Language is a system of differences without positive terms

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Language is a system of differences without positive terms

Ferdinand Saussure was the first structural linguist to reorient the study of linguistics and to take as an object of study the analysis of an arbitrary order of signs and their correlation with language. The arbitrariness of the sign is pervasive and is visible in the sense that there is no intrinsic connection between the signifier and the signified and a sign can be analyzed without its semantic context. This placed the sign within a system of differential relationships between signs and language.

Thereby it became possible to study the basic elements of a language system as arrangements of contrasts and oppositions and arrive at “differences with no positive terms”. Saussure says a “linguistic sign exists only by virtue of its opposition to other signs; just as coins have values only within a particular system of coinage, and the identity of trains is only in terms of a particular railway system, so the links established between ‘significants’ and ‘signifies’ exist only through the system of oppositions by which, literally, that particular language is formed.  The conclusion is stark and radical.”  Hence, in a “language system there are only differences with no positive terms” (Saussure 972).

In order to arrive at an understanding of the “differences with no positive terms” Saussure divides language into two components. The first component is Langue which is an abstract system of language that has been internalized by a speech community. The second component is parole or the act of speaking or practice of language. While Parole is composed of heterogeneous, unrelated and differing elements, language is homogeneous union of concept and “sound image” or the signified and the signifier (both psychological).

This notion of Lang has challenged translators of the text in English. There have also been a number of debates on the status of this term. There have been questions as to whether this refers to a mental entity—“a sort of platonic idea or merely designates a methodological concept, an abstraction that is a part of a heuristic strategy. The issue has been, and remains, the articulation of the twin notions of langue and parole, the latter being no less difficult to translate into English than the former.

Some have opted for an ontological distinction on the model of the philosophical tradition that opposes essence and existence or “accidents”; others have reduced the difference to the pragmatic necessity of evaluating instances of “languaging” with respect to the opposite poles of a continuum going from the normative, idealized representation of a language to the open-ended actual utterances that are usually observed in verbal interactions. That Saussure himself was not entirely satisfied with these correlate notions of langue and parole seems obvious from his numerous attempts to specify the distinction” (Bouissac 6).

Saussure contended that language is systematic and it is possible to investigate it using methodology that is used in investigating pure science. Hence, he calls the “life of the sign”, a science.  He names this science semiotics or the science that “studies the life of signs within society” (Saussure 962).

The task of the linguist, in investigating this science is to “find out what makes language a special system within the mass of semiological data” (Saussure 962) and if we must “discover the true nature of language we must learn what it has in common with all other semiological systems” (Saussure 962).  Therefore, Saussure feels a need to begin with an understanding of the sign.

Saussure offers a dyadic model of a sign in which the signifier and the signified are two parts of a whole.  This is a mental model in which a sign must have a signifier and a signified and the relationship between the two–a signification. Thus the sign itself is “immaterial” (not abstract), as it does not fix the signification of the signified.

“The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses” (Saussure 963). He further elucidates the point: “without moving our lips we can talk to ourselves or recite mentally a selection of verse” (Saussure 963).  Thus the definition of the linguistic sign is “a combination of a concept and a sign image” and consequently, Saussure proposes to “retain the sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound image respectively by signified [signifie] and signifier [significant]” (Saussure 963).

It logically follows, that the sign has two primordial principles: a) The sign is arbitrary by nature and b) The signifier is linear by nature. The arbitrary nature of the sign:

The linguistic sign is arbitrary and the consequences of this arbitrariness are infinite. The discovery of the arbitrariness is also not easy and requires many “detours” before they can be discovered. However, the discovery uncovers the primordial importance of this principle of linguistic signs. This very arbitrariness of the sign makes it ideal for semiological study and it is this principle that makes language the model for all other branches of semiology (Saussure 965).

Moving on to examining the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign, Saussure realized that reducing a sign to a symbol makes it less arbitrary because it creates a bond between the signifier and the signified.  The linguistic sign is not arbitrary because there is no natural connection between the two. (Saussure 965).  The argument that Onomatopoeia proves that a sign is not always arbitrary is dismissed as onomatopoeic “formations are never organic elements of the linguistic system” (Saussure 965). Interjections too show that there is no “fixed bond between the signified and signifier” (Saussure 966) and “Onomatopoeic formations and interjections are of secondary importance and their symbolic origin is in part open to dispute” (Saussure 965).

The linear nature of the Signifier

The auditory nature of the signifier implies that it has a span and the “span is measurable in a single dimension; it is a line” (Saussure 966).  This principle, according to Saussure is very important because “the whole mechanism of language depends on it” (Saussure 966). Auditory signifiers “command the dimension of time” and “their elements are presented in succession; they form a chain” (Saussure 966). This linearity is visible in writing where “the spatial line of graphic marks is substituted for succession in time” (Saussure 966).

Having said this, Saussure moves on to consider language in terms of an organized system of pure values consisting of ideas and sound in order to arrive at the “differences without positive terms”.

