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Ferdinand de Saussure

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Saussure, Ferdinand de
Second Edition 2005
The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) is widely considered to be the founder of modern linguistics in its attempts to describe the structure of language rather than the history of particular languages and language forms (see linguistics and language). In fact, the method of structuralism in linguistics and literary studies and a significant branch of semiotics find their major starting point in his work at the turn of the twentieth century. It has even been argued that the complex of strategies and conceptions that has come to be called "poststructuralism" —the work of jacques derrida, michel foucault, jacques lacan, julia kristeva, roland barthes, and others—is suggested by Saussure’s work in linguistics and anagrammatic readings of late Latin poetry. If this is so, it can be seen most clearly in the way that Saussure’s work in linguistics and interpretation participates in transformations in modes of understanding across a wide range of intellectual disciplines from physics to literary modernism to psychoanalysis and philosophy in the early twentieth century. Of great importance is the effect that Saussure’s work, and especially his method, had on literary theory and literary criticism in the last decades of the twentieth century. (Telling here is the fact that Saussure’s 1916 Cours de linguistique générale was not first translated into English, as Course in General Linguistics, until 1959; it is probable that the term "theory" did not enter literary scholarship until 1949 [ Schleifer, Analogical 97 ].) That method is a precise, "scientific" articulation of what Algirdas Julien Greimas and Joseph Courtés argue in Sémiotique: Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage (1979, Semiotics and Language: An Analytic Dictionary, 1982), under the heading "Interpretation," is a new mode of interpretation that arose in the early twentieth century. They identify this mode of interpretation with Saussurean linguistics, Husserlian phenomenology, and Freudian psychoanalysis. In it, they argue, "interpretation is no longer a matter of attributing a given content to a form which would otherwise lack one; rather, it is a paraphrase which formulates in another fashion the equivalent content of a signifying element within a given semiotic system" (159). In this understanding of "interpretation," form and content are not distinct; rather, every "form" is, alternatively, a semantic "content" as well, a "signifying form," so that interpretation offers an analogical paraphrase of something that already signifies within some other system of signification.
Such a reinterpretation of form and understanding—which claude lévi-strauss describes in one of his most programmatic articulations of the concept of structuralism, in "Structure and Form: Reflections on a Work by Vladimir Propp" —is implicit in Saussure’s posthumous Course in General Linguistics. In his lifetime Saussure published relatively little, and his major work, the Course, was the transcription by his students of several courses in general linguistics that he offered in 1907–11. In the Course Saussure called for the "scientific" study of language as opposed to the nineteenth-century work in historical linguistics. That work is one of the great achievements of Western intellect: taking particular words as the building blocks of language, historical (or "diachronic") linguistics traced the origin and development of Western languages from a putative common language source, first an "Indo-European" language and then an earlier "proto-Indo-European" language.
It was precisely this study of the unique occurrences of words, with the concomitant assumption that the basic "unit" of language is, in fact, the positive existence of these "word-elements," that Saussure questioned. His work was an attempt to reduce the mass of facts about language, studied so minutely by historical linguistics, to a manageable number of propositions. The "comparative school" of nineteenth-century philology, Saussure says in the Course, "did not succeed in setting up the true science of linguistics" because "it failed to seek out the nature of its object of study" (trans. Baskin, 3). That "nature," he argues, is to be found not simply in the "elemental" words that a language comprises—the seeming "positive" facts (or "substances") of language—but in the formal relationships that give rise to those "substances."
Saussure’s systematic reexamination of language is based upon four assumptions. The first is that the scientific study of language needs to develop and study the system rather than the history of linguistic phenomena. (This focus on the "system" of language is analogous to the general questions about literature that literary theory focuses upon.) For this reason, he distinguishes between the particular occurrences of language—its particular "speech-events," which he designates as parole—and the proper object of linguistics, the system (or "code") governing those events, which he designates as langue. Such a systematic study, moreover, calls for a "synchronic" conception of the relationship among the elements of language at a particular instant rather than the "diachronic" study of the development of language through history.
