Now you can view this blog on your mobile phones! Give a try.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

V Semester Literary theory class notes 4

18 June 2010

The topic that were to be discussed in today’s and the next class are

1.     Saussure’s idea of language- the sign system

2.     The arbitrary nature of language

3.     Signifier exists in time

4.     Thought and language

5.     Question of language/ parole

6.     Signification

7.     Value

8.     Difference

9.     Syntagm and paradigm


Saussure says that word represented thing. For example the term ‘duster’ represents a something that a teacher or lecturer uses to clean the blackboard. All words have certain objects to represent.

This means that any word has two properties,
·      The word itself
·      What it suggests
For example when the word auditorium is used in a classroom, there is no auditorium in the class, yet when the term is mentioned everyone gets the picture of, or understand what is being implied by it. It is the idea of the word that exists in the classroom. And this is what happens
most of the time. What we have is the sound through which we get the picture of things. Be it buildings, objects, even feelings.

So we have the word and what it suggests.

Then Saussure labels the word and says that the word is actually a sign,
And the sign has two parts- signifier and the signified.

Here the signifier is the word, the sound or the combination of sounds. And there is a sound image. The sound controls the imagery of mind
The example given by Saussure is that of a tree. When the word ‘tree’ is pronounced, the image of a tree comes in your mind.

Here Saussure is talking only about the spoken language.
So when you make the sound tr-ee or /tri:/, the image created in the mind is the sound image or a visual image.


Saussure says that relationship between signifier and signified, sound and image is at any point of time arbitrary. He said there is no natural relationship between the sound and the image.

This is because when you say, vriksha (hindi), paed (hindi) or mara (kannada) you are creating the same image as tree. Therefore there is no natural relationship. We can decide and create new words or a language if the community agrees to it.

For example if the entire college agrees to calling the tree “taro”, and gives the ‘swaying of tree’ the term “taroying”, the same image will be created in the dead as tree or swaying of tree when I say “taro”  or “taroying” respectively.

Thus the relationship is arbitrary and not natural.

If it was natural, when I say 'Tree' everybody all around the world must get the same image in their head, but this is not the case. A person who does not know English, this image with not be created. Also, there would have been only one language in the world, which is not the case. 

Now the question arises is what about Pantomime and Onomatopoeic expressions. 

Pantomimes are movements or certain gestures that are acted out to create a meaning. If through an action you are able to create the same meaning, and everybody in the world understands that meaning then this theory of this arbitrary relationship is wrong. 

But this is not true. Take the example of road signs, only a person who drives/rides or travels much by road will recognize the road signs. A particular tribe from an area where these signs are these signs will not make sense to them. 

If this example seems to extreme, you can take the example of clapping. Clapping can have many different significations. Clapping can be for example, an applaud, or simply to tell a speaker that he/she has exceeded time or is boring. A clap can be to call someone also. So is also the case with laughter. This ambiguity of significations explains the arbitrary relationship of signifier and signified.

Coming to Onomatopoeic words. Consider an example of your hand getting caught in the door, now if you’re an Indian you would scream “Aaaa!” or “Aiyo!”, although if you are a British you might say “Ouch!”
Also the words we use to term the sounds of animals like Dogs. In India it is “Bhow-Bhow” whereas in Europe it will be “Woof-Woof”


Saussure says that signifier exists in time, which means that nobody in this world can produce or say two words simultaneously.

When we speak, we speak one word plus another word plus another word and so on. It is impossible to say two words at once, one will always be after another.


For Saussure thought and language are inseparable. He says that without language there can be no thought and thought gets order, expression and meaning only because of language. If there is no language there can be no thought and thought is only in language.

Question by Anusha: “Can thought not be in images?”


Saussure says what we have is langue. What we learn as children is a structure that is there. There is a basic structure in every language this structure never changes.

For example the SVO (subject-verb-object) structure of sentence in English and the SOV (subject-object –verb) structure in Indian languages.

What we speak is parole and parole will have different combinations all the time.

So every language has a langue, which is a basic structure from where people pick up thousands of combinations. They are so numerous that no two piece of writing or speech are exactly similar.

The proof of this can be seen in a software which detects whether what you have written is original or copied from some other work. Therefore no two assignment or essay or any piece of writing can ever be same.

And if you are given any sentence in the language you know well, you can tell whether it is grammatically correct or wrong. Therefore there is a universal rule to that, which Saussure terms as langue.

Saussure does not use the word meaning. He uses the word signification. When signifier and signified come together or when you relate them, what you have is signification.

Consider a modern art gallery, if you have no background on modern art, art pieces will just seem as some colourful designs without any meaning. But if someone comes and explains to you what the strokes and colours signify you begin to understand the significations that the artist uses.

Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Introduction to Literary Theory. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 18 June 2010

No comments: