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1. Signs are divided into the signified and the signifier.
A word is a sign - a symbol
that represents a concept. The symbol is called the signifier,
and the concept is the signified.
Take a tree, for instance. The signifier is the little
shapes - tree - or, if we're speaking, the sound [tri:]. The signified
is a concept, the idea of a "tree", rather than an actual tree.
(The tree itself, if we happened to be talking about a particular tree,
would be called the referent.) The two together make up a linguistic
Saussure proposed the terms signified and signifier
in his Course in General Linguistics (1916).
"Some people regard language, when reduced to its
elements, as a naming-process only - a list of words, each corresponding
to the thing that it names. For example:
this rather naïve approach can bring us near
the truth by showing us that the linguistic unit is a double entity, one
formed by the associating of two terms." (Saussure: 65)
"The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name,
but a concept and a sound-image The linguistic sign is then a two-sided
pyschological entity that can be represented by the drawing:
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." (Saussure: 66-7)
2. The relationship between the signified and signifier is arbitrary.
The relationship between the symbol (signifier) and its meaning
(signified) is arbitrary, and is only a convention.
There's nothing inherently treeish about the word tree;
the word ping would do just as well. The French say arbre, the
Afrikaans say boom. The little shapes tree or the sound [tri:]
don't magically contain the meaning of "tree". This seems obvious,
but it's easy to forget when the word and its meaning are so closely connected
in our heads.
What about words like nothing which can be broken
down into no + thing? The word nothing has a relationship
with the words no and thing. It doesn't have an inherent relationship
with the idea of nothingness, or the French would be at a considerable disadvantage
having to use the word rien.
"Principle I: The Arbitrary
Nature of the Sign
The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary
The idea of "sister" is not linked by any inner relationship
to the succession of sounds s-ö-r which serves as its signifier
in French; 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.
No-one disputes the principle of the arbitrary nature of the sign, but
it is often easier to discover a truth than to assign to it its proper
place. Principle I dominates all the linguistics of language; its consequences
are numberless. It is true that not all of them are equally obvious at
first glance; only after many detours does one discover them, and with
them the primordial importance of the principle." (Saussure: 67-8)
"The word arbitrary also calls for comment.
The term should not imply that the choice of 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." (Saussure:
3. Meaning is a product of the difference in language.
Words don't just label the world, they
carve it up into categories. The more different words we have, the more categories
of meaning we have. The categories exist because the words exist, and not the
other way around.
For instance, chair, stool, and armchair
divide up "things to sit on". Because we have these three terms, the
differences between chairs, stools, and armchairs seem obvious to us, and the
three categories seem inevitable. Within the category of chairs, there
are also enormous differences, but we gloss over those differences as irrelevant
- after all, it's still a chair.
The division of meaning seems inevitable and natural; our different
words feel like a reflection of actual differences in the world. Actually, it
is the words that decide which differences matter, and which are irrelevant.
And another language can make different divisions.
In English, we differentiate between river, stream,
and brook. In French, they differentiate between fleuve, rivière,
and ruisseau. A ruisseau, however, is both a "stream"
and a "brook"; fleuve and rivière both translate
as "river", but have two distinct meanings in French.
The categories we use are not inherent in the world, but in
the words we use. Because we have different words for things - chair,
stool, and armchair, or river, stream, and brook
- we have different categories. Words don't label pre-existing meanings: they
The neat pairing of signifier + signified looks very different
now: the signifier is creating its signified. The signifieds exist because the
signifiers exist, and not the other way around.
"If words stood for pre-existing
concepts, they would all have exact equivalents in meaning from one language
to the next; but this is not true." (Saussure: 116)
"Within the same language, all words used to express
related ideas limit each other reciprocally: synonyms like French redouter
'dread,' craindre 'fear,' and avoir peur 'be afraid' have
value only through their opposition: if redouter did not exist,
all its content would go to its competitors. Converesely, some words are
enriched through contact with others: e.g. the new element introduced
in décrépit (un veillard décrépit,
see p.83) results from the co-existence of décrépi
(un mur décrépi). The value of just any term is accordingly
determined by its environment; it is impossible to fix even the value
of the word signifying "sun" without first considering its surroundings:
in some languages, it is not possible to say "sit in the sun."