This assumption gave rise to what roman jakobson in 1929 came to designate as "structuralism," in which "any set of phenomena examined by contemporary science is treated not as a mechanical agglomeration but as a structural whole [in which] the mechanical conception of processes yields to the question of their function" (711). In this passage Jakobson is articulating Saussure’s intention to define linguistics as a scientific system as opposed to a simple, "mechanical" accounting of historical accidents. Along with this, moreover, Jakobson is also describing the second foundational assumption in Saussurean—we can now call it "structural" —linguistics: that the basic elements of language can only be studied in relation to their functions rather than in relation to their causes. Instead of studying particular and unique events and entities (i.e. , the history of particular Indo-European "words"), those events and entities have to be situated within a systemic framework in which they are related to other so-called events and entities. This is a radical reorientation in conceiving of experience and phenomena, one whose importance the philosopher Ernst Cassirer has compared to "the new science of Galileo which in the seventeenth century changed our whole concept of the physical world" (cited in Culler, Pursuit 24). This change, as Greimas and Courtés note, reconceives "interpretation" and thus reconceives explanation and understanding themselves. Instead of explanation’s being understood in terms of a phenomenon’s causes, so that, as an "effect," it is in some ways subordinate to its causes, explanation here consists in subordinating a phenomenon to its future-oriented "function" or "purpose." Explanation is no longer independent of human intentions or purposes (even though those intentions can be impersonal, communal, or, in Freudian terms, "unconscious").
In his linguistics Saussure accomplishes this transformation specifically in the redefinition of the linguistic "word," which he describes as the linguistic "sign" and defines in functionalist terms. The sign, he argues, is the union of "a concept and a sound image," which he called "signified [ signifié ] and signifier [ signifiant ]" (trans. Baskin, 66–67; Roy Harris’s 1983 translation offers the terms "signification" and "signal" [67]). The nature of their "combination" is "functional" in that neither the signified nor the signifier is the "cause" of the other; rather, "each [derives] its values from the other" (trans. Baskin, 8). In this way, Saussure defines the basic element of language, the sign, relationally and subjects to rigorous—even critical—analysis the basic assumption of historical linguistics, namely, the identity of the elemental units of language and signification (i.e. , "words"). The reason we can recognize different occurrences of the word "tree" as the "same" word is not because the word is defined by inherent qualities—it is not a "mechanical agglomeration" of such qualities—but because it is defined as an element in a system, the "structural whole," of language.
Such a relational (or "diacritical") definition of an entity governs the conception of all the elements of language in structural linguistics. This is clearest in the most impressive achievement of Saussurean linguistics, the development of the concepts of the "phonemes" and "distinctive features" of language. Phonemes are the smallest articulated and signifying units of a language. They are not the sounds that occur in language but the "sound images" Saussure mentions, which are apprehended by speakers— phenomenally apprehended—as conveying meaning. (Thus, Elmar Holenstein describes Jakobson’s linguistics, which follows Saussure in important ways, as phenomenological structuralism.) It was for this reason that the leading spokesperson for prague school structuralism, Jan Mukařovský, noted in 1937 that "structure . . . is a phenomenological and not an empirical reality; it is not the work itself, but a set of functional relationships which are located in the consciousness of a collective (generation, milieu, etc.)" (cited in Galan 35). Similarly, Lévi-Strauss, the leading spokesperson for French structuralism, noted in 1960 that "structure has no distinct content; it is content itself, and the logical organization in which it is arrested [or apprehended] is conceived as a property of the real" (167; see also Jakobson with Halle, Fundamentals 27–28).
Phonemes, then, the smallest perceptible elements of language, are not positive objects but a "phenomenological reality." In English, for instance, the phoneme /t/ can be pronounced in many different ways, but in all cases an English speaker will recognize it as functioning as a /t/. An aspirated t(i.e. , a t pronounced with an h-like breath after it), a high-pitched or low-pitched t sound, an extended t sound, and so on, will all function in the same manner in distinguishing the meaning of "to" and "do" in English. Moreover, the differences between languages are such that phonological variations in one language can constitute distinct phonemes in another; thus, English distinguishes between /l/ and /r/, whereas other languages are so structured that these articulations are considered variations of the same phoneme (like the aspirated and unaspirated t in English). In every natural language the vast number of possible words is a combination of a small number of phonemes. English, for instance, possesses fewer than 40 phonemes that combine to form more than a million different words.
