Ferdinand de Saussure is effectively the founder of modern linguistics and of structuralism. The predominant modes of analyzing language prior to Saussure were historical and philological. He undertook a synchronic approach that saw language as a structure that could be studied at a given point of time in its totality and entirety. He differentiates language from speech facts by listing out the characteristics of language.
Saussure makes a distinction between language and speech facts and not between language and speech. The basic difference is that speech facts are finite and speech is infinite. Speech has infinite possibilities. Speech facts are those that are already available and spoken.
Saussure lists out the following characteristics of language.
Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts.
Saussure mentions that language can be localized in the limited site of the speaking circuit. He states that language is based on an association between an auditory image and a concept. The auditory image is associated with a concept. Language is the social side of speech, which cannot be modified or created by an individual. It requires a collective social approval. In order to understand the functioning of language an individual must serve as an apprentice. It is a gradual process just like how a child assimilates language in a moderate manner.
Language, unlike speaking, is something that we can study separately.
Any scientific study would entail one to separate certain things. In the case of economy, which is governed mainly by the respective power structure, the power structure is never taken into consideration when the economy is studied.
Likewise in the case of dead languages that are no longer spoken the respective linguistic components of that language can be assimilated. Saussure mentions that other elements of speech must be dispensed with for the scientific study of language.
Whereas speech is heterogeneous, language, as defined is homogenous.
Saussure assesses the union of meaning and sound images. He states that both the concept and sound images are psychological. Language is homogenous to the extent when it is objectified or externalized. When the objects are objectified they become homogenous.
Language is concrete.
Even though linguistic signs are basically psychological they are not abstractions. They are the creations of the human brain and of our collective consciousness. Language consists of associations, which requires collective approval.
Linguistic signs are tangible. Here Saussure establishes a clear distinction between language and speech facts. It is possible to reduce the linguistic signs to conventional written symbols whereas it would be impossible to provide detailed photographs about the act of speaking. The pronunciation of even the smallest word consists of an infinite number of muscular movements that could be identified and presented visually with great difficulty. Each of the sound images can be broken down into phonemes and these can be presented in the written form. In this way language becomes the storehouse of sound images and writing becomes the tangible form of those sound images.
Saussure builds his theory on language. He indicates that one reaches language through speech and writing.
Extract of Course in General Linguistics from the Norton Anthology.
Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 19 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 19 November 2013. Prepared by Akhil Scaria)