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Cours de linguistique générale

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Course in General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique générale) is the influential book compiled by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, that is based on notes taken from Ferdinand de Saussure's lectures at the University of Geneva between the years 1906 and 1911. It was published posthumously in 1916 and is generally regarded as the starting point of structuralism, an approach to linguistics that flourished in Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century. Although Saussure was specifically interested in historical linguistics, the Cours develops a theory of semiology that is more generally applicable.

Semiology: Langage, Langue, and ParoleEdit

Saussure focuses on what he calls langage, that is "a system of signs that express ideas," and suggests that it may be divided into two components: langue, referring to the abstract system of language that is interalized by a given speech community, and parole, the individual acts of speech and the "putting into practice of language". Saussure argued against the popular organicist view of language as a natural organism, which, without being determinable by the will of man, grows and evolves in accordance with fixed laws. Instead, he defined language as a social product, the social side of speech being beyond the control of the speaker. According to Saussure, language is not a function of the speaker, but is passively assimilated. Speaking, as defined by Saussure, is a premeditated act.

While speech (parole) is heterogeneous, that is to say composed of unrelated or differing parts or elements, language (langue) is homogeneous, composed of the union of meanings and 'sound images' in which both parts are psychological. Therefore, as langue is systematic, it is this that Saussure focuses on since it allows an investigative methodology that is rooted, supposedly, in pure science. Beginning with the Greek word ‘semîon’ meaning 'sign’, Saussure names this science semiology: ‘a science that studies the life of signs within society’.

The SignEdit

The focus of Saussure’s investigation is the linguistic unit or sign.


Fig. 1 - The Sign

The sign (signe) is described as a "double entity", made up of the signifier, or sound image, (signifiant), and the signified, or concept (signifié). The sound image is a psychological, not a material concept, belonging to the system. Both components of the linguistic sign are inseparable. The easiest way to appreciate this is to think of them as being like either side of a piece of paper - one side simply cannot exist without the other.

But the relationship between signifier and signified is not quite that simple. Saussure is adamant that language cannot be considered a collection of names for a collection of objects (as where Adam is said to have named the animals). According to Saussure, language is not a nomenclature. Indeed, the basic insight of Saussure's thought is that denotation, the reference to objects in some universe of discourse, is mediated by system-internal relations of difference.


The basic principle of the arbitrariness of the sign (l'arbitraire du signe) in the extract is: there is no natural reason why a particular sign should be attached to a particular concept.


Fig. 2 - Arbitrariness

In Figure 2 above, the signified "tree" is impossible to represent because the signified is entirely conceptual. There is no definitive (ideal, archetypical) "tree". Even the picture of a tree Saussure uses to represent the signified is itself just another signifier. This aside, it is Saussure's argument that it is only the consistency in the system of signs that allows communication of the concept each sign signifies.

The object itself - a real tree, in the real world - is the referent. For Saussure, the arbitrary involves not the link between the sign and its referent but that between the signifier and the signified in the interior of the sign.

In Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll exploits the arbitrary nature of the sign in its use of nonsense words. The poem also demonstrates very clearly the concept of the sign as a two sided psychological entity, since it is impossible to read the nonsense words without assigning a possible meaning to them. We naturally assume that there is a signified to accompany the signifier.

The concepts of signifier and signified could be compared with the Freudian concepts of latent and manifest meaning. Freud was also inclined to make the assumption that signifiers and signifieds are inseparably bound. Humans tend to assume that all expressions of language mean something.

In further support of the arbitrary nature of the sign, Saussure goes on to argue that if words stood for pre-existing concepts they would have exact equivalents in meaning from one language to the next and this is not so. Different languages divide up the world differently. To explain this, Saussure uses the word bœuf as an example. He cites the fact that while, in English, we have different words for the animal and the meat product: Ox and beef, in French, bœuf is used to refer to both concepts. A perception of difference between the two concepts is absent from the French vocabulary. In Saussure's view, particular words are born out of a particular society’s needs, rather than out of a need to label a pre-existing set of concepts.