The phonemes of language are themselves systematically organized structures of features. In the 1920s and 1930s, following Saussure’s lead, Jakobson and N. S. Trubetzkoy isolated the "distinctive features" of phonemes. These features are based upon the physiological structure of the speech organs—tongue, teeth, vocal chords, and so on—that Saussure mentions in the Course and that Harris describes as "physiological phonetics" (trans. Harris, 39 ; Baskin’s earlier translation uses the term "phonology" [trans. Baskin, 38 ])—and they combine in "bundles" of binary oppositions to form phonemes. For instance, in English the difference between /t/ and /d/ is the presence or absence of "voice" (the engagement of the vocal chords), and on the level of voicing these phonemes reciprocally define each other. In this way, phonology is a specific example of a general rule of language described by Saussure: without positive terms.In this framework, linguistic identities are determined not by inherent qualities but by systemic ( "structural") relationships. (Much twentieth-century literary criticism—by W. K. Wimsatt, northrop frye, j. hillis miller, stanley fish, paul de man, and Barbara Johnson, for instance—assumes to one degree or another this "structural" definition of the elements and meaning of literature.) Saussure reflects this reconception of causal explanation as functional representation in his description of a number of linguistic phenomena at every level, characterized by "complementary facets," including irreducible dualities such as "auditory-articulatory units," "social-individual aspects" of signs, and the "system-evolution" of a language mentioned above.
In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system. (trans. Baskin, 120)
We have said that phonology "followed the lead" of Saussure because even though his analysis of the physiology of language production "would nowadays," as Harris says, "be called ‘physical,’ as opposed to either ‘psychological’ or ‘functional’" (Reading 49), nevertheless, in the Course he articulated the direction and outlines of a functional analysis of language. Similarly, his only extended published work, Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes[Treatise on the primitive system of vowels in Indo-European languages], which appeared in 1878, was fully situated within the project of nineteenth-century historical linguistics. Still, within this work, as Jonathan Culler has argued, Saussure demonstrated "the fecundity of thinking of language as a system of purely relational items, even when working at the task of historical reconstruction" (Saussure 66). By analyzing the systematic structural relationships among phonemes to account for patterns of vowel alternation in existing Indo-European languages, Saussure suggested that in addition to several different phonemes /a/, there must have been another phoneme that could be described formally. "What makes Saussure’s work so very impressive," Culler concludes, "is the fact that nearly fifty years later, when cuneiform Hittite was discovered and deciphered, it was found to contain a phoneme, written h, which behaved as Saussure had predicted. He had discovered, by a purely formal analysis, what are now known as the laryngeals of Indo-European" (66).
This conception of the relational or diacritical determination of the elements of signification, which is both implicit and explicit in the Course, suggests a third assumption governing structural linguistics, what Saussure calls "the arbitrary nature of the sign." By this he means that the relationship between the signifier and signified in language is never necessary (or "motivated"): one could just as easily find the sound signifier arbre as the signifier tree to unite with the concept ‘tree’. But more than this, it means that the signified is arbitrary as well: one could as easily define the concept ‘tree’ by its woody quality (which would exclude palm trees) as by its size (which excludes the "low woody plants" we call shrubs). This should make clear that the numbering of assumptions we have been presenting does not represent an order of priority: each assumption—the systemic nature of signification (best apprehended by studying language "synchronically"), the relational or "diacritical" nature of the elements of signification, the arbitrary nature of signs—derives its value from the others.
That is, Saussurean linguistics understands the phenomena it studies in overarching relationships of combination and contrast in language. In this conception, language is both the process of articulating meaning (signification) and its product(communication), and these two functions of language are neither identical nor fully congruent (see Schleifer, Analogical, ch. 2). Here, we can see the alternation between form and content that Greimas and Courtés describe in modernist interpretation: language presents contrasts that formally define its units, and these units combine on succeeding levels to create the signifying content. Since the elements of language are arbitrary, moreover, neither contrast nor combination can be said to be basic. Thus, in language distinctive features combine to form contrasting phonemes on another level of apprehension, phonemes combine to form contrasting morphemes, morphemes combine to form words, words combine to form sentences, and so on. In each instance, the whole phoneme, or word, or sentence, and so on, is greater than the sum of its parts (just as water, H 2 O, in Saussure’s example [trans. Baskin, 103 ] is more than the mechanical agglomeration of hydrogen and oxygen).
