The Influence of Saussurean Linguistics

The Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure had a profound impact on the world of literary theory. In his book, Course in General Linguistics, he discusses language and how it functions as a system. He believed that “If one wishes to discover the true nature of language systems, one must first consider what they have in common with all other systems of the same kind” (Lodge 9).

Saussure did not believe that a word was automatically associated with the thing that it represents. This is not a natural association but rather it is something we learn in order to communicate with each other. The word cannot exist without the thought that is associated with it. It completely relies on thought for its own existence. This is how language functions but we shouldn’t be so naÃ?¯ve to think that it is a natural association. Instead of thinking that the symbol is equal to the thing, Saussure came up with this model to show how words obtain their meaning:


The word itself is the signifier while the idea of it in our heads would be the signified. These signs and thoughts are what make up language. Saussure also created the distinction between langue and parole. Langue is the unified system shared by its speakers and parole is the particular utterances of the individual. These terms are important to structuralism because they focus on language as a social characteristic of humans. He states that language can also have an individual aspect along with the social aspect and that they rely on each other for understanding. His research was influential to semiology because, in his own words, “By considering rites, customs, etc., as signs, it will be possible, we believe, to see them in a new perspective. The need will be felt to consider them assemiological phenomena and to explain them in terms of the laws of semiology”(Lodge 9).

Many agreed and appreciated Saussure’s findings and continued his research after he died. But there were still others who disagreed and had problems with his views on language.

Roman Jakobson also had a marked influence on structuralism, even though Saussure would be considered the founding father of structuralism. He agreed with Saussurean linguistics and came up with a model of communication in his paper, “Closing Statement.” He believed that all acts of communication can be understood as follows:

CONTEXT (social construction)
ADDRESSER (speaker) – – ADDRESSEE (hearer)
CONTACT (sound)
CODE (English)

Although it seems rather simplistic, it allows us to break down the walls of communication and fully understand how language operates as a system. He agrees with Saussure’s idea about the uses of language which are called selection and combination:

“The selection is produced on the base of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymity and antonymity, while the combination, the build up of sequence, is based on contiguity” (Lodge 38).

In other words, selection is the metaphoric use of language and combination is the metonymic use of language. He discusses aphasic impairment in relation to these concepts because these people often have “impaired similarity functions” and have trouble with synonyms.

Jacques Lacan used Saussure as a linguistic source in his work. He was part of the psychoanalytic movement and read Sigmund Freud’s research through a Saussurean lens. Yet he did not agree with Saussure completely. He had problems with Saussure’s model of the signified and signifier. He believed that,”Language, the signifying chain, has a life of its own which cannot be securely anchored to a world of things. ‘There is a perpetual sliding of the signified under the signifier. No meaning is sustained by anything other than reference to another meaning'” (Lodge 61).

Basically Lacan wants to argue that no word can have a meaning alone. We need other words in order to describe what one word can be. No meaning is completely independent of other meanings. Each relies on each other to even obtain a meaning in the first place. But through Saussure’s model of the signified and signifier, Lacan created his “developmental theory of the objectified self.” He also agreed with the concept of metaphor and metonymy from Jakobson and used it in his own research. Yet his theories were based on the unconscious influencing all aspects of our language and the way we speak.

Also closely linked with Saussure is Jacques Derrida. His analysis of literary texts is called ‘deconstruction,’ which he takes credit for discovering. Deconstruction deals mainly with binaries. To do a deconstructionist reading, one must reverse the binary oppositions that control our mainstream way of thinking. Although he too got his start from Saussure’s research, he doesn’t fully agree with Saussure’s theory of the signified and signifier. Derrida believes there is no “secure ground” in which to base our analyses of any given text. He says that, “All such analyses imply that they are based on some secure ground, a ‘centre’ or ‘transcendental signified,’ that is outside the system under investigation and guarantees its intelligibility. There is, however, no such secure ground” (Lodge 88).

He doesn’t believe that meanings are concrete. Instead, they can be reversed from traditional views and take on completely new meanings. This way of thinking turns language on its head. Any sort of stability that an author wishes to bring to a text can be rearranged through a deconstructive reading. The reader then becomes in charge of the text and can reinterpret it in any way. He also disagrees with Saussure’s assumption that speech and writing are independent of each other. Derrida argues that they do depend on one another and it also refers to other signs just as the written word does. Saussure argues that our thoughts are more closely related to sounds than is the written word. And yet he is adamant that a word is arbitrary and we share no natural connection with the word. So if Derrida’s argument that speech and writing are similar, if not identical to one another, is correct, then Saussure’s beliefs about the arbitrariness of word connections would be false.

Mikhail Bakhtin was another writer who shared opposing views of Saussure’s theories. He was more concerned with language as a material thing whereas structuralists would only look at the structure of the literary text. He examined language being used by different people and emphasized that language was always essentially dialogue. What is being said depends upon the subjects involved in the conversation and will always vary. He looked at the signified and signifier as separate entities while Saussure studied the connections and relationships between the two. There are more ways to look at literary texts than just from a structuralist point of view (which can sometimes be strict or close-minded) and Bakhtin hoped to discover these different methods.

Saussure’s writings have sparked many theorists’ and philosopher’s own discussions about language and the interpretation of literary texts. With his insights, we have been able to better understand how language functions in both speech and writing. His simplification of the numerous facts and theories regarding language has helped to define language and will be studied for years to come.

Works Cited

Lodge, David. Modern Criticism and Theory. Pearson Education Limited: United Kingdom, 2000.

Further Reading

Groden, Michael and Martin Kreiswirth. “Roman Jakobson.” The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.

“Jacques Lacan.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Klages, Mary. “Mikhail Bahktin.”

“The Bahktin Circle.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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