Introduction to Ferdinand de Saussure

LIT 101

and Psychoanalysis

Earl Jackson, Jr.

Fall 2002


Ferdinand de Saussure.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a Swiss linguist and sanskritist,
who excelled early in his career in Indo-European philology. A lecturer
in linguistics at École des Hautes Études in Paris from 1881
to 1891. From  1901-1913 he was a professor of Indo-European linguistics
and Sanskrit, and from 1907-1913 a professor General Linguistics at the
University Geneva. The work he is most famous for, A Course in General
Linguistics, was actually put together from his lecture notes by his students
after his death. It is here we find his greatest influence.

Saussurean Concepts
Three Important Binary Oppositions
in Saussure’s Thought

Langue / parole

Form / substance

Synchronic / diachronic 

Semiology: a science of signs and meanings. 


The sign:
a union of signifer and signified.

The arbitrariness
of the sign.

Meaning of sign determined by its position within
a signifying system.
The concept of value in a
system of meaning.

Two Types of Sign-relations




/ Parole
Langue: the abstract total system of a language
at a given moment in its history.  For example, „the English language“
today.  or „Middle High German.“
Parole: The actual, concretely expresed
language of an actual speaker. 

Example 1 : The difference
between „The English language itself“ and the form of English I am speaking
right now, with my accent, my particular dialect traits, my relative command
of the grammar, nuances of vocabulary, etc. 

Example 2: Middle High German as a system that
can be reconstructed from the total extant texts written in the language
is langue. The Middle High German of  Wolfram von Eschenbach and the
Middle High German of Walter von der Vogelweide are two instances of parole



Form / Substance

The form is the abstract constant underlying or giving
coherence to the particular instances of „substance.“ 

„The 8.45 from Geneva to Paris.“ two trains, one which
leaves 24-hours later than the other one. the locomotive, the cars, the
staff, are not the same. Yet we attitribute identity to the two trains.
This is a synchronic identity or a ‚form.‘ [de Saussure 151-152].


Synchronic  /  
Particularly used in terms of linguistics.
Synchronic: study of a system as it exists at
one moment in time.
Diachronic: study of a system
over a specific extent of time, or comparing a system from one period to
that of one or more others 


The Sign
The union of a signifier and a signified.

[Earl’s Note: Saussure’s
discussion takes spoken language as its basic focus, as the definitions
below indicate. We will broaden them later.

The signifier :  a  sound image.
The signified: a mental concept
The pairs of which the sign is composed can also be designated

sound image and concept

signal and signification

[Earl’s Note: A peculiar aspect
of Saussure’s categories here-

 The sound-image is 
a „form.“ When uttered one produces an instantiation of the sound-image,
but the sound-image is the abstract entity in the system, just as the concept
is. But its identity is synchronic and form-based, not substance-based.
Both halves of the sign, therefore, are forms.]



The sound images are conjoined to concepts arbitrarily.
But the concepts are not whole and intact, prior to their receiving a signifier.
A language is a systemization of sounds and a systemization of concepts,
both of which differ from language to language.
A language is a complex of three systems:




Syntagmatic  / Associative 

Syntagmatic Relations

„Words as used in discourse, strung together one after
another, enter into relations based on the linear character of languages.
. . . Combinations based on sequentiality may be called syntagmas. . .
. In its place in a syntagma, any unit acquires its value simply in opposition
to what precedes, or to what follows, or both.“ [Saussure 170-171-.

EJ: We will call these combinations
Associative Relations

„Outside the context of discourse, words having something
in common are associated together in the memory. In this way they form
groups, the members of which may be related in various ways“ 

[Saussure 171].

EJ: We will call this the paradigmatic
relation, and the structures of groups, paradigms. Following Roman Jacobsen,
the syntagm will represent the axis of combination; the paradigm, the axis
of selection.




Values always involve:


  • something dissimilar which can be exchanged for the item
    whose value is under consideration [1]
  • similar things which can be compared with the item whose
    value is under consideration. [2]

[de Saussure 160]

Example The Value of $5.00 can be measured in two

 [1] $5.00 and how much ice cream I could
buy with it.

 [2] How many German Marks I would get for
the $5.00


Earl ’s note: „Five dollars“
is a form rather than substance in some ways. If  I have „five dollars“
that could mean five hundred pennies; forty quarters; a five dollar bill;
one hundred pennies, two dollar bills, and twenty dimes, or any number
of other combinations. The actual currency is the substance but the value
is the form.
In linguistics, the value focuses on the status of a
sign within the system, its relation to all the other signs in that system.
A the value of a phoneme is its difference from other
phonemes in the system.

ba pa

ta da

ra la
The following words have generally the same meaning,
but their values are different:

house, dwelling, hovel, palace, shack, chalet, mansion,
bungalow, hideout
In comparing signs across languages, the difference in
values becomes clear too:

French „mouton“ and English „sheep“ have the same meaning
but not the same value. In English, „sheep“ is one of the animal words
that fit into a sub-system:


Animal Meat
sheep mutton
cow beef
pig pork

The French word, „mouton“ means both the animal and the
meat produced from that animal; the English word „sheep“ only means the
animal.  Thus the values of the two words are different.


Grammatical concepts also differ in value across
languages. For example, the English plural and the Sanskrit have different
values because while English grammatical number is divided between singular
and plural, Sanskrit has a mandatory distinction among  singular,
dual, and plural. English distinguishes between „one“ and „more than one“;
Sanskrit distinguishes  „one“, „two,“ and „more than two“.
Socio-familial concepts frequently have language-specific
values. Consider the English word for „sibling“ and the way the concept
is distributed in Japanese.


male female
brother sister

The is only one axis of distinction made in English: the
sex of the sibling.

In Japanese
there are three axes:


Status in relation to speaker



Word Sex Status in Relation to Speaker In-group/ Outgroup
otooto male younger „my younger brother“
otooto-san male younger „your younger brother“
ani male older „my older brother“
oniisan male older „your older brother“
imooto female younger „my younger sister“
oimooto-san female younger „your younger sister“
ane female older „my older sister
oneesan female older „your older sister“


In English, the basic verbs of motion distinguish between
motion away from the speaker [to go] and motion toward the speaker [to
come]. However, we also allow the location of the addressee to determine

Examples: He will go home tommorrow. [away from

I hope you will come over.[toward speaker]

Yes I will come over. [toward listener.]

Russian verbs of motion, first of all distinguish
among the types of surfaces across or within which one travels, and pays
no attention to direction relative to speaker or listener.

Verbs mean: travel on land (walk, crawl, climb, hope),
travel in water (swim, paddle, float, sail), travel in air (fly, leap,
sail), travel in vehicle.

Verbs of transporting objects/people: distinguish
among carrying on foot, carrying in a vehicle,  leading on foot.

These verbal core-meanings are further complicated by
the Russian Verbal aspect system. Russian verbs distinguish between an
action that’s on-going, incomplete, or repetitive on the hand, and an action
that is complete or perfected on the other.

When you map the verbs mentioned above onto the aspectual
grid, you get complex signs such as:

„I habitually go on foot carrying it there.“

or „I will go roundtrip in a vehicle once, carrying nothing.“ 



Ferdinand de Saussure

Texts by Saussure

Godel, Robert (ed.) (1957) Les Sources Manuscrites du
Cours de Linguistique Générale de F. de Saussure, Geneva
and Paris: Droz and Minard. 

Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1957) ‚Cours de Linguistique
Générale (1908-1909). IIe Cours. Introduction‘, Robert Godel
(ed.). Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 15: 2-103.

— (1961 [1894-1911]) ‚Lettres de Ferdinand de Saussure
à Antoine Meillet‘ (published by Emile Benveniste), Cahiers Ferdinand
de Saussure 21: 89-135. 

— (1967) Cours de Linguistique Générale
[= Saussure-Engler] Critical edition in three volumes, Rudolf Engler (ed.),
Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

— (1971 [1916]) Cours de Linguistique Générale
[= CLG], Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (eds.), Paris: Payot.

— (1959) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade
Baskin, New York and London: McGraw-Hill.

— (1983) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris,
London: Duckworth.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. (1959). Course de Linguistique
Générale, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration
with Albert Riedlinger [1916], trans. Wade Baskin as Course in General
Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.


Texts on Saussure

Culler, Jonathan. (1976) Saussure, London: Fontana.

Harris, Roy. (1987) Reading Saussure, London: Duckworth.

Holdcroft, David. (1991) Saussure. Signs, systems,
and arbitrariness
, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kinser, Samuel. Saussureís Anagrams: Ideological Work.
94.5 (Dec 1979): 1105-1138.

Starobinski, Jean.  Les Mots sur Les Mots. Les
anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure
, Paris: Gallimard. 1971

Thibault, Paul J. (1996). Re-reading Saussure. The dynamics
of signs in social life. London and New 

York: Routledge.

Weber, Samuel. Saussure and the Apparition of Language:
The Critical Perspective. MLN 91.5 (Oct 1976): 913-938.

Internet Resources on Saussure
See Paul J. Thibault’s online course, „Saussure
and Beyond: Renewing Semiotic Foundations
See our Catalogue
of Internet Resources for Semiotics

Introduction to Charles
Sanders Pierce

Study Guide Two

Forget the Movies
Test Patterns

LIT 101

and Psychoanalysis

Jackson, Jr.

Fall 2002