Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Saussure and His Main Contributions

Saussure and His Main Contributions

Ferdinand de Saussure ( 1857-1913 ) was a Swiss linguist who occupies an important place in the history of linguistics and is generally considered the founder of modern linguistics. It was he who first of all emphasized the importance of viewing language as a living phenomenon. He was the founder of a “theoretic foundation to the newer trend in linguistics study," and European scholars have seldom failed to consider his views when dealing with any theoretical problem. Jonathan Culler (1976) says, "Ferdinand de Saussure is the father of modern linguistics, the man who reorganized the systematic study of language and language in such a way as to make possible the achievements of twentieth-century linguists. This alone would make him a Modern Master: master of a discipline which he made modern."

De Saussure’s contribution to modern linguistics was responsible for three key directions in the study of language. He distinguished between Synchrony and Diachrony, between langue and parole, between signified and signifier. He also contributed by describing the distinction bet6ween syntagmatic and paradigmatic, the theory of associative value. Saussure’s contributions to linguistics are given below:

First, he broke with the young grammarians by pointing the distinction between historical linguistics and the state of language at any point in time. He was determined to delimit and define the boundaries of languge study. To this end he began by distinguishing between historical linguistics and descriptive linguistics, or diachronic and synchronic analyses respectively. The distinction was one that comparative philologists had often confused, but for Saussure landing, subsequently for linguistics it was essential. Synchronic linguistics sees language as a living whole, existing as a "state" at a particular point in time. It is descriptive linguistics that concerns with the state of a language at any point in time, especially the present. According to Saussure, “Synchronic linguistics will be concerned with the logical and psychological relations that bind together co-existing terms and form a system in the collective mind of speakers.”

Diachronic linguistics is the study of language history and change. This was the type of work that characterized most of Saussure's predecessors because the crucial question about language, at least until the 19th century, revolved around discovering the origin of language. Diachronic linguistics deals with the evolution of a language through time, as a continually changing medium-a never-ending succession of language states. Thus we may wish to study the change from Old English to Middle English, or the way in which Shakespeare's style changed from youth to maturity: both would be examples of diachronic study. “Diachronic linguistics will study relations that bind together successive terms not perceived by the collective mind but substituted for each other without forming a system" (Saussure)

Saussure drew the inter-relationship of the two dimensions in the way:
Here AB is the synchronic "axis of simultaneities"; CD is the diachronic "axis of successions". AB is a language state at an arbitrarily chosen point in time on the line CD (at X); CD is the historical path the language has traveled, and the route, which it is going to continue traveling. This distinction is significant because synchronic analyses were either ignored or overlooked in the past, and most importantly, the distinction drew attention to the current structural properties of language as well as historical dimensions.

This led to de Saussure's second contribution; the distinction between language and parole. He envisaged language (human speech as a whole) to be composed of two aspects, which are called langue (the language system) and parole (the act of speaking). Langue was considered by Saussure to be the totality of a language, deducible from an examination of the memories of all the language users.

On the other hand, parole "comprises the actual manifestation of the system in speech and writing”. Parole denotes the actual speech act of the individual.

The distinction between langue and parole can be summed up as follows:

01. Langue is a language system shared by a community of speakers.
Parole is the in the individual realization of that system.
02. Langue is a social phenomenon
Parole is am individual phenomenon.
03. Langue is what potential
Parole is what is actual.
04. Langue is a static situation
Parole is a dynamic situation
05. Langue is concept.
Parole is the round image of that concept
06. Langue is a rule
Parole is behaviour.

The distinction between langue and parole also has important implications for other disciplines as well. In distinguishing them we are separating what is social from what is individual.

Saussure's third main theoretical contribution was to clarify the concept of a language system that had the most profound influence on subsequent scholarship. He was really interested in the larger and more abstract system of signs. De Saussure characterized signs as a relationship between "concept" and "sound" to use de Saussure's words signified and signifier. Saussure called this relationship of signified to signifier a linguistic sign. The sign, for him, is the basic unit of communication. The linguistic sign is constituted by the structural relationship between the concept (e.g., "house"---the signified) and the sound of the word "house" (signifier). A language is essentially composed of such structural relationships, and the study of language is the study of the system of signs that express ideas.

Another type of structural relationship in a language system presented by Saussure is syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationship.

Syntagmatic relationship is the combinatorial or again relationship. For example we can come tomorrow is a sentence because in this linear arrangement of words. 'we' is correlated with can, 'can' with come and so on. This relationship is restricted to certain orders. "In the syntagm a term acquires its value because it stands in opposition to everything that precedes or follows or to both” (saussure 1959:123)

The paradigmatic relationships are contrastive or choice relationships. Words that have something in common are associated in the memory ,resulting in groups marked by diverse relations , for example the English word learning is unconsciously call to mind a host of other words-study ,knowledge discipline etc. All these words are related in same way. This kind of relationship is called associative relationship.

We can come tomorrow
We may go next
She will ask soon

According to Saussure the value of each word is determined by its opposition to other words. Values in writing function only through reciprocal opposition within a fixed system which borists of a set number of letters. It is this interdependence among the values of words which transform then all into a uniform language system, and that which pertains to the context or words, retains to their form as well.

The contribution Saussure had on language was revolutionary. His work had a profound influence on many aspects of linguistics. Lastly the following statement from Benevensite will reflect his contribution: "a forerunner in doctrines which in the post fifty years have transformed the theory of language, he has opened us unforgettable vistas on the highest and mysterious faculty of man… he has contributed to the advent of formal thought in the sciences of society and culture and to the founding of a general semiology". There is not a single general theory which doesn't mention him name.


Anonymous said...

thank you

Unknown said...

This is quite helpful thank you for the good work.

Precious Ibik said...

Wow! Very helpful.

Sifaoui Mbarka said...

very insightful !!

Anonymous said...

Very helpful for my linguistics course. Thanks to the author.

Anonymous said...

it was extremely helpful, thank you so much.
I have this presentation about De Saussure coming and I didn't know where to start. after reading this I'm on the right path.