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Ferdinand de Saussure “Course in General Linguistics”

Saussure, Ferdinand de 2011. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Columbia University Press. saussure-signIntroduction

But what is language [langue]? It is not to be confused with human speech [langage], of which it is only a definite part, though certainly an essential one. It is both a social product of the faculty of speech and a collection of necessary conventions that have been adopted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise that faculty. Taken as a whole, speech is many-sided and heterogeneous; straddling several areas simultaneously – physical, physiological, and psychological – it belongs both to the individual and to society; we cannot put it into any category of human facts, for we cannot discover its unity. Language, on the contrary, is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification. (9)

[…] language is a convention, and the the nature of the sign that is agreed upon does not matter. […] we can say that what is natural to mankind is not oral speech but the faculty of constructing a language, i.e. a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas. (10)

Execution is always individual, and the individual is always its master: I shall call the executive side speaking [parole]. […] If we could embrace the sum of word-images stored in the minds of all individuals, we could identify the social bond that constitutes language. (13)

Characteristics of language:

1)      Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts. It can be localized in the limited segment of the speaking-circuit where an auditory image becomes associated with a concept. It is the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself; it exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community. […] (14)

2)      Language, unlike speaking, is something that we can study separately. […] We can dispense with the other elements of speech; indeed, the science of language is possible only if the other elements are excluded. (15)

3)      Whereas speech is heterogeneous, language, as defined, is homogeneous. It is a system of signs in which the only essential thing is the union of meanings and sound-images, and in which both parts of the sign are psychological. (15)

4)      Language is concrete, no less than speaking; and this is a help in our study of it. Linguistic signs, though basically psychological, are not abstractions; associations which bear the stamp of collective approval – and which added together constitute language – are realities that have their seat in the brain. (15)

Finally, speaking is what causes language to evolve: impressions gathered from listening to others modify our linguistic habits. Language and speaking are then interdependent; the former is both the instrument and the product of the latter. But their interdependence does not prevent their being two absolutely distinct things. (19)

One must always distinguish between what is internal and what is external. In each instance one can determine the nature of the phenomenon by applying this rule: everything that changes the system in any way is internal. (23)

But the tyranny of writing goes even further. By imposing itself upon the masses, spelling influences and modifies language. This happens onyl in highly literate languages where written texts play an important role. Then visual images lead to wrong pronunciations; such mistakes are really pathological. (31)


Part One: General Principles

The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses. (66)

The linguistic sign is then a two-sided psychological entity […] The two elements [concept and sound-image] are intimately united, and each recalls the other. […] I call the combination of a concept and a sound-image a sign […] (66-67)

I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [signifié] and signifier [signifiant]; the last two terms have the advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from each other and from the whole of which they are parts. (67)

The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. Since I mean by sign the whole that results from the associating of the signifier with the signified, I can simply say: the linguistic sign is arbitrary. (67)

In fact, every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior or – what amounts to the same thing – on convention. […] Signs that are wholly arbitrary realize better thant the others the ideal of the semiological process; that is why language, the most complex and universal of all systems of expression, is also the most characteristic; in this sense linguistics can become the master-pattern for all branches of semiology although language is only one particular semiological system. (68)

The word arbitrary also calls for comment. The term should not imply that the choice of the signifier is left entirely to the speaker (we shall see below that the individual does not have the power to change a sign in any way once it has become established in the linguistic community); I mean that it is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified. (68-69)

The signifier, being auditory, is unfolded solely in time from which it gets the following characteristics: (a) it represents a span, and (b) the span is measurable in a single dimension; it is a line. […] In contrast to visual isgnifiers (nautical signals, etc) which can offer simultaneous groupings in several dimensions, auditory signifiers have at their command only the dimension of time. (70)

The singifier, though to all appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it. […] No individual, even if he willed it, could modify in any way at all the choice that has been made; and what is more, the community itself cannot control so much as a single word; it is bound to the existing language. (71)

