From a historical point of view, Saussure is considered as the originating source of modern linguistics. All those that came after him, in fact, are labeled as post-structuralists. So what is it that Saussure did that impacted and changed the world of philosophy so immensely? That’s just the thing though, Saussure was no philosopher, he was a simple linguist with an view which he then developed into a theory. My aim in this essay is to explore this theory, and formulate and argue for an opinion of my own. Before Saussure, the purpose of language was viewed as a naming system with which we could identify objects.
There was a word for every object, and this created a one to one relationship between them. In literature this can be seen in the Genesis, in the story of creation where each new creation was immediately assigned a word to label it. Therefore, language was used to distinguish between different things. However, this concept assumes that even without a word to distinguish it from other things, the object can still exist independently, as the unnamed object was already in existence before it was given a name. The problem with this is that for certain things, meaning changes and has changed over the course of time. For example, the meaning of the word silly in the 16th century referred to a biased person.
The contemporary meaning of the word silly refers to someone who is foolish. In Saussure’s theory, the concept known as ‘language’ is seemingly rejected for a preferred ‘system of signs’. A sign implies that there is, at the same time, a signifier and a signified. These are dependent on each other as neither one has meaning or purpose on its own in language. Alone, one or the other, they fall into different fields of study, namely physiology or psychology.
‘A succession of sounds is linguistic only if it supports an idea. Considered independently, it is material for a physiological study, and nothing more than that. The same is true of the signified as soon as it is separated from its signifier. Considered independently, concepts like ‘house’ …
belong to psychology.’ (Rivkin & Ryan (Eds.), 2017 pp. 162).
In the ‘modern Saussurean model’ the signifier is mainly the vocal or written aspect, in a sense the more ‘material’ one of the two, as it is acknowledged by the senses, such as sight, hearing or, for some, touch when read. The term signified on the other hand, refers to the meaning, or the concept behind the sign, which is far more abstract. Both of these have no constant throughout each language that exists, rather they are different in almost each one. This is especially relevant when looking at onomatopoeic sounds, such as animal noises, in each language. For example, the English impersonation of a dog, woof woof, is different than an Italian impersonation, which is bau bau. Out of these might have been born the variant pronounced bau waw, which creates an entirely new perception. It seems, at least from my point of view, that woof woof gives an impression of a friendlier dog, whilst bau bau seems to portray a louder bark, perhaps that of a stray or a not-so-friendly to strangers guard dog. It is in this sense that one might say that each language creates its own depiction of reality.
Without a single strict connection between a word and its meaning, the bond between them is written down as unnatural. Therefore, it is arbitrary and what becomes important to the study of linguistics is conventionality. A sign is anything that is interpreted by someone as something that signifies something (other than itself). Furthermore, the interpretation of things as signs is mainly unconscious and done by correlating them to familiar systems of convention (Chandler, 2017). Saussure’s understanding of meaning was that it was entirely ‘structural and relational rather than referential’ (Chandler, 2017). The importance should be on the relation of the signs to each other rather than a sign’s association to physical things. One single sign alone will not make sense, will have no meaning, unless it gains some form of relation to any other sign; ‘everything depends on relations’ (Saussure 1983 pp.
121). In other words, according to my understanding, a sign has no universal meaning but can vary according to the sign it is being related to to give it meaning. Saussure takes a chess piece as an example. The value of a chess piece depends on the status and position it has on the chessboard whilst playing (Saussure 1983 pp. 88).
In the same way, how valuable a sign is, is determined by the relationships a sign has to other signs in the entire system of signs.