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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Values and Relations in Language

This document highlights certain notions that Saussure elaborates upon in Course in General Linguistics. The document is constructed based on the reading of the text and classroom interactions of first year M.A. English students at Christ University, Bangalore.


Chapter IV: Sections 3: Linguistic Value from a Material Viewpoint.


The Word: The word is not the sound alone but the phonic differences that make it possible to distinguish this word from all others.


The focus of this definition lies in difference and it suggests that signification is primarily the non-coincidence of different segments of language.  The differential aspect of signification is thus correlative to the arbitrariness of signification.


The conclusion that Saussure arrives here is that Signs function based on their relative position in the language system and not due to any intrinsic value.


Incorporeal Language: The material element of language is only secondary. The example that Saussure provides to justify this statement is that of the value of a coin. He says that a coin has value not because of the material used to make the coin but according to the amount stamped upon it and according to its use inside or outside a political boundary.


Thus, the linguistic signifier is constituted not by its material substance but by the difference that separates its sound-image from all others.


The Written Sign:

·            The sign used in language is arbitrary. That is to say that the written sign 't' has no relation to the sound /t/, this relation is purely arbitrary.

·            The value of the letters is purely negative and differential, the only requirement is that the written sign for 't' should not be confused in script for the signs for 'l' or 'd' etc.


Chapter IV: Sections 4: The Sign Considered in its Totality.


Until this section Saussure seems to be making the claim that in language are only differences. In this section he presents the view that when the sign is considered in its totality there is no difference, only distinction or opposition.


I.e. although both the signifier and the signified are purely differential terms when considered separately, their combination is a positive fact.





 Signifier                        =    Differential + Negative

 Signified                       =    Differential + Negative

 Signifier + Signified   =    Oppositional   +  Positive



Chapter V: Sections 1: Syntagmatic and Associative Relations.


In a language state everything is based on Relations. These are of two classes that correspond to two forms of our mental activity. The two classes are Syntagmatic and Associative.


Inside Discourse, Words acquire relations based on the linear nature of language because they are chained together, ruling out the possibility of pronouncing two elements simultaneously.


Combinations supported by linearity are Syntagms.  In Syntagm a term acquires its value based on its position in the chain.

The Syntagmatic relation is in presentia  (present)


Outside Discourse, Words acquire relations of a different kind, one that it based on the association of common facts in memory. This results in groups marked by diverse relations

The Associative relation is in absentia (in a potential mnemonic series).


Extract of Course in General Linguistics from the Norton Anthology.

A, Vijayganesh. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 26 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 26 November 2013. Prepared by Shyam Nair)


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