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An important distinction in Saussure's linguistics which poses considerable translation problems. Unlike English, French has two terms that can both mean 'language': langage and langue, as in la langue franCaise ('the French language'). Langage tends, in contrast, to be used of the human faculty of language in the abstract philosophical sense, and not of specific natural languages. Parole can be translated as both speech and word. Because it is so difficult to find strict equivalents in English, it has become conventional to use the French terms.

Saussure follows the norms of French usage in using langage to refer ot the phenomenon of language insofar as it is a human attribute. Langue, in contrast, is defined as the social aspect of language. It has little to do with individuals, and can be described as the product of a linguistic contact between all members of a community. Langue consists of signs organized into a system and expressive of ideas. As the signs constituting it are arbitrary and purely conventional, it is the differences between them that confer meaning upon them. Langue can therefore be said to be an organized system of differences. Langue is the object of semiology, or the science that studies the life of signs within society.

Parole, in contrast, refers to the individual aspect of language, or to the actual manifestations of langue in individual speech acts. The relationship between langue and parole takes the form of a dialectic: at the level of parole individuals are creative agents whose linguistic innovations can modify langue, but only by becoming impersonal elements of a system over which individuals have no control. The dialectic between the two aspects of language is the motor-force behind linguistic evolution.