[Theoretically Speaking] Saussure’s Sign to Start Structuralism

This is a (long overdue) blog post. This is near the beginning of a (rather short) paragraph. This is a sentence. This is a word: word.

In the above, I’ve listed four things: blog post, paragraph, sentence, and word. These words (perhaps with the exception of ‘blog post’) can be found in dictionaries where the definitions are more or less the same. I think it would also be fair to say that your understanding of those four words are more or less congruent with mine (although you might like your paragraphs to be longer, or shorter, or you might not use paragraphs at all and prefer huge chunks of text that run page after page, in which case you’d remind me a little too much of Joseph Conrad and we may have to cease our friendship). In any case, we all pretty much agree on what the words mean.

But have you ever asked why? Ever wondered how? How is that when I type a word, you will read it and interpret the lines on your screen in the way I intended? How do we gather meaning from a bunch of pixels that have bits of space in between? How do we know if the ‘words’ have any meaning at all? Explain this phenomenon to me, now!

Thankfully, a lovely Swiss fellow (with a lovely moustache) by the name of Ferdinand de Saussure has done all the hard work for us. (Before you go on, you might like to refresh your memory by reading the introduction to literary and critical theory.)

Monsieur Saussure (pronounced ‘sir-sewer’—at least in my hybrid Australian accent) was a linguist who thought a lot about languages. He thought about them so much that he came up with his own ideas about language and taught his theory at the University of Geneva. His students were so influenced by his extraordinary ideas that in 1916, three years after Saussure’s death, they gathered their notes and published the lectures in a book entitled Course in General Linguistics. In it, Saussure talked a lot about a little something he called the sign.

The Sign

The ‘sign’ is the most basic entity to help us understand how language works. It’s comprised of two elements: the signified, which is the concept of a particular item that exists in reality; and the signifier, which is a ‘sound-image’ (the words we write, say, and hear in our heads). When put together, we have ‘signification’. The sign looks something like this (and I confess this drawing was my sixth or so attempt; there’s a reason why I’m sticking to literary studies):

Here is where it gets really interesting. Now that Saussure has devised the sign, he can start talking about its mechanics. Let’s have a look at a few of them.

1. The sign is arbitrary

Saussure asserts that the linguistic sign is arbitrary, in the sense that there are no natural connections between the signified and the signifier. The word ‘tree’ looks nothing like a tree and could refer to ‘dog’, or ‘piano’, or ‘neurotransmitter’; similarly, the actual objects of dogs or pianos or neurotransmitters could be referred to by the word ‘tree’, or ‘iPhone’, or ‘shiny’, or…you get my drift. The only reason why the signifier ‘tree’ refers to the signified ‘big brown thing with branches and leaves’ is because the larger community has already defined a set of rules which state—implicitly or explicitly—that it’s a ‘tree’. In other words, it’s a ‘tree’ because we say so!

2. Neither the signified nor the signifier is real

It’s important to keep in mind that the concept of the ‘tree’ we have in our head isn’t the tree itself. Similarly, no matter how many times we say the word ‘tree’, we’ll never be able to conjure the actual tree with its lovely trunk you can hug and leaves that are wonderful and green. This might sound like a silly assertion, but Saussure is stressing that both language and the thought of language are merely arbitrary things which only have meaning because we assign meaning to them.

3. The signified and signifier can’t exist without the other

These two lovely little parts of the sign must always co-exist—get rid of one, and the other goes poof! If you have a signifier that’s not attached to a signified, then it’ll have no meaning because it’ll look something like this: ‘sfajefoi;jwqlj’ (Ideally, that’s not the best example considering keyboard-smashing is now pretty much a mode of fangirl representation, but you know what I mean.) On the other hand, if we have a signified (and remember, I’m talking about just the concept of something) but no means of expression, then the signified is forever lost in the squishy bits of your brain. In other words, the signified and signifier are like two sides of the same coin, inseparable from each other.

Langue and Parole

Right, let’s look at two more terms before we move on. Having devised the sign, Saussure went on to talk about the fascinating notions of langue and parole. Langue is the set of rules which governs a system, and parole is a particular item that emerges from those rules. Think of an iceberg,1 where the langue is the majority of the iceberg beneath the surface, unseen, and the parole is the tip of the iceberg, the small portion that can be seen. Just like we’ve discussed with the sign, the iceberg is a whole that cannot function if its two parts are separated: the langue provides the support (and sank the unsinkable ship), while the parole is the mode of expression without which the langue would be obsolete (and then there would’ve been no iceberg, and the Titanic wouldn’t have given us Leonard DiCaprio).

