Saussure on Linguistic Signs and Structures

The Big Move: a linguistic "sign" is composed of the "signified" and the "signifier" (67): "I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole [conception of a linguist sign] and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [signifre] and signifier [signifant]; the last two terms have the advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from each other and from the whole of which they are parts" (67).

Arbitrariness and Universality: The science of "semiology" will concern itself with "the whole group of systems grounded on the arbitrariness of the sign.  In fact, every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior or--what amounts to the same thing--on convention.  Polite formulas . . . are none the less fixed by rule; it is this rule and not the intrinsic value of the gestures that obliges one to use themSigns that are wholly arbitrary realize better than others the ideal of the semiological process; that is why language, the most complex and universal of all systems of expression, is also the most characteristic; in this sense linguistics can become the master-pattern for all branches of semiology although language is only one particular semiological system" (68).

Linearity: "The signifier, being auditory, is unfolded solely in time . . . it represents a span, and . . . the span is measurable in a single dimension; it is a line. [ . . . ] [The elements of auditory signifiers] are presented in succession; they form a chain" (70).

Immutability: "The signifier, though to all appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it.  The masses have no voice in the matter, and the signifier chosen by the language could be replaced by no other. [ . . . ]  No society, in fact, knows or has ever known language other than as a product inherited from preceding generations, and one to be accepted as such" (71)

Unconscious Use: " . . . reflection does not enter into the active use of an idiom--speakers are largely unconscious of the laws of language; and if they are unaware of them, how can they modify them? . . . people are generally satisfied with the language they have received" (72).

Conservative Forces in the Linguistic Sign System:

"The arbitrary nature of the sign . . . is really what protects language from any attempt to modify it.  Even if people were more conscious of language than they are, they would still not know how to discuss it. [ . . . ]  One could also argue about a system of symbols, for the symbol has a traditional relationship with the thing symbolized; but language is a system of arbitrary signs and lacks the necessary basis, the solid ground for discussion.  There is no reason for preferring soeur to sister, Ochs to boeuf, etc." (73).

"The multiplicity of signs necessary to form any language . . . [is] another important deterrent to linguistic change . . . linguistic signs are numberless" (73).

"The over-complexity of the system . . . is a complex mechanism that can be grasped only through reflection; the very ones who use it daily are ignorant of it.  We can conceive of a change only through the intervention of specialists, grammarians, logicians, etc.; but experience shows us that all such meddlings have failed" (73).

"Collective inertia towards innovation . . . [arises from the fact that] language. . . is at every moment everybody's concern; spread throughout society and manipulated by it. ..  everyone participates at all times, and that is why it is constantly being influenced by all.  This capital fact suffices to show the impossibility of revolution" (73-4).

Radical Forces in the Linguistic Sign System:

Mutability: "Time, which insures the continuity of language [insures] the more or less rapid change of linguistic signs.  [But] the sign is exposed to alteration because it perpetuates itself. [ . . . ] Regardless of what the forces of change are . . . they always result in a shift in the relationship between the signified and the signifier."  [ . . . ] Language is radically powerless to defend itself against the forces which from one moment to the next are shifting the relationship between the signified and the signifier.  This is one of the consequences of the arbitrary nature of the sign" (75-6).

Basic Terms:

Langue vs. Parole, Langue as Social Structure, and synchrony vs. diachrony:

"Language (langue) is speech less speaking (parole).  It is the whole set of linguistic habits which allow an individual to understand and to be understood" (77).

"[F]or the realization of language, a community of speakers [masse parlante] is necessary.  Contrary to all appearances, language never exists apart from the social fact, for it is a semiological phenomenon.  Its social nature is one of its inner characteristics" (77).

"synchrony and diachrony designate respectively a language-state and an evolutionary phase."

Want to test Saussure's assertion that the linguistic signifier-signified relationships is arbitrary Let's look at "onomatopoeia" words, which supposedly are sounded and spelled as they are because they make the "sound" of the thing described.