Structuralism Linguistics

‘Philosophy’ has always been bunk, 19: Saussure’s Structuralist Linguistics

Reading repeatedly through sites on Saussure, I have been beaten back each time by my disbelief that it could have been taken seriously as Science (or as Philosophy).  

It seems to me to have been handing out nothing but the most obvious of truisms.  Saussure, for a start, tells us that things in the world don’t come with the right words for them hanging round their necks! but that different cultures give them different names!. (You don’t say!)  The word for a tree is different in English from in French or Sanskrit! (You don’t say.)

Also that the words that get applied to things and their properties are purely arbitrary and not foreordained. (Do you mean that people hadn’t known for almost ever that a cat isn’t called a cat by God or by Nature, or in Sanskrit or Swahili?  Amazing!).

Saussure, or his interpreters, even went so far as to say that, up until then, some people saw words as actually existing, perhaps even as physical things.  (Surely, think I, people couldn’t have been so stupid — unless Saussure was roughly referring to Plato who thought that concepts were actual entities in heaven.  But surely not in Saussure’s time or for centuries past.)

He also said that spoken words sound different from one another!  And they are made up of units of sound that also sound different from one another!  These units are called ‘phonemes’.  ‘Th’ as in ‘The’, and ‘ow’ as in ‘How’ are phonemes.  The written equivalents of phonemes are ‘graphemes’, (from here).  These two terms were already in existence when Saussure used them. 

Saussure said that the differences in sound between different phonemes and between different words go to determining the different meanings of words!   

(I may have over-simplified what exactly phonemes are, see wikipedia, but it was as much as I could take.) 

So far one can say that Saussure’s Structuralism amounts to the amazing discovery that a word is itself and not other words! Also that other words are not only different from the initial word in their sounds but in their meanings too!  Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! 

He also developed the theory that the meaning of a word is created, not by what it refers to, but by the meanings of other words, which I shall explain below.  (Is ‘refer’ precisely the right word? Due to my mental alienation from this kind of thinking, I feel, perhaps unnecessarily, that I have to be careful when using this word in the context of Saussure.)


Have I made a straw-man of him by over-simplifying and not really understanding? Let me go deeper into what he said:

LINGUISTICS — DIACHRONIC AND SYNCHRONIC:  Saussure was scornful of the linguistics of his day because it was  concerned largely with Etymology which at that time was called Philology.  He called this kind of Linguistics Diachronic or Historical, in that it traced the changes in words and their meanings through the ages, and from ancient languages to modern ones. 

He thought this an inadequate way to explain how words have the meanings they presently do. He thought that these come out of the structure of the language they are presently in, which is what I meant above by ‘the meanings of other words’ which will get further explanation below.  He called his new form of Linguistics, Synchronic.

(I personally love Etymology because it tells me how words come by historical change to have the meanings they do.  It gives me a misty vision of people speaking Proto-Indo-European on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe where wild horses ran.  I yearn to see the world as they did, although I know realistically that their lives were nasty, brutish, and short).

SIGNIFIER AND SIGNIFIED:  In his Synchronic Linguistics, Saussure said that every word is a Sign, which is made up of a ‘Signifier’ (or Signal) and a ‘Signified’. The former is the actual sound of the word or how it is written: while the latter is the meaning or concept it refers to (from here  and here) .  ( Again, I feel I have to be careful when using  ‘referring’ in the context of Saussure.)

He said that there is an entirely arbitrary connection between the signifier (the sound of the word) and the signified (the meaning of the word), and also between the signified (i.e. the concept) and the reality that actually exists out there.  I think this is the same as saying that things don’t have names hanging round their necks but that we give them to them; and also that reality isn’t already split up into different concepts for us, but that we do it.

SYNTAGMATIC  AND PARADIGMATIC:  Saussure also made the astonishing discovery (and found it useful to tell us) that words have two kinds of relationships with other words when used in the language.  

There is the syntagmatic relationship, in which words come together in a certain linear sequence to create a meaningful statement.  So, to put it concretely, one says ‘the cat sat on the mat’ and not ‘sat the mat on cat the’.  Or to put it abstractly: syntagmatic relationships are relations of positioning and combination.  This seems to me to be the syntax we learnt at school.  ‘Syntagmatic’ is the adjective of ‘syntax’.

Then there is the paradigmatic relationship.  ‘Paradigm’ is an annoying word because it has several vague meanings today and in ancient Greek; from here.  It can also be called the ‘associative’ or ‘substitutive’ relationship.  It means that for each place in a sentence, you have to choose the right word and not a wrong word! (You don’t say!)  We used ‘cat’ instead of other nouns such as ‘dog’ or ‘pig’.  We used ‘sat’ instead of other verbs such as ‘lay’, and ‘the’ instead of other articles like ‘a’, and ‘on’ instead of other prepositions. 