Linguistic Value: Language as organized thought coupled with sound

In examining language as organized thought and sound, Saussure finds that “there are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language” (Saussure 967).  Moreover “phonic substance is neither more fixed nor more rigid than thought; it is not a mold into which thought must of necessity fit but a plastic substance divided in turn into distinct parts  to furnish the signifiers needed by thought” (Saussure 967). Therefore, language forms a “link between thought and sound under conditions that bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units” (Saussure 967) and becomes an “articulus in which an idea is fixed in a sound and a sound becomes the sign of an idea” (Saussure 967).

It follows that the signifier and the signified are intimately connected. The two cannot be separated just as two side of a paper cannot be separated. “Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side.  Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in the language to isolate the sound from thought, or thought up from sound.” (Saussure 967).

Nevertheless, the “combination produces a form, not a substance” (Saussure 967) because it remains completely arbitrary. It is this arbitrariness that makes it possible to create a linguistic system. However, Saussure warns that it must not be assumed that it is possible to construct the system from the parts but the parts can be obtained from the whole by a process of analysis (Saussure 968).

Linguistic Value: Conceptual View point

The next logical question that occurs to Saussure is “How does value differ from signification?” He concludes that, while conceptually signification is an element of value, it is not the same as value. It is in fact distinct from it.  This is because “language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of others” (Saussure 969). “Initially a concept is nothing … is only a value determined by its relations with other similar values, that without them the signification would not exist” (Saussure 971). To better appreciate the significance of his finding he compares the concepts of value and signification as they exist outside of language.  He finds that the same paradoxical principle governs values outside language.

Values are composed of a) “dissimilar things that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined” (Saussure 969) like a coin can be exchanged for a fixed value of another thing; b) “similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined” (Saussure 969) such as a two penny coin can be compared to another two penny coin.

The value of a word, therefore, “is not fixed so long as one simply states that it can be “exchanged” for a given concept, i.e. that it has this or that signification: one must also compare it with similar values, with other words that stand in opposition to it. Its content is really fixed only by the concurrence of everything that exists outside it. Being part of a system, it is endowed not only with signification but also and specially with a value, and this is something quite different” (Saussure 969).

Linguistic Value from a Material Viewpoint

Do these relations and differences between the terms of language and their value stand up to the test of linguistic value from the material viewpoint?  Saussure thinks so. In his view the most important fact is that “the word is not the sound alone but the phonic differences that make it possible to distinguish it from all others, for differences carry signification” (Saussure 971). He does not find this surprising because “one vocal image is no better suited than the next for what is commissioned to express” (Saussure 971). Hence any analysis of a segment of language must be based on the “noncoincidence with the rest” (Saussure 971) and the “arbitrary and differential” are two correlative qualities of language.

The arbitrary and differential qualities of language are validated by the fact that the terms in a language are free “to change according to the laws that are unrelated to its signifying function” (Saussure 971). For instance no positive sign characterizes the genitive plural in Zen. Still Zena and Zenb function very well even if they replace the earlier forms of the word.

It has value because it is different. This quality of language is also validated by the fact that “signs function…not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position” (Saussure 971). This reveals the “systematic role of phonic functions”. For instance there is similarity in the formation of the words ephen and esten.  However, the former is an imperfect and the latter is an aorist.

In this context Saussure notes that the sound is a secondary thing to language—a substance that must be put to use in language. The “conventional values” must not be confused with the “tangible elements” that support them. The linguistic signifier is “incorporeal” and “is constituted not by its material substance but by the differences that separate its sound image from all others”. This basic principle then applies to all material elements of language. He therefore, concludes that “every language forms its words on the basis of a system of sonorous elements, each element being a clearly delimited unit and one of a fixed number of units” (Saussure 971)

Finally, considering the sign in its totality, Saussure quickly sums up his findings as “in language there are only differences” (Saussure 972). What are these differences?

First language has “neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system” (Saussure 972).  In fact the idea or the phonic substance contained in the sign is of secondary importance as a change in the value of the term does not affect its meaning or its sound “solely because a neighboring term has been modified” (Saussure 973).

Second when we consider a sign in its totality (Signifier / Signified) there are no negative terms. Therefore “a linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas” and the “the pairing of a certain number of acoustical signs with as many cuts made from the mass of thought engenders a system of values” (Saussure 973).

This system, then serves to “link the phonic and psychological elements within each sign” (Saussure 973). The combination is a positive fact that language uses to maintain classes of differences.  The “entire mechanism of language” then “is based on oppositions of this kind and on the phonic and conceptual differences that they imply” (Saussure 973). This can also be applied to units and the characteristics of units can be seen to blend into the units themselves. So “difference makes character just as it makes value and the unit” (Saussure 973).

Syntagmatic and Associative Relations

Since Saussure views language as a something that is based on relationships, he divides relations and differences between linguistic terms into two distinct groups. These groups are associated with two types of mental activity that are essential to the life of language.

Within the discourse “words acquire relations based on ..linear nature of language because they are chained together” (Saussure 974).  These are syntagnms. These syntagnms “acquire value because they stand in opposition to everything that precedes and follows them” (Saussure 974). Outside the discourse words can acquire a different relation. The syntagnms relations are in praesentia in which two or more terms occur in an effective series.  Language belongs to syntagnmatic relationships built on regular forms.  Associative relations are created by memory of the forms by comparing terms.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 26 September 2016

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