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Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) was a Swiss linguist and a father of 20th-century linguistics. Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.

Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure philosopher of linguistics

Sources for Saussure quotes: WikiQuotes, EGS, GoodReads, Course,


Quotations of Saussure

[Short quotes do not convey Saussure well, so I have used a longer set mostly selected from the  European Graduate School site.]

Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world. This typically twentieth-century view of language has profoundly influenced developments throughout the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.

I’m almost never serious, and I’m always too serious. Too deep, too shallow. Too sensitive, too cold-hearted. I’m like a collection of paradoxes.

Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.

Psychologically our thought-apart from its expression in words-is only a shapeless and indistinct mass.

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.

Speech has both an individual and a social side, and we cannot conceive of one without the other.

The science that has been developed around the facts of language passed through three stages before finding its true and unique object. First something called “grammar” was studied. This study, initiated by the Greeks and continued mainly by the French, was based on logic. It lacked a scientific approach and was detached from language itself. Its only aim was to give rules for distinguishing between correct and incorrect forms; it was a normative discipline, far removed from actual observation, and its scope was limited.

A “philological” school had existed much earlier in Alexandria, but this name is more often applied to the scientific movement which was started by Friedrich August Wolf in 1777 and which continues to this day. Language is not its sole object. The early philologists sought especially to correct, interpret and comment upon written texts. Their studies also led to an interest in literary history, customs, institutions, etc. They applied the methods of criticism for their own purposes. When they dealt with linguistic questions, it was for the express purpose of comparing texts of different periods, determining the language peculiar to each author, or deciphering and explaining inscriptions made in an archaic or obscure language. Doubtless these investigations broke the ground for historical linguistics. Ritschl’s studies of Plautus are actually linguistic. But philological criticism is still deficient on one point: it follows the written language too slavishly and neglects the living language. Moreover, it is concerned with little except Greek and Latin antiquity.

The third stage began when scholars discovered that languages can be compared with one another. This discovery was the origin of “comparative rhilology.” In 1816, in a work entitled Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache, Franz Bopp compared Sanskrit with German, Greek, Latin, etc. Bopp was not the first to record their similarities and state that all these languages belong to a single family. That had been done before him, notably by,the English orientalist W. Jones (died in 1794); but Jones’ few isolated statements do not prove that the significance and importance of comparison had been generally understood before 1816. While Bopp cannot be credited with the discovery that Sanskrit is related to certain languages of Europe and Asia, he did realize that the comparison of related languages could become the subject matter of an independent science. To illuminate one language by means of another, to explain the forms of one through the forms of the other, that is what no one had done before him.

The comparative school, which had the indisputable merit of opening up a new and fruitful field, did not succeed in setting up the true science of linguistics. It failed to seek out the nature of its object of study. Obviously, without this elementary step, no science can develop a method.

The first mistake of the comparative philologists was also the source of all their other mistakes. In their investigations (which embraced only the Indo-European languages), they never asked themselves the meaning of their comparisons or the significance of the relations that they discovered. Their method was exclusively comparative, not historical. Of course comparison is required for any historical reconstruction, but by itself it cannot be conclusive. And the conclusion was all the more elusive whenever the comparative philologists looked upon the development of two languages as a naturalist might look upon the growth of two plants.

The exclusively comparative method brought in a set of false notions. Having no basis in reality, these notions simply could not reflect the facts of speech. Language was considered a specific sphere, a fourth natural kingdom; this led to methods of reasoning which would have caused astonishment in other sciences. Today one cannot read a dozen lines written at that time without being struck by absurdities of reasoning and by the terminology used to justify these absurdities.

Language is no longer looked upon as an organism that develops independently but as a product of the collective mind of linguistic groups.

The subject matter of linguistics comprises all manifestations of human speech, whether that of savages or civilized nations, or of archaic, classical or decadent periods. In each period the linguist must consider not only correct speech and flowery language, but all other forms of expression as well. And that is not all: since he is often unable to observe speech directly, he must consider written texts, for only through them can he reach idioms that are remote in time or space.

The scope of linguistics should be:

a) to describe and trace the history of all observable languages, which amounts to tracing the history of families of languages and reconstructing as far as possible the mother language of each family;
b) to determine the forces that are permanently and universally at work in all languages, and to deduce the general laws to which all specific historical phenomena can be reduced; and
c) to delimit and define itself.

Linguistics must be carefully distinguished from ethnography and prehistory, where language is used merely to document. It must also be set apart from anthropology, which studies man solely from the viewpoint of his species, for language is a social fact.

The ties between linguistics and the physiology of sounds are less difficult to untangle. The relation is unilateral in the sense that the study of languages exacts clarifications from the science of the physiology of sounds but furnishes none in return. In any event, the two disciplines cannot be confused. The thing that constitutes language is, as I shall show later, unrelated to the phonic character of the linguistic sign.

Speech has both an individual and a social side, and we cannot conceive of one without the other.

Speech always implies both an established system and an evolution; at every moment it is an existing institution and a product of the past.

