Saussure’s Theory of the Sign

(This expository post first came out in (mass)think! in 6/2007.)

Saussure Sign

In contrast to linguistics in his time, which made language secondary to some other object of inquiry, in the Course in General Linguistics (1916; published posthumously), Ferdinand de Saussure treats language itself as the object of study by “tak[ing] the study of linguistic structure as his primary concern” (16, 9). Linguistic structure, “only one part of language,” albeit essential, is, according to Saussure, both “a social product of our language faculty” and “a body of necessary conventions adopted by society to enable [its] members […] to use their language faculty” (9-10). It is “language minus speech, […] the whole set of linguistic habits which enables the speaker to understand and to make himself understood” (77). That is, linguistic structure refers to the rules of (a) language, minus its specific articulation (speech). A language, in turn, is a “well-defined entity, […] locali[zable],” i.e. “ha[ving] a particular place in the realm of human affairs,” “in that particular section of the speech circuit where sound patterns [signifiers] are associated with concepts [signifieds]” (14, 15). Language, in other words, comprises the whole system of signifiers and signifieds and the linguistic structure, the rules of their association.

Saussure asserts that it is “the social part of language, external to the individual, […] exist[ing] in virtue of a kind of contract agreed between the members of a community,” in which the individual needs apprenticeship (if she wants to be able to use it) (14, 15). This social part is a specific, hence homogeneous, compartment/region of language in general (or “the totality of facts of language”), which is heterogeneous (14). Linguistic signs are therefore “not abstractions. The associations, ratified by collective agreement, which go to make up the language are realities localized in the brain” (15). Moreover, they are “tangible,” fixable by writing in “conventional images” since “there is only the sound pattern, and this can be represented by one constant visual image” (15). A language, while not the same as language in general, is also not simply speech, which “is an individual act of the will and the intelligence,” i.e. the particular application of an individual’s apprenticeship, a particular articulation of language (14). In laying out all these components and relations, Saussure portrays language as a social institution.

Rather than a nomenclature (i.e. language as the naming of things/ideas), for Saussure, language is a sign system. Linguistics (Saussurian linguistics = semiotics) is thus but a part of the study of signs (their nature, the laws governing them) in general, semiology; inversely, semiology is the application of the techniques of semiotics to other cultural domains, treating them as a system of signs (15). A linguistic sign, Saussure claims, is a link between the signifier and the signified. The signifier refers to the sound pattern, “not actually a sound [… but] the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses” (66). That is, the signifier is the word, or, more precisely, the sound one hears, or the sound image that registers in one’s brain, when a word (such as tree) is uttered. The signified, on the other hand, refers to the concept or the idea linked to (not just conveyed by and not that which causes) the sound pattern, i.e. the idea of the tree one forms in his head. These two are yet different from the referent, i.e. the thing linked to the signifier and/or the signified, e.g. the “actual” tree one can see, touch … The signifier and the signified together make up the sign.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking assertion that Saussure makes has to do with the arbitrariness of the sign. Saussure claims that “the link between [signifier] and [signified] is arbitrary,” i.e. there is no internal connection between the two (67). This means, first, that there is no (natural) reason why a particular signifier is related to a particular signified. The signifier, in other words, is unmotivated (69). There is no reason, for example, why we call a tree (or, more precisely: why we refer to the idea of a tree) tree. “This is demonstrated by differences between languages, and even by the existence of different languages” (68). Secondly, this means that signifieds themselves are arbitrary. Certain things, or, more accurately, certain signifieds (e.g. colors, or the signifieds of fleuve/rivière in French, two different things, depending on the direction of the flow) exist in some languages, but not in others (in English, there is only the signified for river). In other words, there is no given universal set of ideas. The linguistic system itself creates the “meaning.”

The only rationale behind a particular language, the only logic underlying a particular configuration that links particular signifiers to particular signifieds, is social convention. Saussure explains that while “the [signifier], in relation to the idea it [is linked to], may seem to be freely chosen, […] once the language has selected a [signifier to link to a signified], it cannot be freely replaced by any other” (71). “The community, as much as the individual, is bound to its language,” which cannot even be proven as something it has selected at some originary moment (71, 72). In this sense, “language is always an inheritance from the past” (71). At the same time, “the social forces [… that make a language the system that it is] act over a period of time” (74). This implies that while language is arbitrary, it is at the same time rational; bound by tradition, it nonetheless undergoes change. Saussure thus notes the importance of the contextualization of language in a particular linguistic community and in its existence (both inherited and changed) through time (77-8).

