Monday, November 13, 2017

Ferdinand de Saussure and structuralism - summary

Ferdinand de Saussure is considered the father of Structuralism, which looks at the units of a system and the rules that make it work regardless of content 

   In language the units are words (or better, the phonemes of a language) and the rules are the forms of grammar that order words to produce meaning.

   Rules are generated by the mind itself (universal).

   We could not perceive reality without some sort of  “grammar” or system to organize it.

   All systems have three properties in common:     

1) Wholeness. The system functions as a whole, not just as a collection of independent parts. 

2) Transformation. The system is not static but capable of change. New units can enter the system but are still subjected to the rules of a system (ex. format – to format).

3) Self-regulation  (related to transformation). You can add elements to the system but you can’t change its basic structure. Transformations never lead to anything outside the system.

   The basic linguistic unit or SIGN has two parts: concept and sound image, whose association produces meaning 

   The sound image is not the physical sound but rather the psychological imprint of the sound.

   A SIGN can also be defined as the combination of a signifier (sound image) and a signified (concept). (see a separate summary on Signifier and signified)

The SIGN as union of a signifier and a signified has two main  characteristics:

1) The bond between sfr and sfd is ARBITRARY. There is no natural, intrinsic or logical relation between them. They are related only because a community has agreed upon it. 

This makes it possible to separate sfr and sfd or to change the relationship between them. A single sfr can be associated with more than one sfd thus producing ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning (Ex. I gained a pound)

There may be some kinds of signs that seem less arbitrary than others, like onomatopoeic words in natural language or other types of semiotic systems (systems of signs) like pantomine, sign language or gestures, but they are still conventional and agreed upon by a community.

2) The second characteristic of the SIGN is that the sfr exists in TIME, and time is LINEAR. You can’t say or write two words at a time. So language operates in a linear sequence, in a chain.



According to Saussure, no ideas preexist language, it shapes ideas and makes them expressible. Language is not a substance, but a form, a structure.

Thought and sound are like the front and back of a piece of paper, you can distinguish between them but you can’t separate them. 

   Saussure refers to the system of language as a whole as Langue and to individual utterances as Parole.

   It takes a community to set up the relations between any particular sound image and any particular concept in order to form specific paroles. An individual can’t fix the VALUE for any combination.

   VALUE is the collective meaning assigned to a sign on the basis of the difference with all the other signs in the signifying system.


Saussure distinguishes between VALUE and SIGNIFICATION.

   SIGNIFICATION  or meaning is the relationship established between a sfr and a sfd.

   VALUE, by contrast, is the relation between various SIGNS in the signifying system (which are all interdependent).

   The most important relation between signifiers in a system, the one that creates VALUE is DIFFERENCE. One sfr has meaning in a system not because it is connected to a particular sfd, but because it is NOT any other sfr (binary opposites)

   Everything in the system is based on the relations between its units.

   The most important of them, according to Saussure, is the SYNTAGMATIC one (axis of contiguity) as opposed to a PARADIGMATIC relation (axis of substitution). (see Paradigm and syntagm)

   SIGNS are stored in our memory in associative groups, but associative relations do not belong to the structure of language itself, while syntagmatic relations are a product of this structure.

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