An Introduction to Structural Linguistics

Saussure, F. de. 1966 [1915]. Course in General Linguistics.

He founded the theory of structuralism; where there are units and parts and rules. Grammar is the structure that governs language and makes meaning out of units (words/phonemes). The mind-brain produces the structure of language (the structure isn’t naturally existing in the world). 3 properties: wholeness, transformation (new units may enter but apply to the same rules), self-regulation (you can never alter the foundational rules).

Ch. 1 Nature of the Linguistic Sign (65-83)


  • Sign: unites a concept and a sound-image (it’s sensory, not physical per say). (1)The sign is arbitrary (no natural or logical relationship that commits the two). Meaning is relational. Written word can be the sign. The sign is established by/based on social convention. (2) The sign exists in time; a linear sequence. All elements form a chain (like a sentence). 
  • Signifier: auditory (sound pattern). It is the sound-image. The thing as spoken.
  • Signified: concept/idea; what is evoked in the mind. The mental/psychological concept.
  • Signifier and signified mutual inform the other. One calls to mind the other.
  • So little kids have the signifier as they learn speech, and then once they learn the meaning they gain the signified, and then once they are literate they physically encounter the sign in the form of reading the word.

Signs are collective determined by a linguistic community (68). We can conceptualize the establishment of signs, but it always occurs in the past and we can never observe it (72). 

Sign are difficult to change because you have to learn your native language, there are so many signs in writing, languages are rational, and everyone uses the language. Signs are anchored in time and people/community.

Language gives shape to thought and reality. Signs are both material/sound and psychological. Signs are a form. 

If and when the sign changes, the relationship to the meaning changes also (75). I think?

Language needs speakers though and speakers change the language. So time plus language allows us to see the “social forces” at work (78). 

Diachronic linguistics: language change over time (evolution). Synchronic linguistic: language outside of time, in general, as abstracted– the focus of Saussure (81).

Chapter II: Concrete Entities of a Language

Signs are concrete entities. Concepts belong to psychology, but when they are combined with sound patterns, they become linguistic entities (101). Linguistic signs require us to delimit and distinguish signs and sound patterns from other signs and sound patterns (102). The delimitation can be made using speech (103).

Synchronic identity: the identity of the unit in relation to other units (difference makes this possible, the idea to identify something). 
Synchronic reality: concepts introduced by grammarians get re-worked to form linguistic structure (108). Synchronic value: signs do not have value when alone, but only when they are put with other signs.

Linguistic Value: “thought-sound” evolves divisions. “A language takes shape with its linguistic units in between those two” (111). This helps us understand why signs are so arbitrary. Signs help us makes sense of amorphous entity of the thought-sound, but it demands social activity in order to create, organize, and understand a language. Value then comes about when an item can be compared to something dissimilar or similar to itself (113). Differences can be marked by the material/phonetic contrasts between signs (116 and 119). Value is the product of the structure/language and not of relations/parole. 

Ex. 1 dime = 10 cents; traded for something dissimilar (gum) or something similar (10 pennies). The system creates value. 

Syntagmatic relations= in the present; a linear relationship. It forms a chain of units. Word order governs meaning (i.e. Subject + Verb + Object). Each term is something because it is not something else in the sentence (ex. columns in a building)
Associative relations= in absence (paradigmatic); units stay in the brain, stored with other words with similar associations (ex. columns, Parthenon, white house, government)

Motivation: ex. Keyboard in English is a motivation (key plus board have relational meanings that are arbitrary sanctioned). (131). One arbitrary sign plus another arbitrary = sign. Key + board =keyboard. A logical combination of socially constituted signs to form a logical sign. 

Where there is a knowledge or mastery of any kind, there is a system that can be explained.

Hanks, W. The Language of Saussure. Language and Communicative Practices. 21-38.

We, as speakers, ignore the structure and grammar of language by focusing on utterances as a means to an ends. This is the practical nature of language. Saussure, however, delved into the dimensions of and dichotomies within language and its structure.
Langue: the set of rules; it cannot be changed by a single individual.

Parole: the social use of those rules; where meanings are exchanged. Speakers can only know langue through its use in parole. 

Signs are not abstract since they are collectively ratified, stored individually, and tangible through writing (27). As for their arbitrary nature: “Under the logic of Saussure’s argument, the signified is itself a concept, not a thing in the world. Therefore that two languages indicate the same physical thing with different words does not prove that the words have the same conceptual meanings. The signifiers differ and so do the concepts. To the extent that this is so, cross-linguistic variation tells us nothing whatsoever about the bond between signifier and signified (28).”

(29)– even if a language has a similar concept as another language, it just articulates it differently. That’s why it’s not that easy to translate language. 

Value is determined by three different types of difference: (31)

phonology: paper vs. pepper
morphology: paper vs. papers
semantics: paper vs. magazine

Value hinges on difference and binary pairs: cat vs cats.

“Associative, or Paradigmatic, relations link signs that are similar and among which a speaker must select when putting together a phrase. Syntagmatic, or syntactic, relations connect signs that are combined in a single phrase. Taken together, these two principles of sign-to-sign relations offset the original arbitrariness of every individual sign” (36). Why/how is this dichotomy useful for linguists?

Waugh, L. 1982 Marked and Unmarked: A Choice between unequals in Semiotic Structure. Semiotica 38: 299-318.

Paralleling Saussure’s concepts of value, difference and delimitations, Waugh’s argument is that oppositionality has always been inherent and is key to semiosis. There is a different way of viewing oppositions. She’s writing against Saussure (A and B languages). Context was taken into account for her. This context could be considered external linguistics. She’s building out of Saussure’s web of contrasts (dissimiliarness and similarness) 

Markedness suggests a hierarchy. She suggests the marked term exists in a smaller range of instances and is less universal. The unmarked can be the most general.

Zero-interpretation: that interpretation that is the most general, widest, and most broad (303). It is the default; the general without being specific or referencing the marked (i.e. present tense verbs are not specific and don’t reference the marked or past tense). Ex. God bless you. God could be all dieties. 

Minus-interpretation: that interpretation that signals the absence of the unit of information associated with the marked term (303-304). This occurs in a context where contrast exists with reference to the marked term. Ex. God bless you. God here might be assumed to be just the Judeo-Christian God.

Plus-interpretation: that interpretation that could be signaled by both the unmarked and marked term (i.e. historical/narrative present: he dies, he died) (304). Ex. All lives matter, which includes the unmarked and marked descriptions of lives. Here, replacing black lives matter (the original phrase) with all lives matter takes away the political potency of the original phrase. 

These interpretations can confuse the status of marked/unmarked terms or imply neutralization. 

Society determines value. The context is to the culture or the subset of a culture. “Any semiotic system is a hierarchical system of relations, and markedness is one of the relations that help to hierarchize that system (316).”

  • How Saussure uses “negatively” like she uses marked and unmarked (right vs. left but still handedness)
  • Examples of markedness: handedness, plurality/singularity, gender. Ex. In a group of people, the group has to be entirely female to use the female case in Arabic, if there is one man then the masculine case is used.

Where is there room for a third element? → The neuter.


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