But the picture is actually more complicated, through the integral notion of 'relative motivation'. Relative motivation refers to the compositionality of the linguistic system, along the lines of an immediate constituent analysis. This is to say that, at the level of langue, hierarchially nested signifiers have relatively determined signified. An obvious example is in the English number system: That is, though twenty and two might be arbitrary representations of a numerical concept, twenty-two, twenty-three etc. are constrained by those more abitrary meanings. The tense of verbs provides another obvious example: The meaning of "kicked" is relatively motivated by the meanings of "kick-" and "-ed". But, most simply, this captures the insight that the value of a syntagm-- a system-level sentence-- is a function of the value of the signs occurring in it. It is for this reason that Leonard Bloomfield called the lexicon the set of fundamental irregularities of the language. (Note how much of the 'meaningfulness' of 'The Jabberwocky' is due to these sorts of compositional relationships!)

A further issue is onomatopoeia. Saussure recognised that his opponents could argue that with onomatopoeia there is a direct link between word and meaning, signifier and signified. However, Saussure argues that, on closer etymological investigation, onomatopoeic words can, in fact, be coincidental, evolving from non-onomatopoeic origins. The example he uses is the French and English onomatopoeic words for a dog's bark, that is Bow Wow and Ouaf Ouaf.

Finally, Saussure considers interjections and dismisses this obstacle with much the same argument i.e. the sign / signifier link is less natural than it initially appears. He invites readers to note the contrast in pain interjection in French (aie) and English (ouch).


Saussure states: "[a sign’s] most precise characteristic is to be what the others are not". In other words, signs are defined by what they are not. An example may be found in Blackadder: After burning the only copy of Johnson's Dictionary, Blackadder and Baldric attempt to rewrite it themselves. Baldric comes up with: "Dog: Not a cat."

Difference in language is unique; Saussure writes: "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...The idea of phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it."

But, shortly thereafter, he adds: "But the statement that everything in language is negative is true only if the signified and the signifier are considered separately; when we consider the sign in its totality, we have something that is positive in its own class."

It is frequently argued that Saussure's emphasis on difference is somehow incompatible with communication, the use of language or parole, which is obviously more than a nosedive into an abyss of difference. But Saussure acknowledges the positive value of the sign; in this case, too, a chess metaphor comes up. If, during a game, a piece is lost - for example, the set is short a bishop - any object could replace it (a salt shaker, a thimble, a candy corn), but as long as the substitute is set into the board it functions as a bishop and it is that function that confers value upon it.

The Synchronic and Diachronic AxesEdit

Language that is studied synchronically is "studied as a complete system at a given point in time" (The AB axis). Language studied diachronically is "studied in its historical development" (The CD axis). Saussure argues that we should be concerned with the AB axis (in addition to the CD axis, which was the focus of attention in Saussure's time), because, he says, language is "a system of pure values which are determined by nothing except the momentary arrangements of its terms".


Fig. 4 - The Synchronic and Diachronic Axes

To illustrate this, Saussure uses a chess metaphor. In chess, a person joining a game’s audience mid-way through requires no more information than the present layout of pieces on the board. They would not benefit from knowing how the pieces came to be arranged in this way.


  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 0-19-285383-X.
  • Culler, Jonathan. Saussure. Fontana. 1976. ISBN 0-00-633743-0.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers. 1999. ISBN 0-631-20188-2.
  • Godel, R. Les sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure. Genève - Paris 1957.
  • Mauro, T. de. (ed.), Edition critique du `Cours de linguistique générale' de F. de Saussure. Paris 1972.
  • Harris, Roy. Reading Saussure: A critical commentary on the Cours de linguistique générale. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. 1987. ISBN 0-8126-9049-4 ISBN 0-8126-9050-8 (pbk.)
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. Cours in Literary Theory: An Anthology ed. by Michael Ryan and Julie Rivkin. Blackwell Publishers. 2001. ISBN 1-4051-0696-4.fa:دروسی در زبان‌شناسی عمومی
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