These rejected words could have been substituted without disrupting the syntax (from here and here).  It is a matter of ‘this-or-this-or-this…’  (from here.)  These choices are then linked by the syntagmatic relationship to formulate the sentence (from here).  

So that explains language!  That’s the Science of language!

The sites I have referred to, bring the whole thing closer to looking like geometry or science.  They do so by displaying relationships of syntax on a horizontal axis; and those of possible substitution on a vertical axis containing all the other words that aren’t in that place.  Look at them there!  

But these axes are just like saying that a brick is in one place in the yard, while buckets, sacks, trees and other bricks are standing in other places.   But that’s not science of bricks or of anything.

I think Saussure saw relationships of syntax and of substitution not only operating at the level of words but also of phonemes, but that sounds obvious.  

LANGUE AND PAROLE:  Saussure called the language system as a whole Langue and the individual utterance Parole.  In English, these are ‘Language’ and ‘Utterance’.

To him, a language is a structured system of signs, a closed system of relationships of words.  (Those last six words  are somewhat my own.  One has to be very careful with Saussure and his Structuralism.)  It is this system that gives meaning to a word.   This system is the Langue, the Language as a whole such as English or Welsh.  

So you see, it is not what words are referring to that gives them their meaning!  It comes from the whole closed system of the language itself! (Again, somewhat my own words.)   

Here is some exemplification of what I have just said:  Each phoneme and each word is different.  ‘True’ sounds different from ‘tree’.  It is this difference and all the other differences from other words, that gives ‘true’ its meaning.  So, you see, the meaning of a word is embedded in the system of the language as a a whole.  

Here is a more concrete example that the French-Swiss Saussure himself gave: “The set of synonyms redouter (‘to dread’), craindre (‘to fear’), and avoir peur (‘to be afraid’), for instance, have their particular meanings 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.’ (from here).


People who have never been exposed to scientific method, can be fooled into thinking this is science.  Yes, it’s possible at a stretch to see language in this way, to make a logical case for it, therefore we think it’s true!  Or to put it another way: language may have a structure when you look at it in a certain way but that doesn’t necessarily say anything at all. 

 Am I right in saying that what Saussure pointed out were ‘logical connections’ of language, simply a laborious re-wording of what is obvious and barely worth saying?  

It seems a kind of classifying that I imagine may be useful in the university library for arranging its books and for searching for a particular one.  And for search engines to enable them to recognize words and to deliver us words.  But I don’t think it tells us anything enlightening about the language that people use.    


Here are some later opinions on what Saussure achieved:

‘Saussure set out to put linguistics on the same theoretical footing as the natural sciences’, according to this site.  (So, I wonder, was he part of the positivistic movement of his time, after Comte, in wanting to have human studies on the same principles as those of physics?)

Phillips, a philosopher, says here: ‘Saussure departs from all previous theories of meaning by discovering that language can be examined independently of its referents…….This is because the sign contains both its signifying element (‘signifier’ or ‘signal’) and its meaningful content (‘the signified)’ . 

But surely, say I, the signified is the referent.  But perhaps Phillips saw the referent as already being contained within the sign, i.e. the word.  (Does that mean that the referent enters one’s thoughts simultaneously with the word because one cannot help immmediately understanding what the word means? Does this mean that it enters my head instead of being out there as referent – Oi!) 

Phillips now gives us a paragraph I can’t make any sense of.  I’ll give it here because I think it representative of what has appeared over the last hundred years since Saussure:  “The meaning of the word cat is neither that particular creature nor any one of that species…..  The meaning…. is its potential to be used (e.g., in the sentence ‘your cat kept me up all night.’) And we need to able to use it potentially infinitely many times. So in some strict sense cat has no specific meaning at all, more like a kind of empty space into which certain images or concepts or events of usage can be spilled. For this reason Saussure was able to isolate language from any actual event of its being used to refer to things at all. This is because although the meaning of a word is determined to a certain extent in conventional use (if I’d said ‘your snake kept me up’ I’d have been in trouble), there is always something undetermined, always something yet to be determined, about it.” 

I still can’t make any meaning of that last paragraph.


I think some Structuralists have found that our language is a priorly organized system that not only gives meanings to our words, but channels our thoughts and values, and predisposes us to certain attitudes and actions, so that we are not autonomous.  So Structuralism may be seen in its effects as similar to Marx’s belief that men’s minds are channeled by an external system of ideas that they are not aware of.  So Structuralists become progressives.

I feel also that Saussure and his followers felt a grim need to expel the humanly autonomous and supernatural from language.  People who teach the subject in all seriousness take on a monk-like devotion to being scientific.  The lure of being scientific is very attractive  because it is intellectually more difficult than remaining at the level of the concrete perceptions that unenlightened human beings tend to have of human life.

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