in structuralism:
  1. the distinction between LANGUE AND PAROLE, i.e. between the rules of language and actual instances of produced speech;
  2. the distinction between SYNCHRONY AND DIACHRONY, i.e. between the study of language without reference to the past, only as an existing system of relationships, and the study of changes in language;
  3. the distinction between SYNTAGMATIC AND PARADIGMATIC (earlier called ‘associative’) relationships, i.e. between the combination of words in a particular chain of speech and the relationships of any particular term with related ‘absent’ terms within the language;
  4. the distinction between SIGNIFIER AND SIGNIFIED, i.e. between the term (its acoustical or written form) and the concept (the idea) signified by the term.

Other important notions in Saussure's linguistics are an emphasis on the arbitrary character of the relationship between the signifier and the signified, and the idea that the status or meaning or ‘value’ of each linguistic unit is established only in relation to all other units, i.e. is internal to the language, rather than in terms of an inherently determining phenomenon external to the language. Thus, in Saussure's well-known dictum, in languages ‘there are only DIFFERENCES’.

The importance of Saussure's approach in launching theoretical linguistics on its modern course is undeniable, although the absence of any systematic treatment of SYNTAX or PRAGMATICS in his work left gaps to be repaired by later theorists such as CHOMSKY. Because the emphasis in Saussure's work is on langue rather than parole, it is not surprising that this has been seen as leading to a onesided account of language. When employed analogically as in structuralism, this conception of language may also give rise to a onesided account of social structures. Finally, whilst an emphasis on internal relations within sign systems is consonant with an emphasis on the importance of understanding particular frames of reference (e.g. the study of particular scientific PARADIGMS, PROBLEMATIQUES, FORMS OF LIFE), it has been criticized for paving the way for conceptions of INCOMMENSURABILITY, and structuralist and poststructuralist conceptions of the ‘death of the subject’. On the other hand, poststructuralist theorists such as DERRIDA who utilize Saussure's work see him as failing to realize fully the philosophical radicalism of his conceptions, given that it is not just a matter of the internality of the relation between signifier and signified that makes representation suspect, but that relations of difference are also always 'slippery’. See also POSTSTRUCTURALISM.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000