Philosophy Anti-Philosophy Structuralism Linguistics

Saussure’s Structuralist Linguistics

I have gone through the numerous articles on Saussure’s Structuralism of Language three times, and been beaten back each time by my disbelief that it could have been taken seriously as science or philosophy. .

Structuralism from its beginning seems to me to have been handing out nothing but the most obvious of  truisms.  Saussure, for a start, tells us that things in the world don’t come with the right words for them hanging round their necks! but that different cultures give them different names!.  The word for a tree is different in English from in French or Sanskrit!  The words that get applied to things and their properties are purely arbitrary and not foreordained. (Do you mean that people hadn’t known for almost ever that a cat isn’t called a cat by God or by Nature, or in Sanskrit or Swahili?  Amazing!).

Saussure, or his interpreters, even went so far as to say that, up until then, some people saw words as actually existing, perhaps even as physical things.  (Surely, think I, people couldn’t have been so stupid, unless he was roughly referring to Plato who thought that concepts actually existed in heaven.  But surely not in Saussure’s time or for centuries past.)

Saussure also tells us that words are made up of different units of sound (!) that are different form one another (!) and this is what gives meaning to what we say or write.  

So far one can say that Saussure’s Structuralism amounts to the amazing discovery that a word is itself and not other words! Also that other words are not only different from the initial word in their sounds but in their meanings too!  Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!  And that the meaning of the initial word is based on these differences from other words! This latter comment begins to touch on Saussure’s theory that the meaning of a word is created by the meanings of other words and not by what it refers to. (Have I got that exactly precisely right?  One has to be very careful with Saussure’s Structuralism and with the word ‘refer’.)  Also that each word is made of units of sound which also are different from each other.  That’s Structuralism! 

Have I so far made a straw-man of him by over-simplifying and not really understanding? Let me go deeper into what he said:

LINGUISTICS — DIACHRONIC AND SYNCHRONIC:  Saussure was rather scornful of the Linguistics of his day because it was  concerned largely with Etymology, at that time called Philology.  He called this kind of Linguistics Diachronic or Historical, in that it traced the changes in words and their meanings through the ages, and from ancient languages to modern ones.  He thought this an inadequate way to explain how words have the meanings they presently do. He thought that these present meanings come out of the structure of the language they are presently in.  So he called his new form of Linguistics, Synchronic.

I love Etymology because it tells me how words come by historical change to have the meanings they do.  It gives me a misty vision of people speaking Proto-Indo-European on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe where wild horses ran.  I yearn to see the world as they did.  (I know that really their lives were nasty, brutish, and short).

SIGNIFIER AND SIGNIFIED:  In his synchronic linguistics, Saussure said that every word is a Sign made up of a Signifier or Signal – which is the actual sound of the word or its written equivalent – and a Signified – which is the meaning or concept it is referring to (from here  and here) .  ( Again, I feel I have to be careful when using the term ‘referring’ in the context of Saussure, but let me go on.)

He said that there is an entirely arbitrary connection between the signifier (the sound of the word) and the signified (the meaning of the word), and also between the signified (i.e. 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 for us, but that we do it.

PHONEMES: He also said that spoken words sound different from one another!  And they are made up of units of sound that also sound different from one another!  These units are called ‘phonemes’.  ‘Th’ as in ‘The’, and ‘ow’ as in ‘How’ are phonemes.  The written equivalents of phonemes are ‘graphemes’, (from here).  These two terms were already in existence when Saussure used them. 

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

(I may have over-simplified what exactly phonemes are, see wikipedia, but it was as much as I could take.)  

SYNTAGMATIC  AND PARADIGMATIC:  Saussure also made the astonishing discovery, and found it useful to tell us, that words have two kinds of relationships with other words when used in the language.  

There is the syntagmatic 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’.  So, to phrase it abstractly, syntagmatic relationships are relations of positioning and combination.  This seems to me to be the syntax we learnt at school.  ‘Syntagmatic’ is the adjective of ‘syntax’.

And for each place in the sentence, you have to choose the right word and not a wrong word! (You don’t say!)  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 (from here and here).  That is called the ‘paradigmatic’ or ‘associative’ or ‘substitutive’ relationship.  ‘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 even anciently in Greek; from here.)

Anyway, that explains things!  That’s Science!

The sites I have referred to, show that relationships of syntax can be displayed on a horizontal axis; and those of possible substitution on a vertical axis containing all the other words that aren’t in its place.   That brings the whole thing closer to looking like geometry or science.  But these axes are just obvious properties of ‘relationship’; it’s like saying that a brick is in one place in the yard, while buckets, sacks, trees and other bricks are standing in other places.   But that’s not science of bricks or of anything.

(I think Saussure saw relationships of syntax and of substitution not only operating at the level of words but also of phonemes, but that sounds obvious.)  

 

LANGUE AND PAROLE:  Saussure then said that what gives meaning to a word is the whole system of signs, i.e. of words.  This system is the language as a whole.  It is the language that gives meaning to its individual elements, i.e. to its words.

To him, a language was 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 very careful with Saussure and his Structuralism.)   It is not what words are referring to that gives meaning to them! (Again, somewhat my own words.)  What gives meaning to words is the whole closed system of the language itself!

Each phoneme and each word is different from other words and phonemes, and this difference gives it its meaning!  Because the word ‘true’ sounds different from ‘tree’, it is that difference and all the other differences from other words, that gives ‘true’ its meaning.  So, you see, the meaning of a word is embedded in the system of the language as a a whole.  

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

One good example that Saussure himself gave of a word getting its meaning from other words, was: “The set of synonyms redouter (‘to dread’), craindre (‘to fear’), and avoir peur (‘to be afraid’), for instance, have their particular meanings 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).

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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 third time I have attempted to understand him from many different sites.

People who have never been exposed to scientific method, can be fooled into thinking this is science.  Yes, it’s possible at a stretch to see language in this way, to make a logical case for it, therefore we think it’s true!  Or to put it another way: Language may have a structure when you look at it in a certain way but that doesn’t necessarily say anything at all. 

 Am I right in saying that what Saussure pointed out were ‘logical connections’ of language, simply a laborious re-wording of what is obvious and barely worth saying?  

It also doesn’t sound like Scientific Method to me.  It seems a kind of classifying that I imagine 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.  But I don’t think it tells us anything enlightening about the language that people use.    

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Here are some later opinions on what Saussure achieved:

‘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 human studies on the same principles as those of physics?)

Phillips, a philosopher, says here: ‘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.  But perhaps Phillips saw the referent as already being contained within the sign, i.e. the word.

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

Phillips now gives us a paragraph that I have tried over and over to make sense of but gave up.  I’ll give it here because I think it representative of what has appeared over the last hundred years since Saussure:  “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.” 

I still can’t make any meaning of that last paragraph.

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I think some Structuralists have found that our language is a priorly organized system that not only gives meanings to our words, but channels our thoughts and values, and predisposes us to certain attitudes and actions, so that we are not autonomous.  So Structuralism may be seen in its effects as similar to Marx’s belief that men’s minds are channeled by an external system of ideas that they are not aware of.

I feel also that Saussure and his followers felt a grim need to expel the human supernatural from language.  People who teach the subject in all seriousness take on a monk-like devotion to being scientific.  The lure of being scientific is very attractive  because it is intellectually more difficult than remaining at the level of the concrete perceptions of human life by human beings.

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