Thursday, November 16, 2017


Saussure points out that the value of signs is culture-specific. The French mouton may have the same meaning as the English sheep, but it does not have the same value. Why? Because English has the terms mutton and sheep, a distinction which is not available in French. He emphasizes that a sign gains its value from its relation to other similar values. Without such a relationship signification would not exist


This is a very useful insight in the analysis of signs. Language is linear: you produce one sound after another; words follow one another. When we think of signs interlinked in this way (for example she+can+go), then we are thinking of them in terms of what Saussure calls a syntagm. There is a syntagmatic relationship between them.


However, at the same time as we produce these signs linked to one another in time, we also do something which is outside that temporal sequence: we choose a sign from a whole range of alternative signs. So, when a journalist writes:
IRA terrorists overran an army post in Londonderry in Northern Ireland
s/he chooses each sign from a range of alternatives. S/he could say:
'IRA active units', 'IRA paramilitaries', 'IRA freedom fighters', 'IRA lunatics'
S/he could refer to Londonderry as 'Derry', the name more commonly used by nationalists; s/he could refer to Northern Ireland as 'Ulster', the 'Six Counties', the 'occupied counties' etc.
When we look at this range of possibilities, we are examining a paradigm. We are examining the paradigmatic relationship between signs. Not uncommonly, syntagm and paradigm may be conceived of as two axes:

The signs signify because of their value, which derives from the relationship between them. How can you say that repeated occurrences of the same word are in fact the same word? Saussure gives the example of two 8.45pm expresses from Geneva to Paris, leaving at 24 hour intervals. For us, they are the same express, we are talking about the same entity when we refer to it, even though its carriages, locomotive and personnel are probably quite different on the two occasions. But it is not such material identities we refer to when we refer to the '8.45 Geneva-Paris express'; rather it is the relational identity given in the timetable - this is the 8.45 Geneva-Paris express because it is not the 7.45 Geneva-Heidelberg express, the 8.45 Geneva-Turin etc.
We can examine the syntagms and paradigms in any medium. In Advertising as Communication Gillian Dyer takes the example of a photographic sign, namely the use of a stallion in a Marlboro ad. The paradigm from which the stallion is drawn includes ponies, donkeys, mules, mares. The connotations of stallion rely, on the reader's cultural knowledge of a system which can relate a stallion to feelings of freedom, wide open prairies, virility, wildness, individuality, etc.. Why were these choices made? What is communicated by them?
One way to examine the ideological meaning suggested by the signs in the message is to see how the message would differ if another were chosen from the relevant paradigm. 

For more on the nature of the sign an de Saussure's thought: 

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