“Course in General Linguistics”

Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1915)


John W P Phillips




Ferdinand de Saussure (b 1857) is the founder of modern linguistics.  Although he died in 1913 without having published his mature theory collections of notes from his students who had attended his courses between 1911 and 1913 allowed the publication in 1915 of an edited version of his course, which presented his still developing theory as a complete whole.  This is the text that changed the course of several strands of Humanities and Social Science scholarship throughout the twentieth century.  


Jonathan Culler, in his recommendable “Introduction” to the first English translation of the Course in General Linguistics, points out that de Saussure was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis—or modern psychology) and Emile Durkheim (the founder of modern sociology).  This helps Culler to situate de Saussure properly as one of the most important pioneers in the methodological development of the social sciences and situates his linguistics alongside sociology and psychology, disciplines, according to Culler, with which de Saussure has the closest ties: “These three thinkers not only shared an ability to orient themselves in a mass of disparate facts and to see where and how a suitable object of study might be defined; they shared a sense of the nature of social phenomena [there’s that word again!-jwp], the importance of certain questions, and the inadequacy of previous attempts at explanation” (xi).  The main shift that these thinkers represent is that from the search for origins and ideals, typical of the 19th Century, to the establishment of the notion of systems.  I’ll quote Culler’s account of this point, because I think it is as clear and as relevant as we could wish:

What Freud, Saussure and Durkheim seem to have recognized is that social sciences could make little progress until society was considered a reality in itself: a set of institutions or systems which are more than the contingent manifestations of the spirit or the sum of individual activities.  It is as though they had asked: “what makes individual experience possible? what enables men to perceive not just physical objects but objects with a meaning? what enables them to communicate and act meaningfully?”  And the answer which they postulated was social institutions which, though formed by human activities, are the conditions of experience.  To understand individual experience one must study the social norms which make it possible. (xii).

So rather than measure the phenomena of human experience and interaction in terms of some postulated ideal, these thinkers asked the critical question: how is it possible?  How do we arrive at where we are?  The answer that they postulated was social institutions. 


The Course in General Linguistics was edited by two colleagues of Ferdinand de Saussure who, after his death, compiled notes taken down by his students during three courses he gave over three years 1906-1911.  The extracts we are using for Critical Theory have been selected because of their relevance and because they represent lasting aspects of Saussure’s teaching, especially regarding later developments.  As will be the case with Freud, the hypotheses and postulates taken down and published as The Course were in a constant state of refinement, revision and development.  Indeed, this is one aspect of their lasting value.  Whatever their status, they represent a way of approaching language—a model—that has been productively used, developed and revised by a very wide range of disciplines in different ways.  Some examples follow. 



To assess de Saussure’s place as the founder of modern linguistics we can have a look at what has become known as “the triangle of signification.”  Signification in its broadest schematic sense is generally described as a triadic relation (or three dyadic relations) between A, the sign (e.g., a signifier), B, a concept (or signified), and C the thing referred to (significatum or referent).








          A                                   C



According to traditional accounts, the word (A) signifies the thing (C) by mediating concepts (B).  In the Latin this is yet more explicit: “vox significant rem mediantibus conceptibus,” with vox of course meaning the lead singer of U2 [what?] oh, sorry, “the voice.”  Here the traditional phonocentrism (privileging the voice) that Derrida has been pointing out is manifest and we’ll see that de Saussure, despite his groundbreaking insights, also fails to overcome it.  However, looking at the diagram, Saussure points out that the sign is made up of the two components A+B (word + Concept) and categorizes them as the two sides of a composite of mental elements: “If I hear the name ‘table,’ I shall think of a table; if I think of a table, I shall articulate the name if required” (69-70).  The sign (Saussure’s diagram is at the top of this page) is thus composed of two mental or abstract entities: one corresponding to sensation (the eye or the ear) and the other one corresponding to thought.  The point of the triangle we labeled “C” (referent, significatum, thing) has no place in general linguistics and so is put out of account.  So linguistics after Saussure is concerned with the relation between phonic or graphic elements (images of sound or writing) and semantic elements (elements of meaning).  The relation of this composite—the sign—to possible referents, or things referred to, plays no part in the explanation of how language works.  The relation between word and concept, or signifier and signified, becomes the primary focus.  Saussure’s main contribution, in this respect, is the observation about the arbitrariness of the relation between signifier and signified (word and concept in the traditional jargon).  Simply put, this means that there is neither any necessary nor any natural relation between a sound or a written mark and what it means to those who use it.  The letters C A T bear no natural or necessary relation to the meaning those marks conventionally have in the English language.  Henceforth the study of linguistics will focus on the institutions and systems by virtue of which certain marks correspond to certain meanings. 


