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Saussure was unhappy with linguistics as he knew it because he thought that his predecessors had failed to think seriously or perceptively about what they were doing. Linguistics, he wrote,1“never attempted to determine the nature of the object it was studying, and without this elementary operation a science cannot develop an appropriate method” (Course, 3Cours, 16).

This operation is all the more necessary because human language is an extremely complex and heterogeneous phenomenon. Even a single speech act involves an extraordinary range of factors and could be considered from many different, even conflicting points of view. One could study the way sounds are produced by the mouth, vocal chords, and tongue; one could investigate the sound waves that are emitted and the way they affect the hearing mechanism. One could consider the signifying intention of the speaker, the aspects of the world to which his utterance refers, the immediate circumstances of the communicative context that might have led him to produce a particular series of noises. One might try to analyze the conventions that enable speaker and listeners to understand one another, working out the grammatical and semantic rules that they must have assimilated if they are to communicate in this way. Or again, one could trace the history of the language that makes available these particular forms at this time.

Confronted with all these phenomena and these different perspectives from which one might approach them, the linguist must ask what one is trying to describe. What in particular is one looking at or looking for? What, in short, is language?

Saussure’s answer to this question is unexceptionable but extremely important, since it serves to direct attention to essentials. Language is a system of signs. Noises count as language only when they serve to express or communicate ideas; otherwise they are just noise. And for noises to express or communicate ideas they must be part of a system of conventions that relate noises to ideas. They must, in other words, be part of a system of signs. The sign is the union of a form which signifies, which Saussure calls the signifiant(signifier), and an idea signified, the signifié(signified). Though we may speak of signifier and signified as if they were separate entities, they exist only as components of the sign. The sign is the central fact of language, and therefore in trying to separate what is essential from what is secondary or incidental we must start from the nature of the sign itself, its primary characteristics.


I use expressions such as “Saussure wrote” purely for convenience. As was mentioned in Chapter I, very few passages of the Coursewere actually written by Saussure.


Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Cornell University Press, 1986. 27-28.

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