"The Slavic languages regularly
single out two aspects of the verb: the perfective represents action as
a point, complete in its totality; the imperfective represents it as taking
place, and on the line of time. The categories are difficult for a Frenchman
to understand, for they are unknown in French; if they were pre-determined,
this would not be true. Instead of pre-existing ideas then, we find in
all the foregoing examples values emanating from the system. When
they are said to correspond to concepts, it is understood that the concepts
are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but
negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their
most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not."
4. Language enables us to think.
If meaning is a product of language, then
it is only through language that we can think.
The earlier distinction between signified and referent is crucial.
The signified is the concept, the mental category. The referent is an individual
material item that fits into that category. If we don't separate the idea of
something, the signified, from an individual material item, the referent, we
fall into the trap of thinking that neat equivalence is possible, a matching-up
of words and things.
For instance, I like trees. I can think that, because
I have this broad category of trees available to me. If I didn't have
that category, if I didn't have any categories, what would I be able to like?
(Put aside, for a moment, the problem of the category 'like'; the can of worms
that is the category 'I' will be opened later.) A maple grows in my garden:
I like it. A weeping willow grows next to the bridge: I like it. They look thoroughly
different: different colours, different shapes, different sizes I can't
even say I like green things, if I don't have the category 'green'
for these two distinct colours. In this chaos of differences, differences everywhere,
my liking for the the maple and my liking for the weeping willow means that
I like the maple, and I like the weeping willow. It doesn't mean I like trees.
All I am left with is things that mean exactly themselves, because I can't categorise,
generalise, compare, extrapolate.
"Psychologically our thought - apart from its expression
in words - is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. Philosophers and linguists
have always agreed that without the help of signs we would be unable to
make a clear-cut, consistent distinction between two ideas. Without language,
thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas,
and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language." (Saussure:
5. Language is social.
The relationship between the signifier
and the signified is arbitrary, and is a convention within a community of speakers.
Language changes, but cannot be changed by a formal decision or an individual's
Attempts are often made to steer language. The French government,
for instance, tries to prevent French being influenced by foreign languages
and even tried to pass a law preventing companies being given English names.
Nevertheless, the French people speak of "le weekend" and "le
parking", and the government is powerless to prevent it. Lewis Carroll
invented many new words in Alice In Wonderland, including "mimsy",
"chortle", and "slithy" - chortleentered
the English language, others didn't. Anyone can invent new words, but no-one
can force people to use them.
Language is something over which the whole community has power,
and not a single individual has power. And language is how we think. To what
extent, then, are our thoughts our own?
" for the realization of
language, a community of speakers [masse parlante] is necessary.
Contrary to all appearances, language never exists apart from the social
fact, for it is a semiological phenomenon. Its social nature is one of
its inner characteristics." (Saussure: 77)
" the individual does not have the power to change
a sign in any way once it has become established in the linguistic community..."
"Mutability [language changes] is so inescapable that
it even holds true for artificial languages. Whoever creates a language
controls it only so long as it is not in circulation; from the moment when
it fulfils its mission and becomes the property of everyone, control is
lost." (Saussure: 76)
"Language - and this consideration surpasses
all the others - is at every moment everybody's concern; spread throughout
society and manipulated by it, language is something used daily by all.
Here we are unable to set up any comparision between it and other institutions.
The prescriptions of codes, religious rites, nautical signals, etc., involve
only a certain number of individuals simultaneously and then only during
a limited period of time; in language, on the contrary, 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. Of all
social institutions, language is the least amenable to initiative. It blends
with the life of society, and the latter, inert by nature, is a prime conservative
force." (Saussure: 73-4)