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Course In General Linguistics

Course in General Linguistics (French: Cours de linguistique générale) is an influential book compiled by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye from notes on lectures given by Ferdinand de Saussure at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. It was published in 1916, after Saussure’s death, and is generally regarded as the starting point of structural linguistics, an approach to linguistics that flourished in Europe and the United States in the first half of the 20th century. One of Saussure’s translators, Roy Harris, summarized Saussure’s contribution to linguistics and the study of language in the following way:

“Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world. This typically twentieth-century view of language has profoundly influenced developments throughout the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology“.[1]

Although Saussure was specifically interested in historical linguistics, the Course develops a theory of semiotics that is more generally applicable. A manuscript containing Saussure’s original notes was found in 1996, and later published as Writings in General Linguistics.

Semiology: langage, langue, and parole

Saussure focuses on what he calls langage, that’s “a system of signs that express ideas,” and suggests that it may be divided into two components: langue, referring to the abstract system of language that is internalized by a given speech community, and parole, the individual acts of speech and the “putting into practice of language”.

While speech (parole) is heterogeneous, that is to say composed of unrelated or differing parts or elements, language (langue) is homogeneous, composed of the union of meanings and ‘sound images’ in which both parts are psychological. Therefore, as langue is systematic, it is this that Saussure focuses on since it allows an investigative methodology that is rooted, supposedly, in pure science. Beginning with the Greek word ‘semîon’ meaning ‘sign’, Saussure names this science semiology: ‘a science that studies the life of signs within society‘.

A popular view of language is that it is a natural organism, that grows and evolves in accordance with fixed laws and is not determinable by the will of humans. Saussure argued against that organicist view of language. Instead, he defined language as a social product, the social side of speech being beyond the control of the speaker. According to Saussure, language is not a function of the speaker, but is passively assimilated. Speaking, as defined by Saussure, is a premeditated act.

The sign

The focus of Saussure’s investigation is the linguistic unit or sign.

The sign (signe) is described as a “double entity”, made up of the signifier, or sound image (signifiant), and the signified, or concept (signifié). The sound image is a psychological, not a material concept, belonging to the system. Both components of the linguistic sign are inseparable. One way to appreciate this is to think of them as being like either side of a piece of paper – one side simply cannot exist without the other.

The relationship between signifier and signified is, however, not quite that simple. Saussure is adamant that language cannot be considered a collection of names for a collection of objects (as where Adam is said to have named the animals). According to Saussure, language is not a nomenclature. Indeed, the basic insight of Saussure’s thought is that denotation, the reference to objects in some universe of discourse, is mediated by system-internal relations of difference.


For Saussure, there is no essential or natural reason why a particular signifier should be attached to a particular signified. Saussure calls this the “arbitrariness of the sign” (l’arbitraire du signe).

Fig. 2 – Arbitrariness

No two people have precisely the same concept of “tree,” since no two people have precisely the same experiences or psychology. We can communicate “tree,” however, for the same reason we can communicate at all: because we have agreed to use it in a consistent way. If we agreed to use the word and sound for “horse” instead, it would be called “horse” to the same effect. Since all that is important is agreement and consistency, the connection is arbitrary.

In Lewis Carroll‘s book Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Alice comes across nonsense poem called Jabberwocky. Carroll exploits the arbitrary nature of the signifier-signified relationship through use of nonsense words, empty signifiers which refer to no concept but which we naturally try to ascribe signifieds to.

Excerpt from Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

In further support of the arbitrary nature of the sign, Saussure goes on to argue that if words stood for pre-existing universal concepts they would have exact equivalents in meaning from one language to the next and this is not so. Languages reflect shared experience in complicated ways and can paint very different pictures of the world from one another. To explain this, Saussure uses the word bœuf as an example. In English, he says, we have different words for the animal and the meat product: Ox and beef. In French, bœuf is used to refer to both concepts. In Saussure’s view, particular words are born out of a particular society’s needs, rather than out of a need to label a pre-existing set of concepts.

But the picture is actually even more complicated, through the integral notion of ‘relative motivation’. Relative motivation refers to the compositionality of the linguistic system, along the lines of an immediate constituent analysis. This is to say that, at the level of langue, hierarchically nested signifiers have relatively determined signified. An obvious example is in the English number system: That is, though twenty and two might be arbitrary representations of a numerical concept, twenty-two, twenty-three etc. are constrained by those more arbitrary meanings. The tense of verbs provides another obvious example: The meaning of “kicked” is relatively motivated by the meanings of “kick-” and “-ed”. But, most simply, this captures the insight that the value of a syntagm—a system-level sentence—is a function of the value of the signs occurring in it. It is for this reason that Leonard Bloomfield called the lexicon the set of fundamental irregularities of the language. (Note how much of the “meaningfulness” of the Jabberwocky poem is due to these sorts of compositional relationships!)

A further issue is onomatopoeia. Saussure recognised that his opponents could argue that with onomatopoeia there is a direct link between word and meaning, signifier and signified. However, Saussure argues that, on closer etymological investigation, onomatopoeic words can, in fact, be coincidental, evolving from non-onomatopoeic origins. The example he uses is the French and English onomatopoeic words for a dog’s bark, that is Ouaf Ouaf and Bow Wow.

Finally, Saussure considers interjections and dismisses this obstacle with much the same argument, i.e., the sign/signifier link is less natural than it initially appears. He invites readers to note the contrast in pain interjection in French (aie) and English (ouch).


The value of a sign is determined by all the other signs in the langue.

Fig. 3 – Value

Saussure realized that if linguistics was going to be an actual science, language could not be a mere nomenclature; for otherwise it would be little more than a fashionable version of lexicology, constructing lists of the definitions of words. Thus he argued that the sign is ultimately determined by the other signs in the system, which delimit its meaning and possible range of use, rather than its internal sound-pattern and concept. Sheep, for example, has the same meaning as the French word mouton, but not the same value, for mouton can also be used to mean the meal lamb, whereas sheep cannot, because it has been delimited by mutton.

Language is therefore a system of interdependent entities. But not only does it delimit a sign’s range of use, for which it is necessary, because an isolated sign could be used for absolutely anything or nothing without first being distinguished from another sign, but it is also what makes meaning possible. The set of synonyms redouter (“to dread”), craindre (“to fear”), and avoir peur (“to be afraid”), for instance, have their particular meaning so long as they exist in contrast to one another. But if two of the terms disappeared, then the remaining sign would take on their roles, become vaguer, less articulate, and lose its “extra something”, its extra meaning, because it would have nothing to distinguish it from.

This is an important fact to realize for two reasons: (A) it allows Saussure to argue that signs cannot exist in isolation, but are dependent on a system from within which they must be deduced in analysis, rather than the system itself being built up from isolated signs; and (B) he could discover grammatical facts through syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses.

Syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations

Language works through relations of difference, then, which place signs in opposition to one another. Saussure asserted that there are only two types of relations: syntagmatic and paradigmatic. The latter is associative, and clusters signs together in the mind, producing sets: sat, mat, cat, bat, for example, or thought, think, thinking, thinker. Sets always involve a similarity, but difference is a prerequisite, otherwise none of the items would be distinguishable from one another: this would result in there being a single item, which could not constitute a set on its own.

These two forms of relation open linguistics up to phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. Take morphology, for example. The signs cat and cats are associated in the mind, producing an abstract paradigm of the word forms of cat. Comparing this with other paradigms of word forms, we can note that in the English language the plural often consists of little more than adding an s to the end of the word. Likewise, in syntax, through paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis, we can discover the grammatical rules for constructing sentences: the meaning of je dois (“I should”) and dois je? (“Should I?”) differ completely simply because of word order, allowing us to note that to ask a question in French, you only have to invert the word order. A third valuation of language stems from its social contract, or its accepted use in culture as a tool between two humans.

Since syntagmas can belong to speech, the linguist must identify how often they are used before he can be assured that they belong to the language.

Synchronic and diachronic axes

Language that is studied synchronically is “studied as a complete system at a given point in time” (The AB axis). Language studied diachronically is “studied in its historical development” (The CD axis). Saussure argues that we should be concerned with the AB axis (in addition to the CD axis, which was the focus of attention in Saussure’s time), because, he says, language is “a system of pure values which are determined by nothing except the momentary arrangements of its terms”. We could study chess diachronically (how the rules change through time) or synchronically (the actual rules).

To illustrate this, Saussure uses a chess metaphor. In chess, a person joining a game’s audience mid-way through requires no more information than the present layout of pieces on the board and who the next player is. They would not benefit from knowing how the pieces came to be arranged in this way.

Geographic linguistics

A portion of Course in General Linguistics comprises Saussure’s ideas regarding the geographical branch of linguistics.[2]

According to Saussure, the geographic study of languages deals with external, not internal, linguistics. Geographical linguistics, Saussure explains, deals primarily with the study of linguistic diversity across lands, of which there are two kinds: diversity of relationship, which applies to languages assumed to be related; and absolute diversity, in which case there exists no demonstrable relationship between compared languages. Each type of diversity constitutes a unique problem, and each can be approached in a number of ways.

For example, the study of Indo-European and Chinese languages (which are not related) benefits from comparison, of which the aim is to elucidate certain constant factors which underlie the establishment and development of any language. The other kind of variation, diversity of relationship, represents infinite possibilities for comparisons, through which it becomes clear that dialects and languages differ only in gradient terms. Of the two forms of diversity, Saussure considers diversity of relationship to be the more useful with regard to determining the essential cause of geographical diversity.

While the ideal form of geographical diversity would, according to Saussure, be the direct correspondence of different languages to different areas, the asserted reality is that secondary factors must be considered in tandem with the geographical separation of different cultures.

For Saussure, time is the primary catalyst of linguistic diversity, not distance. To illustrate his argument, Saussure considers a hypothetical population of colonists, who move from one island to another. Initially, there is no difference between the language spoken by the colonists on the new island and their homeland counterparts, in spite of the obvious geographical disconnect. Saussure thereby establishes that the study of geographical diversity is necessarily concentrated upon the effects of time on linguistic development. Taking a monoglot community as his model (that is, a community which speaks only one language), Saussure outlines the manner in which a language might develop and gradually undergo subdivision into distinct dialects.

Saussure’s model of differentiation has 2 basic principles: (1) that linguistic evolution occurs through successive changes made to specific linguistic elements; and (2) that these changes each belong to a specific area, which they affect either wholly or partially.

It then follows from these principles that dialects have no natural boundary, since at any geographical point a particular language is undergoing some change. At best, they are defined by “waves of innovation”—in other words, areas where some set of innovations converge and overlap.

The “wave” concept is integral to Saussure’s model of geographical linguistics—it describes the gradient manner in which dialects develop. Linguistic waves, according to Saussure, are influenced by two opposed forces: parochialism, which is the basic tendency of a population to preserve its language’s traditions; and intercourse, in which communication between people of different areas necessitates the need for cross-language compromise and standardization. Intercourse can prevent dialectical fragmentation by suppressing linguistic innovations; it can also propagate innovations throughout an area encompassing different populations. Either way, the ultimate effect of intercourse is unification of languages. Saussure remarks that there is no barrier to intercourse where only gradual linguistic transitions occur.

Having outlined this monoglot model of linguistic diversity, which illustrates that languages in any one area are undergoing perpetual and nonuniform variation, Saussure turns to languages developing in two separate areas.

In the case of segregated development, Saussure draws a distinction between cases of contact and cases of isolation. In the latter, commonalities may initially exist, but any new features developed will not be propagated between the two languages. Nevertheless, differentiation will continue in each area, leading to the formation of distinct linguistic branches within a particular family.

The relations characterizing languages in contact are in stark contrast to the relations of languages in isolation. Here, commonalities and differences continually propagate to one another—thus, even those languages that are not part of the same family will manage to develop common features.


Linguist Noam Chomsky maintained that structural linguistics was efficient for phonology and morphology, because both have a finite number of units that the linguist can collect. However, he did not believe structural linguistics was sufficient for syntax, reasoning that an infinite number of sentences could be uttered, rendering a complete collection impossible. Instead, he proposed the job of the linguist was to create a small set of rules that could generate all the sentences of a language, and nothing but those sentences.[3] Chomsky’s critiques led him to found generative grammar.

One of Chomsky’s key objections to structural linguistics was its inadequacy in explaining complex and/or ambiguous sentences. As philosopher John R. Searle[3] writes:

…”John is easy to please” and “John is eager to please” look as if they had exactly the same grammatical structure. Each is a sequence of noun-copula-adjective-infinitive verb. But in spite of this surface similarity the grammar of the two is quite different. In the first sentence, though it is not apparent from the surface word order, “John” functions as the direct object of the verb to please; the sentence means: it is easy for someone to please John. Whereas in the second “John” functions as the subject of the verb to please; the sentence means: John is eager that he please someone. That this is a difference in the syntax of the sentences comes out clearly in the fact that English allows us to form the noun phrase “John’s eagerness to please” out of the second, but not “John’s easiness to please” out of the first. There is no easy or natural way to account for these facts within structuralist assumptions.

By the latter half of the 20th century, many of Saussure’s ideas were under heavy criticism. His linguistic ideas are now generally considered important in their time, but outdated and superseded by developments such as cognitive linguistics. In 1972, Chomsky described structural linguistics as an “impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language,”[4] while in 1984, Marcus Mitchell declared that structural linguistics were “fundamentally inadequate to process the full range of natural language [and furthermore were] held by no current researchers, to my knowledge.”[5] Holland[6] writes that it was widely accepted that Chomsky had “decisively refuted Saussure. […] Much of Chomsky’s work is not accepted by other linguists [and] I am not claiming that Chomsky is right, only that Chomsky has proven that Saussure is wrong. Linguists who reject Chomsky claim to be going beyond Chomsky, or they cling to phrase-structure grammars. They are not turning back to Saussure.”

In the 1950s as structural linguistics were fading in importance in linguistics, Saussure’s ideas were appropriated by several prominent figures in continental philosophy, and from there were borrowed in literary theory, where they are used to interpret novels and other texts. However, several critics have charged that Saussure’s ideas have been misunderstood or deliberately distorted by continental philosophers and literary theorists.[7][8] For example, Searle[9] notes that, in developing his “deconstruction” method, Jacques Derrida altered the truth value of one of Saussure’s key concepts: “The correct claim that the elements of the language only function as elements because of the differences they have from one another is converted into the false claim that the elements […] are ‘constituted on’ (Derrida) the traces of these other elements.”


There have been two translations into English, one by Wade Baskin (1959), and one by Roy Harris (1983).

See also


  1. ^ Harris, R. 1988. Language, Saussure and Wittgenstein. Routledge. pix.
  2. ^ This section of the article references the Roy Harris translation of the book.
  3. ^ a b Searle, John R. (June 29, 1972). “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics”. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 1 August 2012. 
  4. ^ Chomsky, Noam. (1972) Language and Mind. Enlarged Ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 20
  5. ^ Marcus, Mitchell, (1984) “Some Inadequate Theories of Human Language Processing.” Talking Minds: The Study of Language in Cognitive Science. Eds. Thomas G. Bever, John M. Carroll, and Lance A. Miller. Cambridge MA: MIT P, 1984. 253-77.
  6. ^ Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I, Columbia University Press, ISBN ISBN 0-231-07650-9
  7. ^ Tallis, Raymond. Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory, Macmillan Press 1988, 2nd ed. 1995.
  8. ^ Tallis, Raymond. Theorrhoea and After, Macmillan, 1998.
  9. ^ Searle, John R. “Word Turned Upside Down.” New York Review of Books, Volume 30, Number 16· October 27, 1983.


  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 0-19-285383-X.
  • Culler, Jonathan. Saussure. Fontana. 1976. ISBN 0-00-633743-0.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers. 1999. ISBN 0-631-20188-2.
  • Godel, R. Les sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de F. de Saussure. Genève – Paris 1957.
  • Harris, Roy. Reading Saussure: A critical commentary on the Cours de linguistique générale. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. 1987. ISBN 0-8126-9049-4
  • Mauro, T. de. (ed.), Edition critique du `Cours de linguistique générale’ de F. de Saussure. Paris 1972.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. Cours in Literary Theory: An Anthology ed. by Michael Ryan and Julie Rivkin. Blackwell Publishers. 2001. ISBN 1-4051-0696-4.

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Course In General Linguistics, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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