Structuralism Linguistics Philosophy

Saussure’s Structuralist Linguistics

I think that what Saussure’s Structuralism amounts to is the amazing discovery that a word is itself and not other words! also that other words are not only different in  their sounds but in their meanings!  And that the meaning of the initial word is based on these differences from other words!  Brilliant! Brilliant!  Brilliant! That’s Structuralism!

Also he said that you have to put words in the right order in a sentence to make any sense! and you have to choose the right word and not a wrong word for each place in the sentence!  He called the former the ‘syntagmatic’ relationship between words; and he called the latter the ‘paradigmatic’ or associative or substitutive relationship.  That explains things!  That’s Science!

People who have never been exposed to scientific method, can be fooled into thinking this is science.  Language may have a structure when you look at it in a certain way but that doesn’t necessarily say anything at all.

Saussure had begun by stating other truths which were surely also already obvious to mankind in the late 19th century and for centuries or millenia past.  He said, for example, that things out there in the world don’t have words and names already hanging round their necks, but that we give these names to them, and that these names vary between the different languages of humanity.   (You don’t say!  Do you mean that people didn’t know that a cat isn’t called a cat by God or by Nature, or in Sanskrit or Swahili?  Amazing!).

Saussure, or the people who interpreted him, even went so far as to say that, up until then, some people saw words as actually existing, perhaps even as physical things.  Surely they didn’t, think I, unless he was referring in a rough way to Plato who thought that concepts actually existed in heaven.  But surely not in Saussure’s time or for centuries past.

Saussure was dissatisfied with the Linguistics of his day because it consisted largely of Philology which was pretty much what  today we call Etymology.  Saussure called this kind of Linguistics Diachronic in that it traced the changes in words and their meanings through the ages and from ancient languages to modern languages.  (‘Dia’ means ‘through’.  ‘Historical’ can be used instead of ‘Diachronic’.)

I love philology/etymology. I think it tells me how words came to have the meanings they do.  It gives me a misty vision of people of speaking PIE in the Caucasus or on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe where wild horses ran.  I  yearn to see the world as they did.  (Ok, so really they were nasty and brutish, and their lives shor!.)

According to Saussure, Diachronic Linguistics or Etymology isn’t enough to explain how words have the meanings they do.  These meanings come out of the structure of the modern language they are presently in, as summarized in my opening paragraph .  He called his new form of Linguistics, Synchronic.    

Saussure said spoken words sound different from one another!  And that they are made up of units of sound that are also different from one another!  These units are called ‘phonemes’.  ‘Th’ as in ‘The’, and ‘ow’ as in ‘How’ are phonemes, (and English speakers have a special way of pronouncing them).  Their written equivalents are ‘graphemes’, (from here.)    It wasn’t Saussure who invented these terms.  On looking at wikipedia, it seems I have over-simplified what exactly phonemes are.  

Saussure said that these sound-differences between phonemes and between words go to determining the different meanings of words!

It seems incredible that Saussure could have said such things as if he were discovering something for us.  Am I making a straw-man of him?  But this is the second I have attempted to understand him from many different sites.

Saussure continued: He said that every word is a Sign made up of a Signifier (i.e the actual sound of the word or its written equivalent) and a Signified (the meaning or concept it is referring to.)  (from here,)  

( I feel I have to be careful when using the term ‘referring’ in the context of Saussure, but let me go on.)

He also used the term ‘signal’ for ‘signifier’ (from here).

He said that there is an entirely arbitrary connection between signifier and signified, and also between signified (ie the concept) and the reality that actually exists out there.  I think this is the same as saying that things don’t have names hanging round their necks but that we give them to them; and also that reality isn’t already split up into different concepts but that we do the splitting and creating.

Saussure then says that what gives meaning to a word is the whole system of signs; i.e. it is the language as a whole that gives meaning to its individual elements, as I’ve  summarized in my first paragraph.

To him, a language is a structured system of signs, a closed system of relationships of words.  (Those last six words  are somewhat my own and I am not 100% sure I am justified in using them.  One has to be careful with Saussure and Structuralism.)   It is not what words are referring to that gives meaning to them! (Again, somewhat my own words.)

One example Saussure gives strikes me as good: ‘The set of synonyms redouter (“to dread”), craindre (“to fear”), and avoir peur (“to be afraid”), for instance, have their particular meaning so long as they exist in contrast to one another. But if two of the terms disappeared, then the remaining sign would take on their roles, become vaguer, less articulate, and lose its “extra something”, its extra meaning, because it would have nothing to distinguish it from.’ (from here).