From the very outset we must put both feet on the ground of language and use language as the norm of all other manifestations of speech.

But what is language [langue]? It is not to be confused with human speech [langage], of which it is only a definite part, though certainly an essential one. It is both a social product of the faculty of speech and a collection of necessary conventions that have been adopted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise that faculty.

Language, on the contrary, is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification. As soon as we give language first place among the facts of speech, we introduce a natural order into a mass that lends itself to no other classification.

No one has proved that speech, as it manifests itself when we speak, is entirely natural, i.e. that our vocal apparatus was designed for speaking just as our legs were designed for walking.

Language is a convention, and the nature of the sign that is agreed upon does not matter.

To give language first place in the study of speech, we can advance a final argument: the faculty of articulating words-whether it is natural or not-is exercised only with the help of the instrument created by a collectivity and provided for its use; therefore, to say that language gives unity to speech is not fanciful.

Language is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity.

Language is not a function of the speaker; it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual. It never requires premeditation, and reflection enters in only for the purpose of classification… Speaking, on the contrary, is an individual act. It is wilful and intellectual.

A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from Greek semefon ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since the science does not yet exist, no one can say what it would be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts.

In the science of language, all we need do is to observe the transformations of sounds and to calculate their effects.

The close interaction of language and ethnography brings to mind the bonds that join linguistic phenomena proper. The culture of a nation exerts an influence on its language, and the language, on the other hand, is largely responsible for the nation.

Everything that relates to the geographical spreading of languages and dialectal splitting belongs to external linguistics. Doubtless the distinction between internal and external linguistics seems most paradoxical here, since the geographical phenomenon is so closely linked to the existence of any language; but geographical spreading and dialectal splitting do not actually affect the inner organism of an idiom.

I believe that the study of external linguistic phenomena is most fruitful; but to say that we cannot understand the internal linguistic organism without studying external phenomena is wrong.

One can determine the nature of the phenomenon by applying this rule: everything that changes the system in any way is internal.

Language does have a definite and stable oral tradition that is independent of writing, but the influence of the written form prevents our seeing this.

Spelling always lags behind pronunciation.

Another reason for discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation is this: if an alphabet is borrowed from another language, its resources may not be appropriate for their new function; expedients will have to be found (e.g. the use of two letters to designate a single sound).

Writing obscures language; it is not a guise for language but a disguise. That fact is clearly illustrated by the spelling of French oiseau (bird) Not one spoken sound is indicated by its own symbol. Here writing fails to record any part of the picture of language.

Whoever says that a certain letter must be pronounced a certain way is mistaking the written image of a sound for the sound itself.

The pronunciation of a word is determined, not by its spelling, but by its history. The form of a word at a particular moment stands for a moment in its enforced evolution. Precise laws govern its evolution. Each step is determined by the preceding step. The only thing to consider is the one most often forgotten: the evolution of the word, its etymology.

The tyranny, of writing goes even further. By imposing itself upon the masses, spelling influences and modifies language. This happens only in highly literate languages where written texts play an important role. Then visual images lead to wrong pronunciations; such mistakes are really pathological.

Phonic deformations belong to language but do not stem from its natural functioning. They are due to an external influence. Linguistics should put them into a special compartment for observation: they are teratological cases.

To substitute immediately what is natural for what is artificial would be desirable; but this is impossible without first studying the sounds of language; apart from their graphic symbols, sounds are only vague notions, and the prop provided by writing, though deceptive, is still preferable.

The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image.

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 language could be replaced by no other.

Regardless of what the forces of change are, whether in isolation or in combination, they always result in a shift in the relationship between the signified and the signifier.

Language is no longer free, for time will allow the social forces at work on it to carry out their effects. This brings us back to the principle of continuity, which cancels freedom. But continuity necessarily implies change, varying degrees of shifts in the relationship between the signified and the signifier.

COMMENTS on Saussure

No one has proved that speech, as it manifests itself when we speak, is entirely natural, i.e. that our vocal apparatus was designed for speaking just as our legs were designed for walking. That sentence from Saussure caught my eye, because the anthropological community avoids the implication of design preceding an ability. I would agree that walking was a development of natural selection which is always after the selective processes have forced a living being into its observed mode of existence. However, our language ability and our physical apparatus for modulating sound was not a natural selective process, but what I call an Evish selective one, where near modern human women of one hundred thousand years ago were selecting mates and friends for their speaking abilities. This is a special form of artificial selection and it is much quicker than natural selection. Artificial selection is so fast that we may observe its effects in our personally short lives. The rapidity of artificial selection is easily seen in the improvements in the supermarket produce section, and in the great variety of unusual dogs at a dog park. Humans themselves were the first examples of artificial selection.
The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. This is a wonderful example of a simple idea that seems obvious after it has been said, that could have been said several millennia ago, but apparently wasn’t. Both the name (the sound image) and the thing (the concept) are complex things that are conflated into surface images that our minds can work with.