The fourth assumption of Saussure’s Course—that language is primarily a "social activity" —is in some ways the most radical and yet least developed element of his system. Reflecting a dramatic shift away from either simple physicality or mentalism, Saussure "socializes" language at every level, from the production of phonemes to the interpretation of complex meaning. Individual language acts, he notes, are "merely language in embryo" (13), and language itself "exists perfectly only within a collectivity" (14). To understand the structure of both a language specifically and language in general, one must consider it as a "social phenomena." (Recent work in literary criticism and theory that designates itself as a species of cultural studies is participating in this aspect of Saussurean linguistics.) In fact, Saussure argues, the "well defined entity of language" that is amenable to scientific study—its structure—is the "social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create or modify it by himself; it exists only in virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community" (14). In many ways, the dualities of the first three assumptions of Saussure’s nascent science of language—synchronicity-diachronicity, the relational determination of the elements of signification, and the arbitrary nature of the sign—are all reconfigured and resolved socially. Saussure notes, "Language never exists even for a moment except as a social fact, for it is a semiological phenomena. Its social nature is one of its inner characteristics" (77). In this scheme, diachronicity is not so much negated as situated alongside a synchronic system that subsumes the evolutionarily informed artifacts of language under the larger framework of their functionality for a community of speakers at a given moment. Similarly, both the "relational determinism" of linguistic entities and the arbitrary nature of the sign itself are situated within a social context. In the former, the nonpositive object of study found emerging from progressively more complex levels of combination and contrast (like phenomenologically apprehended optical illusions) is a socially determined object, intimately implicated in the "form-contents" of institutions, conventions, and other facets of culture. Relatedly, the arbitrariness of the sign is resolved by social contingency: the signified and signifier are socially coupled, from the acquisition of language in preverbal children via phonetic modeling and reinforcement to the exchange of the complex utterances between adult members of a linguistic community. In a social frame, arbitrariness emerges as a productive field of linguistic creation, alternatively reflecting and maintaining social conventions while also providing the possibility of their transmutation. As Émile Benveniste argues, arbitrariness emerges as a form-content that has the phenomenal feel of self-evident "nature."
The reframing of all levels and aspects of language (including literary language) as only sensible within the social, along with the first three assumptions of the Course in General Linguistics, led Saussure to call for a new science of the twentieth century that would go beyond linguistic science to study "the life of signs within society." Saussure named this science "semiology (from Greek semeîon ‘sign’)" (16). The "science" of semiotics, as it came to be practiced in eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and Paris in the 1950s and 1960s, widened the study of language and linguistic structures to literary artifacts constituted (or articulated) by those structures. Throughout the late part of his career, moreover, even while he was offering the courses in general linguistics, Saussure pursued his own "semiotic" analysis of late Latin poetry in an attempt to discover deliberately concealed anagrams of proper names. The method of study was in many ways the opposite of the functional rationalism of his linguistic analyses: it attempted, as Saussure mentions in one of the 99 notebooks in which he pursued this study, to examine systematically the problem of "chance," which "becomes the inevitable foundation of everything" (cited in Starobinski 101). Such a study, as Saussure himself says, focuses on "the material fact" of chance and meaning (cited 101), so that the "theme-word" whose anagram Saussure is seeking, as Jean Starobinski argues, "is, for the poet, an instrument, and not a vital germ of the poem. The poem is obliged to re-employ the phonic materials of the theme-word" (45). In this analysis, Starobinski says, "Saussure did not lose himself in a search for hidden meanings." Instead, his work seems to demonstrate a desire to evade all the problems arising from consciousness: "Since poetry is not only realized in words but is something born from words, it escapes the arbitrary control of consciousness to depend solely on a kind of linguistic legality" (121). In this, Saussure is also presaging or participating in much of the work of literary theory that attempts to understand literature beyond simply recovering authorial intentions.
That is, Saussure’s attempt to discover proper names in late Latin poetry—what Tzvetan Todorov calls the reduction of a "word . . . to its signifier" (266)—emphasizes one of the elements that governed his linguistic analysis, the arbitrary nature of the sign. (It also emphasizes the formal nature of Saussurean linguistics— "Language," he asserts, "is a form and not a substance" [ Course, trans. Baskin, 122 ]—which effectively eliminates semantics as a major object of analysis.) As Todorov concludes, intentionalNibelungen,If this is true, it is because Saussure could not quite conceive of "intention" without a subject; he could not quite complete what Greimas describes as the transformation of a linguistics of "expression" to the phenomenology of a linguistics of "perception" (57). That is, he could not completely escape the opposition between form and content his work did so much to call into question. Instead, he resorted to "linguistic legality." Situated between, on the one hand, nineteenth-century conceptions of history, subjectivity, and the mode of causal interpretation governed by these conceptions and, on the other hand, twentieth-century "structuralist" conceptions of what Lévi-Strauss called "Kantianism without a transcendental subject" (cited in Connerton 23)—conceptions that erase the opposition between form and content (or subject and object) and the hierarchy of foreground and background in full-blown structuralism, psychoanalysis, and even quantum mechanics—the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in linguistics and semiotics circumscribes a signal moment in the study of meaning and culture. Applications and critiques of Saussure’s work continued to appear in the last decade of the twentieth century, most notably in Paul Thibault’s Re-Reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life, which argues for both a reassessment of and continuing applicability of Saussure’s work, and in Edward James Furton’s A Medieval Semiotic: Reference and Representation in John of St. Thomas’ Theory of Signs, which compares medieval systems of representation to modern structuralism.