Confused? Here are two examples with langue and parole at work:

Language: langue = the rules (grammar, spelling, etc); parole = this blog post

Chess: langue = the rules (which pieces can move where); parole = the game

As you can see, langue and parole are quite inseparable. Furthermore, although the pairs can exist by themselves, they’re nowhere as fun without other pairs with which to make comparisons: look at the funky similarities and differences between English and German, or chess and checkers. Only when a structure is compared to another that we can fully appreciate its awesomeness!

On To Structuralism (Finally!)

Saussure’s formation of the ‘sign’ is important because it affected the understanding of meaning-making. Before he came along, people only considered the sole relationship between words and meanings. Now, words and meanings (which are the ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’, and together make up the ‘sign’) have no significance in and of themselves, but can only derive meaning from their relationship to others signs (other words and meanings). So in other words, Saussure’s ‘sign’ brought about the birth of ‘structuralism’, which is the idea of looking at objects as a ‘structure’ and how they fit in place with other surrounding structures. This became important not only for linguistics, but a whole bunch of things in other fields like anthropological and cultural studies, where we have that inseparable relationship between an individual and the society, which then leads us to consider other individuals and societies and make super awesome cross-cultural examinations. (And in case you’re wondering, a French fellow called Claude Lévi-Strauss took Saussure’s theories in the 1950s, put them into use, and launched structuralism to its epicness.)

But what does this have to do with literature? Well, a lot of folks used structuralist theory to examine literature (and anything with a story, in fact) as ‘structures’ and relate them to other and larger ‘structures’. They’ll consider elements such as genre, narrative structure, and recurring motifs. A structuralist will look at Harry Potter and see it not just as a story about wizards and Snape, but as a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story) with reinterpretations of myth and folklore, and which contains a nasty and broody anti-hero full of snark and smexines whom you want to huggle and who would hex you if you tried. As such, structuralist criticism puts into use a ‘grammar of literature’, where the meaning of texts (novels, poems, short stories, films, advertisements, and the list goes on) is dependent on their overall structure and structural elements (e.g. as novels, poems, short stories, so on and so forth).

At a more micro level, structuralism is closely related to semiotics, which is the ‘study of signs’. And of course, we’re referring to Saussure’s signs! By looking at how these signs function in relation to other signs, we can observe how a bunch of literary techniques work: metaphor, simile, symbolism, metonymy—you name it! A few years down the track, structuralism also influenced a bunch of literary and critical theories such as post-structuralism (very original), deconstruction (a sneaky derivative of ‘structuralism’), and bits of psychoanalytic theory (bet you didn’t see that one coming).

But most importantly, structuralism is awesome because it makes you think: about words, about meaning, about how the two work together in wonderful ways in relation to language and society and the abstract and the physical worlds, and you will now wonder for how much longer I can keep this sentence going, and I shan’t tell you, and you might get a little fed up—or at least your eyeballs might—but nevertheless, you’ll understand the meaning of these words and sentences I’ve written because we both function within the same structure of language! Marvellous, isn’t it?

Don’t think it’s so marvellous? Think it’s super duper marvellous? Twitching from the way I’ve spelt ‘marvellous’ because you’re non-Commonwealth? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comment box below! And as a bit of fun, leave me a ‘sign’ if you’d like and I’ll put together a (horrendously drawn) visual representation of the signified/signifier relationship for you!

1 T. Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1977), p. 21.

Want to know more? Here are a few books to consult:

  • For the primary text itself (conveniently translated for you into English by Wade Baskin), we have Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics.
  • Jonathan Culler’s Ferdinand de Saussure offers are very comprehensive look into Saussure’s ‘sign’, and his Structuralist Poetics discusses how structuralist criticism can be used in both poetry and prose.
  • Terrence Hawkes’ Structuralism and Semiotics is worth checking out for more information on the structuralist movement.
  • Structuralism: An Introduction edited by David Robey offers a collection of essay with one on Saussure by John Lyons entitled ‘Structuralism and Linguistics’.

3 thoughts on “[Theoretically Speaking] Saussure’s Sign to Start Structuralism

  1. Whenever I feel like I’m forgetting what I learned in lit theory, your blog saves me. I remember doing the sign/signifier in class and oh my gosh, it was so confusing the first few weeks, but finally getting it felt great. Thanks for the refresher course! I look forward to your next posts. XD

  2. This is why we’re friends: you teach me stuff. ;) Can’t wait to read your next post.

    Oh, and because I love your artistic output, here’s a sign for you: chair. :D

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