No society, in fact, knows or has even known language other than as a product inherited from preceding generations, and one to be accepted as such. That is why the question of speech is not important as it is generally assumed to be. The question is not even worth asking; the only real object of linguistics is the normal, regular life of an existing idiom. A particular language-state is always the product of historical forces, and these forces explain why the sign is unchangeable, i.e. why it resists any arbitrary subsitution. (71-72)

Again, it might be added that reflection does not enter into the active use of an idiom – speakers are largely unconscious of the laws of language; and if they are unaware of them, how could they modify them? (72)

[…] language is a system of arbitrary signs and lacks the necessary basis, the solid ground for discussion. (73)

A language consitutes a system. In this one respect […] language is not completely arbitrary but is ruled to some extent by logic […] (73)

[…] in language […] everyone participates at all times, and that is why it is constantly being influenced by all. This capital fact suffices to show the impossibility of revolution. (74)

Time, which ensures the continuity of language, wields another influence apparently contradictory to the first: the more or less rapid change of linguistic signs. […] the sign is exposed to alteration because it perpetuates itself. […] That is why the principle of change is based on the principle of continuity. (74)

Regardless of what the forces of change are, whether in isolation or in combination, they always result in a shift in the relationship between the singified and the signifier. (75)

Unlike language, other human institutions – customs, laws, etc – are all based in varying degrees on the natural relations of things; all have of necessity adapted the means employed to the ends pursued. (75)

The causes od contuinity are a priori within the scope of the observer, but the causes of change in time are not. (77)

Language is speech less than speaking. It is the wholes set of linguistic habits which allow an individual to understand and to be understood. But this definition still leaves the language outside its social context; it makes language something artificial since it includes only the individual part of reality; for the realization of language, a community of speakers [masse parlante] is necessary. (77)

Doubtless it is not on a purely logical basis that group psychology operates; one must consider everything that deflects reason in actual contacts between individuals. (78)

If we considered language in time, without the community of speakers – imagine an isolated individual living for several centuries – we probably would notice no change; time would not influence language. Conversely, if we considered the community of speakers without considering time, we would not see the effect of the social forces that influence language. (78)

Everything that relates to the static side of our science is synchronic; everything that has to do with evolution is diachronic. Similarly, synchrony and diachrony designate respectively a language-state and an evolutionary phase. (81)

The first thing that strikes us when we study the facts of language is that their succession in time does not exist insofar as the speaker is concerned. He is confronted with a state. That is why the linguist who wishes to understand a state must discard all knowledge of everything that produced it and ignore diachrony. He can enter the mind of speakers only by completely suppressing the past. (81)

Since changes never affect the system as a whole but rather one or another of its elements, they can be studied only outside the system. Each alteration doubtless has its countereffect on the system, but the initial fact affected only one point; there is no inner bond between the initial fact and the effect that it may subsequently produce on the whole system. (87)

One consequence of the radical antinomy between the evolutionary and the static fact is that all notions associated with one or the other are to the same extent mutually irreducible. Any notion will point up to this truth. The synchronic and diachronic „phenomenon“, for example, have nothing in common. One is a relation between simultaneous elements, the other the substitution of one element for another in time, an event. (91)

The synchronic law is general but not imperative. Doubtless it is imposed on individuals by the weight of collective usage, but here I do not have in mind an obligation on the part of speakers. I mean that in language no force guarantees the maintenance of a regularity when established at some point. (92)

Diachrony, on the contrary, suppoeses a dynamic force through which an effect is produced, a thing executed. But this imperativeness is not sufficient to warrant applying the concept of law to evolutionary facts; we can speak of law only when a set of facts obeys the same rule, and in spite of certain appearances to the contrary, diachronic events are always accidental and particular. (93)

It takes on the appearance of a „law“ only because it is realized within a system. The rigid arrangement of the system creates the illusion that the diachronic fact obeys the same rules as the synchronic fact. (93)