The study of so called iconic signs can lead to the temptation to distinguish certain types of supposedly iconic writing from say alphabetical writing.  Iconicity describes any signal, or component of a signal, which is in some way geometrically similar to what it stands for (e.g., the wing design on the British Airways Jumbo Jets).  But the relationship between the two components of the sign, whether it is geometrically similar to some other object or some other sign or not, has its basis in arbitrariness.  Only with Derrida’s notion of iterability do we get a clear understanding of why this must be the case.        


The Four Most Crucial Points


Ultimately there is a connection between these two opposing factors: the arbitrary convention which allows free choice, and the passage of time, which fixes that choice.  It is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition, and because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary.



I. Langue and Parole

This is the distinction that justifies the name of Saussure’s course: General Linguistics.  The notion general indicates that the course will be about language in its entirety: not this or that particular language (Chinese or French) and not this or that aspect (phonetics or semantics), but language generally.  Now this would have been impossible through empirical means because the objects that can be considered linguistic cannot be numbered.  Think of the number of words that have ever existed in all the known languages in the known universe.  Then multiply that by the number of actual sentences or by the number of possible lexical units (like syllables).  Then work out all the as yet unheard of possibilities—future words, future sentences and future languages not yet in existence.  It cannot be done.  If linguistics attempted to examine every fact that related to language the researcher would be faced with a confusing infinity of possible objects.  Saussure’s groundbreaking methodology distinguishes a coherent object for linguistics on the principle of relevance.  His distinction between parole, which is the French word for “speech,” and Langue, which is the French word for “language,” accomplishes this.  Langue denotes the set of interpersonal rules and norms—the institution of language—language as a system.  And parole denotes any actual manifestation of the system in speech or writing, in short, any actual utterance.  You couldn’t have an utterance (which was coherent and meaningful) without the institution of norms that Saussure called langue.  So it is this that forms the object of study for modern linguistics.  Now it should be clear that such an object could not ever be made visible (as a stretch of text can) but you can establish the rules and conditions that make it possible to speak and write in meaningful ways.  The fundamental distinction between langue and parole has been influential for a range of disciplines in the social sciences, allowing us to distinguish institution from event and to analyze institutions quite generally.  You might, therefore, look back at Derrida’s SEC for an inkling of how his notion of event might draw on Saussure’s structuralism while at the same time exceeding it.  Much of contemporary linguistics has, it seems, returned to more empirical modes of analysis (it beats me why anybody should want to sift through endless examples of spoken sentences for statistical analysis) though it is unlikely that any worthwhile study of language could proceed without some notion of system like Saussure’s Langue.


II The Sign           

Saussure understands the basic element of the language system to be the two-sided abstract entity, the sign.