‘This is an important fact to realize for two reasons: (A) it allows Saussure to argue that signs cannot exist in isolation, but are dependent on a system from within which they must be deduced in analysis, rather than the system itself being built up from isolated signs’ (from here).

Yes, there is truth in the last two paragraphs.

He called the language system as a whole ‘Langue’ and the individual utterance ‘Parole’.  In English, they are ‘Language’ and ‘Utterance’.

Saussure also made the astonishing discovery, and found it useful to tell us, that words have two kinds of relationships with other words within the structure of the language.  There is the syntagmatic (adjective of ‘syntax’) relationship, in which words come together in a certain linear sequence to create a meaningful statement.  So, one says ‘the cat sat on the mat’ and not ‘sat the mat on cat the’.  Syntagmatic relationships are relations of positioning and combination.  This seems to me to be simply the syntax we learned about at school. 

There is also the paradigmatic or associative or substitutive relationship, in that we used ‘cat’ instead of other nouns such as ‘dog’ or ‘pig’, and ‘sat’ instead of other verbs such as ‘lay’, and ‘the’ instead of other articles like ‘a’, and ‘on’ instead of other prepositions.  These rejected words could have been substituted without disrupting the syntax.  (I derived this from here and here.)  ‘Paradigmatic relationships are those of substitution and differentiation: ‘this-or-this-or-this…’  (from here.)  These choices are then linked according to syntagmatic relationship to formulate the sentence (from here).

(‘Paradigm’ is an annoying word because it has several vague meanings today and anciently in Greek; from here.)

I think Saussure saw these two relationships of syntax and of substitution also operating at the level of phonemes.

The sites I have referred to also show that relationships of syntax can be displayed on a horizontal axis, and those of possible substitution on a vertical one, which brings the whole thing closer to looking like geometry or science.  ‘Saussure set out to put linguistics on the same theoretical footing as the natural sciences’ , according to this site.   So, I wonder, was he part of the Positivistic movement of his time in wanting to have studies of humanity based on the same principles as physics?

The article by Phillips says: ‘Saussure departs from all previous theories of meaning by discovering that language can be examined independently of its referents….This is because the sign contains both its signifying element (‘signifier’ or ‘signal’) and its meaningful content (‘the signified)’ .  (But surely, say I, the signified is the referent.  Perhaps the importance here is that the referent is already contained within the sign, i.e. the word.) .

So Saussure, according to Phillips, seems to say that what the word means , i.e. its referent, enters one’s thoughts simultaneously with the word because one cannot help understanding it. (So, say I, does this mean that it enters my head instead of being out there as referent – Oi!) 

According to Phillips:  ‘At first sight this is an odd way of thinking. The meaning of the word cat is neither that particular creature nor any one of that species…..  The meaning…. is its potential to be used (e.g., in the sentence “your cat kept me up all night.”) And we need to able to use it potentially infinitely many times. So in some strict sense cat has no specific meaning at all, more like a kind of empty space into which certain images or concepts or events of usage can be spilled. For this reason Saussure was able to isolate language from any actual event of its being used to refer to things at all. This is because although the meaning of a word is determined to a certain extent in conventional use  (if I’d said “your snake kept me up” I’d have been in trouble)  there is always something undetermined, always something yet to be determined, about it. 

No, I don’t understand that last paragraph.

To me, Saussure was making tautologies and truisms explicit — ‘phonemes differ from one another’; ‘the words they make up differ from another’; ‘they all go to make up a system of internal differences’; ‘the meaning of a sign is conventional and arbitrary in relation to reality’; and ‘the meaning of a sign is differential in relation to other signs’; and so on.  To each of these, one can say: ‘You don’t say!’.  But Saussure spoke as if he were getting underneath language and explaining it.

It  doesn’t somehow sound like Scientific Method to me, not even of the human sciences.  It’s a kind of Classifying that may be useful in the university library for arranging its material and searching for something within it, and for search engines to enable them to recognize words and to produce words, which are all extremely useful.  But I don’t think it tells us anything enlightening about human beings speaking and writing.  (Oh, but then I know there’s something called ‘Library Science’, which I’m grateful for.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

I feel that Saussure and his followers felt and feel a grim need to expel the human, human intention and awareness, the human ‘supernatural’, from language.  People who teach the subject in all seriousness take on a monk-like devotion to being scientific, to banish the human, to see language in a mechanistic way (which is certainly appropriate to organizing the placement of books in a library and to the Google Search Engine in Cyberspace). 

I have read somewhere that Saussure was similar to Marx in viewing much in our way of thinking as being determined by a social structure we are not aware of.

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