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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Introduction to Ferdinand de Saussure and the Characteristics of Language

This short essay will begin with a brief introduction to Ferdinand de Saussure. Following which, the concepts of langue and parole will be introduced. The characteristics of language proposed by Saussure in "The Object of Linguistics", Course in General Linguistics will be briefly explored.


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is considered the founder of modern linguistics, and through his contributions to linguistics, structuralism as well. Born into an erudite Swiss family and having studied in the universities of Berlin and Leipzig; he taught courses in Gothic, Old German, Latin and Persian in Paris and the University of Geneva. He later on took up courses in historical and comparative linguistics, due to lack of teaching faculty. Saussure always prepared fresh notes for every lecture, and it was in the posthumous compilation of lecture notes by his colleagues into Course in General Linguistics (1916), that Saussure's work proved to be foundational to a number of disciplines, particularly Linguistics and Structuralism.


At the outset, it is important to define two important dimensions proposed by Saussure- langue and parole. While the former refers to 'language as a structured system grounded on certain rules', the latter is 'the specific acts of speech or utterance which are based on those rules' (Habib 634). In opposition to the approach adopted by traditional linguistics and philology, Saussure suggested that the langue, and not the parole must be the object of scientific description and investigation.

The following are the characteristics of language proposed by Saussure:

        i.            Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts.

      ii.   something that can be studied separately.

    iii.            Whereas speech is heterogenous, language as defined, is homogenous.

    iv.            Language is concrete.

Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts.

Saussure establishes that language is based an association on an auditory image with a concept. This association is based on a shared consensus, and cannot be modified by individuals within the linguistic system. At this particular instance, Saussure is not referring to the coining of new words and expressions, rather the underlying structure that governs the use of language, langue. Thus, despite the infinite possibilities in speech and the multiplicity of utterances in speech acts (parole), the underlying langue or structure, or language, remains well-defined, and therefore homogenous (refer to point iii.), in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts. something we can study separately.

As mentioned above, Saussure suggested that the study of langue should be the basis of the study of language. This is because if one was to use parole or a set of speech facts to study a language, one would also need to study the contexts and factors due to which the utterances were made. Going by this argument of ignoring the 'other elements of speech' for the scientific study of language, Saussure suggests that even dead languages may be studied.

Language is concrete.

Despite being an arbitrary connection between an auditory image and a concept, Saussure believes that the linguistics signs are not abstractions, since they are the productions of the human brain and a collective consciousness. Each of the sound images can be broken down into phonemes, and all of these may be represented in the written form. According to Saussure, it is this aspect of language that not only makes it concrete, but also permits it to be described and represented in metalingual texts such as dictionaries and grammar books.




Extract of Course in General Linguistics from the Norton Anthology.


A, Vijayganesh. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 18 Nov. 2013. 

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Web.


(Notes of the lecture delivered on 18 November 2013. Prepared by Kevin Frank Fernandes)

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