Saussure’s work appears remarkably homogeneous today in its refusal to accept symbolic phenomena [phenomena that have intentional meaning]. . . . In his research on anagrams, he pays attention only to the phenomena of repetition, not to those of evocation. . . . In his studies of the Nibelungen, he recognizes symbols only in order to attribute them to mistaken readings: since they are not intentional, symbols do not exist. Finally in his courses on general linguistics, he contemplates the existence of semiology, and thus of signs other than linguistic ones; but this affirmation is at once limited by the fact that semiology is devoted to a single type of sign: those which are arbitrary. (269–70)
Gabriel Rupp
Ronald Schleifer
See also french theory and criticism: 4. early twentieth century, linguistics and language, semiotics, and structuralism.
Primary Sources
Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale Volume 1 1966, Problems in General Linguistics Mary Elizabeth Meek, trans. , 1971; Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie 1967, Of Grammatology Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. , 1976rev. ed., 1998; Jacques Derrida, Marges de la philosophie 1972, Margins of Philosophy Alan Bass, trans. , 1982; Algirdas Julien Greimas, Joseph Courtés, Sémiotique: Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage 1979, Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary Larry Crist, trans. , et al., 1982; Louis Hjelmslev, Omkring Sprogteoriens Grundlaeggelse 1943, Prolegomena to a Theory of Language Francis Whitfield, trans. , 1961; Roman Jakobson, Romantic Panslavism—New Slavic Studies Selected Writings Volume 2 (1971); Roman Jakobson, Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language, (1956); Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Structure et la forme: Réflexion sur une oeuvre de Vladimir Propp 1960, Structure and Form: Reflections on a Work by Vladimir Propp Monique Layton, trans. , Anatoly Liberman, rev. , Theory and History of Folklore Vladimir Propp , 1984; Richard Macksey Eugenio Donato The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, (1970); Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale 1916, Course in General Linguistics Wade Baskin, trans. , 1959Roy Harris, trans. , 1983; Jean Starobinski, Les Mots sous les mots: Les Anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure 1971, Words upon Words: The Anagrams of Ferdinand de Saussure Olivia Emmett, trans. , 1979
Secondary Sources
Paul Connerton, The Tragedy of Enlightenment: An Essay on the Frankfurt School, (1980); Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, (1981); Jonathan Culler, Saussure, (1976); Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, (1975); Robert Con Davis, Ronald Schleifer, Criticism and Culture: The Role of Critique in Modern Literary Theory, (1992); Edward James Furton, A Medieval Semiotic: Reference and Representation in John of St. Thomas’ Theory of Signs, (1995); F. W. Galan, Historical Structures: The Prague School Project, 1928–1946, (1985); Roy Harris, Reading Saussure, (1987); Elmar Holenstein, Roman Jakobsons phänomenologischer Strukturalismus 1975, Roman Jakobson’s Approach to Language Catherine Schelbert, trans. , Tarcisius Schelbert, trans. , 1976; E. F. K. Koerner, Ferdinand de Saussure: The Origin and Development of His Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language, (1973); Timothy J. Reiss, The Uncertainty of Analysis: Problems in Truth, Meaning, and Culture, (1988); Geoffrey Sampson, Schools of Linguistics, (1980); Ronald Schleifer, A. J. Greimas and the Nature of Meaning: Linguistics, Semiotics, and Discourse Theory, (1987); Ronald Schleifer, Analogical Thinking: Post-Enlightenment Understanding in Language, Collaboration, and Interpretation, (2000); Ronald Schleifer, Analogy and Example: Heisenberg and the Language of Quantum Physics Criticism Volume 33 (1991); Paul J. Thibault, Re-Reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life, (1997); Tzvetan Todorov, Théories du symbole 1977, Theories of the Symbol Catherine Porter, trans. , 1982; V. N. Volosinov, Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka 1929, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language Ladislav Matejka, trans. , I. R. Titunik, trans. , 1973
==See also==

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