It is very important to understand this as abstract—a psychological impression rather than something actual.  A physical manifestation of writing or the sound that comes out of your mouth when you speak would each time be manifestations of an abstract entity.  If we acknowledge that there can be considerable variation among different handwriting styles, variable sizes and fonts, variable accents among speakers of the same language, we should be able to accept that the mark or sign itself remains abstract (like a triangle in geometry).  The “image acoustique,” then, is a mental image.  And so is the concept.  The top part of a sign has nothing to do with real things, particular referents that it might one day be used to refer to, like a horse or a cat or a tree.  Saussure gives us an indication of how people used to think of language: as a correspondence between word and thing:








The right hand side, though, has nothing at all to do with how language functions—it is irrelevant.  This is what he says: “A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern [image acoustiqueof course we now know that we must extend this to graphematic marks as well—any repeatable image might become a signifier].  The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical.  A sound pattern is the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses” (CGL 66).  So the minimal unit of the language system is the sign, which is made up of two sides—an abstract image of a sensible form (the signifier) and an idea or concept (the signified).












Please notice straight away that this is virtually impossible to picture.  Saussure has to use all kinds of strategies (the quotation marks around the word tree or the image of a tree in another example) in order to get the point across.  The fact is that the concept itself—the signified—does not exist as such in any sensible form.  It is a thought.  Anyway the important thing to keep in mind is Saussure’s next most important contribution—the observation that the relation between the two sides of a sign is arbitrary.  He says: “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary […] The idea of “sister” is not linked by any intrinsic relationship to the succession of sounds s-ö-r which serves as its signifier in French [or s-i-s-t-e-r which serves as its signifier in English]; that it could be represented equally by just any other sequence is proved by differences among languages and by the very existence of different languages: the signified “ox” has as its signifier b-ö-f on one side of the border and o-k-s (Ochs) on the other” (CGL 68).  Only the system, langue, can account for the way arbitrary relations between sounds and concepts come about, so the linguist is constrained to explain the whole system before he can explain how individual meanings come about.  Saussure adds a small qualification on his use of the word arbitrary.  He says: “The term should not imply that the choice of the signifier is left entirely to the speaker; I mean that it is unmotivated, i.e., arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified” (CGL 69).  Later he will add to this point the argument that, “the individual does not have the power to change a sign in any way once it has become established in the linguistic community” (CGL 69).  There are examples, which arguably show that the establishment or institution of signs can be meddled with in a limited way.  Jacques Derrida’s use of the word deconstruction is probably good for designating how this can happen if one accepts that deconstruction operates on institutions (his coinage of the non-word différance might be an example).  However we would have to acknowledge that we are constrained with regard to how much we can change directly by our relatively limited access to social institutions—the smaller an institution is the more easily it can be managed and manipulated.  But the big ones (like global capitalism for instance) would hardly be affected by an individual’s decision to alter it in some way.  Saussure points this out as well:


In this respect [language] is quite unlike other social institutions.  Legal procedures, religious rites, ships’ flags, etc. are systems used only by a number of individuals acting together and for a limited time.  A language, on the contrary, is something in which everyone participates all the time, and that is why it is constantly open to the influence of all.  This key fact is by itself sufficient to explain why a linguistic revolution is impossible.  Of all social institutions, a language accords the least scope for such enterprise.  It is part and parcel of the life of the whole community, and the community’s natural inertia exercises a conservative influence upon it.

Nonetheless to say that language is a product of social forces does not automatically explain why it comes to be constrained in the way it is.  Bearing in mind that a language is always an inheritance from the past, one must add that the social forces in question act over a period of time.  If stability is a characteristic of languages, it is not only because languages are anchored in the community.  They are also anchored in time. (CGL 74).


The question of the socio-historical role of the linguistic sign rewards considerable examination, as recent development in the social sciences show, and once we acknowledge that the “top” part of the sign (the concept) is no less constrained and arbitrarily founded than the “bottom” part (the pattern) we learn to take seriously the historicity of our institutionalized patterns of thinking.  Once again we can link this point up with Heidegger’s Wiederholung—the repetition of the inheritance on the basis of possibilities that have long been forgotten.   If the inheritance—as Derrida strongly suggests—just is repetition, then our access to a more open future would be through the ways in which that repetition can be strategically altered. 



