The Structure Of Language

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Reciprocal Movement (RM) Is What Saussure Identifies As The “Structure” Of The Word

With his analysis of language, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure contributed greatly to the modern structuralist school of thought. Saussure instituted into language analysis the working concept of wholeness. Prior to Saussure, language was studied as an independent phenomena arising out of the individual circumstances of various cultural groups. Using wholeness as a working concept was a new idea for language theory but it was not a new idea for the already well established tradition of organic sociology as it was expressed in the works of Comte and Durkheim. This organic connection became evident in what Saussure took to be the linguistic principles at work in all languages. The purpose of language study was in fact to reveal these principles.

Saussure argued that language was a collective, orderly, and coherent phenomenon. Language, therefore, could be studied as if it were a social system that was susceptible to understanding and explanation as a whole. Saussure thought of individual linguistic units as a patterned wholeness. Words, he argued, were devoid of content when studied in isolation. Their meaningful content arose only when they were studied in relation to one another. He based his conception of the linguistic unit on the assumption that where there was meaning – in a word or sentence – there would also be structure. This idea was in conflict with the nominalist view of language that took words to be mere “names” of things. For instance:

“Some people regard language, when reduced to its elements, as a naming-process only – a list of words, each corresponding to the thing that it names. This conception is open to criticism at several points. It assumes that ready-made ideas exist before words; it does not tell us whether a name is vocal or psychological in nature (arbor, for instance, can be considered from either viewpoint); finally, it lets us assume that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation – an assumption that is anything but true. But this rather naive approach can bring us near the truth by showing us that the linguistic unit is a double entity, one formed by the associating of two terms.” [Michael Lane, Introduction to Structuralism, 1970, p.43]

Saussure goes on to explain how this “double entity” must be conceived. The word, according to Saussure, unites a concept and a sound-image and not a thing and a name. In this sense, the sound-aspect of a word becomes inseparable from the meaning content of the word and the reverse also holds true. This double movement, sound acquiring conceptual meaning as conceptual meaning becomes differentiated by sound, is what Saussure identifies as the “structure” of the word. Saussure, in the following diagrams illustrates this idea.

In the diagram below imagine three circles, one around each of the joined identifiers. Then imagine an up and down arrow on each side of each circle—that’s six arrows, three pointing up, three down– and you will have a mental image of Saussure’s diagram.

concept “tree” picture of tree
Sound-image arbor arbor

[Ferdinand De Saussure, Course In General Linguistics, Translated by Wade Baskin, 1959, p. 66-67.]

In these diagrams we see a representation of the working concept of wholeness as it becomes operationally defined in the linguistic structure of the word. Here the two elements of sound and word become intimately united, as each refers to the other. Saussure, by calling the sound-image of a word the signifier, differentiates the meaning of the word into its two components, the signifier and signified. Together, the signifier and the signified combine to form the sign i.e., the whole as differentiated from its opposing elements.

Language Depends On The Word For Its Field Of Signification-The Word Depends On Language For Its Meaning-Reciprocal Movement

The “Fixed Nature Of Wholes” Along The Synchronic Axis Of Language

Once Saussure had delineated the structure of the word, he also delineated the structure of language. For Saussure, the sign relates to language in the same way as the signifier relates to the signified. In the same way that the signifier is arbitrarily connected to the signified (any sound may be used to designate a particular meaning), the sign is arbitrarily connected to language. The word, as opposed to being a name for an object, is a differentiation in the set of linguistic units that, when taken as a whole, constitute a language. A word acquires its meaning, according to Saussure, in the way it differentiates itself from the whole, the whole being the collective expression of an entire language. We find here the same double movement constituting the meaning of the sign, as it relates to language, as we did in the relationship of signifier to signified. In this way we see how the word becomes dependent on language for its meaning and language becomes dependent on the word for its “field of signification.” Thus the arbitrary character of the sign, in Saussure’s conception of language as a rule driven and self contained system, is what permits order and meaning to arise in the world. John Sturrock, in his book Structuralism and Since, underscores this distinction when he says:

“The extremely important consequence which Saussure draws from this twofold arbitrariness is that language is a system not of fixed, unalterable essences but of labile forms. It is a system of relations between its constituent units, and those units are themselves constituted by the differences that mark them off from other, related units. They cannot be said to have any existence within themselves, they are dependent for their identity on their fellows. It is the place which a particular unit, be it phonetic or semantic, occupies in the linguistic system which alone determines its value. Those values shift because there is nothing to hold them steady; the system is fundamentally arbitrary in respect of nature and what is arbitrary may be changed.” [John Sturrock, Structuralism From Levi-Strauss to Derrida, 1979, p.10]

It is in this characterization of language that Saussure bases his distinction between langue and parole. For Saussure, parole becomes the particular acts of linguistic expression in speech while langue becomes the component aspect of language that generates meaning through the internal play of differences. In this respect language forms a system of contrasts, distinctions, and oppositions that come together in the form of pure values which, as Sturrock points out, are solely determined by how they differ from each other as they are produced in the system of language. Language, for Saussure, becomes a theoretical system operating according to linguistic rules which speakers of language must obey if they are to communicate. It becomes the job of linguistics to discover the mechanisms which make language possible.

Language, Saussure informs us, is always inherited. Language forms a corpus of linguistic rules arising out of ahistorical conditions that allow a person to understand and be understood. To the extent that language succeeds in this endeavor, it is collectively determined and not susceptible to arbitrary change. This aspect of language is what Saussure calls the synchronic nature of language and it is in this synchronic nature of language where we encounter for the first time the idea of the “fixed nature of wholes.”


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