Essay on Saussure’s Linguistic Structuralism

The propounded of linguistic structuralism is the Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure. For our pur­poses two aspects of Saussure’s work are important. First, he gave a distinction between langue and parole.

This distinction is made by saying that langue is the formal grammatical system of language. It is the system of phonic elements. This is, in other words, grammatology. It is the theoretical science of writing. It views language as a gen­eral or abstract system.

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Saussure defined parole “as a speech which is expressed by word of mouth. It is the way in which speakers, on a day-to-day basis use language to express them”. A linguist must focus on language, the formal system of language, not on the subjective terms in which it is used by the actor.

Langue, in fact, is used as a system of signs. When a person speaks camel, the word is a sign which indicates an animal. Camel itself is not an animal but it provides a sign, that is, the word ‘camel’, to explain it.

“A sign can be seen as a whole, a structure which is composed as a signifier-the sound image that the recipient hears when a word is spoken, and a signified-what is sound image is to indicate.” For in­stance, I meet you in the street and say that a camel is going. In this case, I am the signifier and the word camel is signified.

This gives you the sign image of the camel that is an animal. In other words, the signifier plus signified structure or compose the sign. Viewed from this per­spective sign is a structure. Saussure is not only interested in the signifier and the signified but also in their relationship to one another.

To repeat the above example, I-the signifier and camel-the signified are important but still more important is the relationship between I and you. Saussure was little interested in the referent, the thing being referred to because it was extra-linguistic.

For him, the relationship between you and me is important. Camel is only a reference. Saussure argues that language is a “close system in which all parts are interre­lated. Meanings, the mind, and ultimately the social word are shaped by the structure of language”. Language serves a model for all aspects of human life.

There are other linguists also who have contributed to the devel­opment of structuralism. Jakobson worked on language for two decades from 1920s to 1930s. Quite like Saussure Jakobson also argued that meaning in language is arbitrary and socially defined.

According to him, there is no necessary connection between signifier and signi­fied. However, he identified ‘binary opposition’ in his analysis of language, what has come to be seen as the elementary structure of meaning by many subsequent structuralists.

Louis Dumont has also employed the term ‘binary opposition’ when he discusses the purity and pollution aspects of caste. According to Jakobson, the hierarchical and dualistic contrast of like with unlike is regarded as the key to hidden semantic structure, in language and in culture generally.

“Binary opposition is one of the brain’s most basic operations; it is a deep and primeval structuring principle of culture.” We give below some binary opposition, for example:

Saussure and Jakobson are considered to be the main architects of linguistic structuralism. In our country, however, no effort has been made so far to apply linguistic structuralism in the study of our primi­tives.