As with any social institution, a society, when it comes to undergoing changes in a language, “achieves a […] balance between the tradition handed down and society’s freedom of action” (72). Herein lies a third meaning of the arbitrariness of the sign: the particular balance (between tradition and change) struck by a particular society is arbitrary. Moreover, change, which in language pertains to “a shift in the relationship between [signifier] and [signified],” is, Saussure argues, harder to come by in language than in other social institution (75). This is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary (in the first and second senses), which makes it hard to discuss on what basis language is to be changed. As Saussure puts it, “there is no firm ground for discussion” when it comes to change in language and the system’s rationality consists precisely in social conventions, which is what is targeted to be changed (73). Moreover, “a language […] is something in which everyone participates all the time”; thus it is open to the influence of all and changes are hard to impose (on everyone) (74) (at the same time that change can potentially come from anyone?). In other words, a language “is part and parcel of the life of the whole community, and the community’s natural inertia exercises a conservative influence upon it” (74). There is thus a connection between “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” (74).

Saussure makes it a point to emphasize that the linguistic object is the sign, i.e. not merely the signifier or the signified, but the signifier and the signified linked together. He warns that “there is a constant risk of taking one part or other of the entity and believing that we are dealing with the totality” (101). If we were to do that, the linguistic object is reduced to either merely a physiological or psychological object (101). Moreover, “a linguistic entity is not ultimately defined until it is delimited,” which is done by linking a particular signifier to a signified (hence, again, the problem of isolating one from the other) (102). A language is, in fact, according to Saussure, “an indistinct mass, in which attention and habit alone enable us to distinguish particular elements” (102).

“Thought,” Saussure argues, “is simply a vague, shapeless mass […] that, were it not for signs, we should be incapable of differentiating any two ideas in a clear and constant way” (110). “No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure” (110). Similarly, the signifier, “the substance of sound is no more fixed or rigid than that of thought. […] It is a malleable material which can be fashioned into separate parts in order to supply the [signifiers] which thought has need of” (110). In this way, Saussure articulates a differential theory of language in which units in themselves do not have (distinct) meanings. They acquire meaning only in relation—i.e. in their difference—to other units. Saussure goes further than this, however. He asserts that meaning (technically signification in contrast to value) is only formed when the two indistinct masses of the signifiers and the signifieds are linked to each other. That is, meaning is formed only at the level of the sign, the point at which the inquiry becomes delimited and concrete.

The portrait of language that Saussure provides is thus that of “a series of adjoining subdivisions simultaneously imprinted both on the plane of vague amorphous thought and on the equally featureless plane of sound” (110). “Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of paper without at the same time cutting the other, so,” Saussure insists, “it is impossible in a language to isolate sound from thought, or thought from sound” (111). “The process which selects one particular sound-sequence to correspond to one particular idea is entirely arbitrary” (111). In this way, there is nothing from above imposing linguistic value. “Values remain entirely a matter of internal relations” (111). However, this is still not that concrete since “the contact between [the signifier and the signified] gives rise to a form, not a substance” (111).

Saussure further contrasts signification or meaning to value. Signification pertains simply to the correspondence between the signifier and the signified. In this way, signification can be considered synonymous to the particular signified conveyed by a particular signifier (this borders on nomenclature, or in prioritizing the signifier). Value, on the other hand, has something to do with the relationship of a sign (i.e. the word, with both the sound image and what it means, the concept linked to it) to other signs in a language. Value has two features: “something dissimilar which can be exchanged for the item whose value is under consideration [and] similar things which can be compared with the item whose value is under consideration” (113).

Saussure asserts that, analogous to the indistinct masses of signifiers and signifieds gaining meaning only in differential relation, a sign has value only by virtue of its difference from other units comparable to it. In other words, “the content of a word is determined in the final analysis not by what it contains but by what exists outside it” (114). This, as Saussure puts it, is what causes “the word not only [to have] a meaning but also—above all—a value” (114). Thus, “what we find, instead of ideas given in advance, are values emanating from a linguistic system” (115). Saussure adds that “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” (115). Similarly, “the sound of a word is not in itself important, but the phonetic contrasts which allow us to distinguish that word from any other” (116). The same applies to writing (117).

It thus seems that “in a language there are only differences and no positive terms. […] The language includes neither ideas nor sounds existing prior to the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonetic differences arising out of that system” (118). Saussure claims, however, that at the level of the sign, there is “something positive in its own domain” (118). The “matching of a certain number of auditory signals and a similar number of items carved out from the mass of thought gives rise to a system of values,” which (i.e. the combination), Saussure asserts, is positive (118). Thus, “two signs [. . .] are not different from each other, but only distinct. They are simply in opposition to each other” (119). However, language, Saussure insists, remains “a form, not a substance” (120).


Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. LaSalle, Ill: Open Court, 1986. Print.

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