Monday, August 2, 2021

Saussure's Sign Theroy Explained (basic concepts and examples)

Saussure's linguistic theory semiotic insofar as it interprets language as a set of signs. The linguist distinguishes two elements in the sign : the signified and the signifier . As Saussure wrote: “The signified and the signifier contract a link” . 


The signified designates the concept, that is to say the mental representation of a thing. Contrary to popular belief, language is not a repertoire of words that reflect pre-existing things or concepts by affixing labels. If this were the case, the words of one language, but also its grammatical categories would always have their exact counterpart in another. This observation leads Saussure to distinguish meaning and value  : "mutton" and "sheep" have the same meaning, but not the same value, since English for its part distinguishes sheep , the animal, from its meat, mutton.


The signifier designates according to Saussure' is the acoustic image of a word. What matters in a word is not its sound itself, but the phonic differences that distinguish it from others. Its value stems from these differentiations. Each language builds its lexicon from a limited number of phonemes, characterized as signifieds, not by their own and positive quality, but by what sets them apart: rolling an “r” in French is of no consequence for comprehension; not doing so in Arabic leads to confusion.

The sign taken in its entirety 

Saussure's fundamental idea is that language is a closed system of signs. Every sign is defined in relation to others, by pure difference (negatively), and not by its own characteristics (positively): this is why Saussure speaks of a “system”. Named however (after his death) "father of structuralism  ", he never, at any time, and this is notable, used the term "structure": he always spoke of "  system  ".

Arbitrariness of the sign 

Language simultaneously cuts out a signifier from the unformed mass of sounds and a signified from the unformed mass of concepts.

The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and unmotivated: in English for example, there is no essential binding link between the sound "tree" and the object that can be named anything else by other languages. 

More on Saussure's linguistic theory: