Course in General Linguistics: The Arbitrary Quality of Words and Meaning

Language is communication, but it’s more than that. Have you ever stopped to wonder how we would communicate without language? Now take a moment to move beyond that. If ideas could not be communicated, would we able to think at all? Can one think or conceptualize without language? Perhaps the single most groundbreaking work in the theory of linguistics is Ferdinand De Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. This collection of De Saussure’s notes astutely asserts his theory which conceives of language as being a structure that is effectively used to unite a community by arbitrarily inserting meaning into sounds based first upon the collective agreement of the signification of a word and then the value established by the relationship that comes to exist beween those significations.

Course in General Linguistics begins by outlining the three distinct phases of linguistics. The first phase was grammar and it was, as was so much else, developed by the ancient Greeks. The second phase was philology, or the study of context, and it had its origins in the 19th century. The third phase is the comprehension that languages differentiatd by geography and culture could be bonded undiscovered relationships. Ferdinand de Saussure petitions for the study of all known languages in an attempt to discover these bonds and to reveal the greatest generality that exists between them.

Ferdinand de Saussure starts off with the idea that language is a series of sounds produced by just about everyone who has, does, or ever will exist. In this way, language per se becomes a product of one’s ability to articulate. There are two different relations involved in this conception of language. The first relation is termed associative because words are used to create associations beween the sounds we speak and hear, and the memories we carry with us in order to comparmentalize them in groups or series of meanings. The other relation is known as the syntagmatic relation, which basically means nothing more complex than studying the understanding of a world depending on how it relates to another word in the same sentence.

Course in General Linguistics is ironic, to a point, because though it is a book about language, and we normally associated language with words, much of the understanding of his theories is dependent upon the many diagrams he uses. Ferdinand de Saussure expends a great deal of energy in developing and explaining the value of terms as they relate to the meaning of words. In a sense, language under Saussure almost begins to veer into mathematics.

Ferdinand de Saussure should be considered what they term a major player in the field of linguistics. And de Saussure’s primary contribution to linguistics is his understanding that language is nothing less than a social institution. He goes further by explaining how language is not organized through an objective perception of our senses, but rather it is a completely subjective and arbitrary system devised by the human mind. His argument is that words are nothing more than signs that society agrees upon in a collective and one-hundred percent arbitrary way to endow a chosen object with an easy means of representation. Further, these words will begin to vary in accordance with the community that has chosen to adopt them. Even those words that we intuit to have some kind of universal meaning because we mistakenly believe they have a universally accepted sound are actually at variance according to the community standard of signification. After all, not every society would recognize the sounds “cock-a-doodle-doo” as signifying the crow of a rooster.

Course in General Linguistics can be upsetting to some people because we so thoroughly want to believe that language is not completely abitrary. Language is our means of bonding a society together and we urgently strive to think that our chosen society is natural; that the way we do things are the only way things should be done. That is why one of the first things we try to do when we come up against another society is to change their language; to assimilate into our and by doing so to annihilate its ability to separate them from us. Further complicating this process is that the arbitrary nature of words and language is compounded by the fact that a meaning of a word is also based not only upon our memorized definition, but also how that word is associated to other words within the same thought. A word gains it meaning not only from ts similarity to other words, but also from how it differs from them. Meaning can even be based on what the word is not.
All this arbitrariness and relational attribution ultimately defines language as a form of communication designed to impose order upon a world that has no inherent order in it, and it is only through a mass collective of agreement upon signification that this order can be imposed.

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