Diachronic facts are the nparticular; a shift in a system is brought about by events which not only are outside the system, but are isolated and form no system among themseleves. To summarize: synchronic facts, no matter what they are, evidence a certain regularity but are in no way imperative; diachronic facts, on the contrary, force themselves upon language but are in no way general. (95)

[…] everything diachronic in language is diachronic only by virtue of speaking. It is in speaking that the germ of all change is found. […] An evolutionary fact is always preceded by a fact, or rather by a multitude of similar facts, in the sphere of speaking. (98)

Synchronic linguistics will be concerned with the logical and psychological relations that bind together coexisting terms and form a system in the collective mind of speakers. Diachronic linguistics, on the contrary, will study relations that bind together successive terms not perceived by the collective mind but substituted for each other without forming a system. (99-100)


Part Two: Synchronic Linguistics

We see that in semiological systems like language, where elements hold each other in equilibrium in accordance with fixed rules, the notion of identity blends with that of value and vice versa. (110)

There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. (112)

The characteristic role of language with respect to thought is not to create a material phonic means for expressing ideas but to serve as a link between thought and sound, under conditions that of necessity bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units. (112)

Linguistics then works in the borderland where the elements of sound and thought combine; their combinations produces a form, not a substance. (113)

[…] even outside language all values are apparently governed by the same paradoxical principle. They are always composed:

1)      of a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined; and

2)      of similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined. (115)

The conceptual side of value is made up solely of relations and differences with respect to the other terms of language, and the same can be said of its material side. The important thing in the word is not the sound alone but the phonic differences that make it possible to distinguish this word from all the others, for differences carry signification. (118)

The means by which the sign is produced is completely unimportant, for it does not affect the system […] Whether I make the letters in white or black, raised or engraved, with pen or chisel – all this is of no importance with respect to their signification. (120)

But the statement that everything in language is negative is true only if the signified and the signifier are considered separately; when we consider the sign in its totality, we have something positive in its own class. (120)

When we compare signs – positive terms – with each other, we can no longer speak of difference […] Between them there is only opposition. The entire mechanism of language, with which we shall be concerned later, is based on oppositions of this kind and on the phonic and conceptual differences that they imply. (121)

Applied to units, the principle of differentiation can be stated in this way: the characteristics of the unit blend with the unit itself. In language, as in any semiological system, whatever distinguishes one sign from the others constitutes it. Difference makes character just as it makes value and the unit. (121)

We see that the co-ordinations formed outside discourse differ strikingly from those formed inside discourse. Those formed outside discourse are not supported by linearity. Their seat is in the brain; they are part of the inner storehouse that makes up the language of each speaker. They are associative relations. The syntagmatic relations is in praesentia. It is based on two or more terms that occur in an effective series. Against this, the associative relation unites terms in absentia in a potential mnemonic series. (123)

But we must realize that in the syntagm there is no clear-cut boundary between the language fact, which is a sign of collective usage, and the fact that belongs to speaking and depends on individual freedom. (125)

What is most striking in the organization of language are syntagmatic solidarities; almost all units of language depend on what surrounds them in the spoken chain or on their successive parts. (127)

Everything that relates to language as a system must, I am convinced, be approached from this viewpoint, which has scarcely received the attention of linguists: the limiting of arbitrariness. This is the best possible basis for approaching the study of language as a system. In fact, the whole system of language is based on the irrational principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, which would lead to the worst sort of complication if applied without restriction. But the mind contrives to introduce a principle of order and regularity into certain parts of the mass of signs, and this is the role of relative motivation. If the mechanis of language were entirely rational, it could be studied independently. Since the mechanism of language is but a partial correction of a system that is by nature chaotic, however, we adopt the viewpoint imposed by the very nature of language and study it as it limits arbitrariness. (133)

Word order is unquestionably an abstract entity, but it owes its existence solely to the concrete units that contain it and that flow in a single dimension. To think that there is an incorporeal syntax outside material units distributed in space would be a mistake. (139)

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