III Relations

Saussure’s most famous statement is the one about how the elements in the linguistic system are related to each other.  In language, he says, “there are only differences without positive terms.”  Saussure distinguishes between meaning and value to get the point across.  “What we find, instead of ideas being given in advance, are values emanating from a linguistic system.  If we say that these values correspond to certain concepts, it must be understood that the concepts in question are purely differential.  That is to say they are concepts defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system.  What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not” (CGL 115).  By value he means to identify a quality that is entirely relative to other values in the system.  The concept of a dog or a cat, a virtue or a crime, gets its value as a linguistic unit entirely relative to the values of all the other linguistic units.  What this means is that no linguistic unit can be regarded as a positive pre-existing entity or idea (whether concept or mark).  Many certainly seem that way.  But the moment you start to explain the meaning of a linguistic mark you find yourself falling into the differentiality that gives it its apparent positivity.  But that positivity is only a matter of its belonging to a system of similar and dissimilar entities.  Dissimilar entities can be exchanged (signifiers for signifieds) and similar entities can be compared (signifiers with other signifiers).  “The content of a word is determined in the final analysis not by what it contains but what exists outside it” (114).



                   SIGNIFIED                SIGNIFIED               SIGNIFIED

          SIGNIFIER                SIGNIFIER               SIGNIFIER



To define a linguistic unit, then, is to specify in what ways it is similar to or different from the other units with which it shares the differential system.  Two signs a and b are not, despite appearances, grasped positively by our consciousness.  We grasp the difference between a and b etc.  It is for this reason, Saussure says, that each sign “remains free to change in accordance with laws quite unconnected with their signifying function” (116).  So the two terms arbitrary and differential are correlates, according to which principle Saussure can say that, “no linguistic item can ever be based, ultimately, upon anything other than its non-coincidence with the rest” (116).  This what also allows considerable flexibility in relations—a definite play between signifiers and between signifiers and signifieds, their difference.


IV Synchrony and Diachrony   

The distinction between diachronic linguistics (which studies the way languages change through time) and synchronic linguistics (which studies language generally by aiming to reconstruct the system as a functioning whole) has enabled linguists to establish a viable object of study.  The point is that the relevant relations are synchronic ones—the units determined by their differential values.  Consideration of temporal factors would get in the way, because there are all kinds of linguistic factors that might once have pertained but which no longer have a function.  Saussure’s example is the French word pas.  Today the signifier has two quite different signifieds, depending on context: it can be the noun pas (step, as in le pas au-delà—“the step beyond”) or simply the negative adverb (as in il n’y a pas de hors-texte—“there is no(thing) outside (of) the text” [tricky one to translate, that]).  Both uses derive from a single source way back in French linguistic history but that relation is no longer functional in the system.  Arbitrariness has reasserted itself in this case.  So the distinction allows us to establish a theoretical object (the synchronic system) on the basis of relations that obtain among units and which give them their value and function at any given time.     



All the now venerable and much practiced studies of sign systems in general (from fashion to advertising, cinema, cities, theatre, TV and popular fiction) have their origin in Saussure’s general linguistics.  Work by Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and others would be worth exploring.  Ask me for a reading list if you’re interested, or check out the links on my main site: Structuralism and Semiotics. And Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners is available at this link.



Claude Levi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, has been widely celebrated and criticized for adapting Saussure’s structural linguistics to anthropological ends.  His work on kinship systems and his structuralist interpretations of myth are effective examples of what can be done with structuralist methodology.  Follow this link for a short account: Structural Anthropology 



The French Psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, extensively revised Freudian Theory by bringing it together with Saussure’s linguistics.  His statements like, “the unconscious is structured like a language,” indicate the extent to which he attempted to show that psychic processes could be interpreted as elements of a general system or institution of significations.  Follow this link for all things related to Psychoanalysis.