Problems with Saussure


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is generally regarded as the ‘father’ of linguistics, and can be credited with being the first person to treat linguistics as an actual science. However, despite the prestige Saussure still holds in Cultural Studies departments and among Literary Theorists Saussure’s theories are not generally considered as central to modern linguistics.

Saussure’s views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics and the occasional philosopher. “Wrong on a grand scale,” cognitive linguist Mark Turner calls it them. And it has elicited wrong film and literary theory on a grand scale. One can find dozens of books of literary theory bogged down in signifiers and signifieds, but only a handful that refer to Chomsky.

– John R. Holland (1972) ”The Trouble(s) With Lacan”

You might wonder why a linguist who’s work has been largely superseded is deserving of attention here, on a site devoted to Popular Culture. Well, that’s because Popular Culture has become the object of study – and intervention – by those still immersed in Saussurian theory. Take this for instance, from the 2007 edition of Fredric Jameson‘s monumental work on Utopian SF, Archaeologies of the Future:

At once this metaphorical perspective begins to suggest a range of possible analogies, which combine the properties of isolation with those of relationship. For it is indeed as a Utopia of structural relationality that we must grasp the present proposal: ”differences without positive terms” was Saussure’s inaugural formulation, which may be seen in some deeper way to characterize all of modern thought as it moves away from Aristotelian substance to modern conceptions of process.

– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (p.221)

Saussure’s formulation characterizes all modern thought? Maybe if your intellectual horizons are defined by cultural theorists like Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes or Louis Althusser – but outside the Literature and Cultural Studies departments Saussure’s legacy is almost negligible. Now, Jameson’s book is by no means a bad one – despite clinging to an outdated linguistic theory, a Marxist dialectic, and a propensity for reducing everything to Greimas squares, Jameson is never less than interesting – but his book nonetheless demonstrates how Saussurian and Post-Saussurian theories continue to dominate the discourse to which Popular Culture is subjected by academia, and, since I’ve chosen to write about Popular Culture here, it is necessary to engage with the theories of those who have already staked a claim to this territory so Saussure cannot easily be ignored.

It’s important, though, to distinguish between what Saussure actually said from what his ‘Post-Saussurian’ heirs claim he said. Post-Saussurians have made extravagant claims based upon elementary misunderstandings of Saussure’s ideas, such as the idea that they warrant a rejection of realism in art – if not a denial of ‘reality‘ itself. I’m going to outline Saussure’s actually claims first as it is unfair to criticise him for the use and abuse of his work at the hands of his ‘followers’,  then examine this use before returning to Saussure himself to explain why the theory itself is flawed.

General Linguistics

Saussure’s theories are outlined in the lecture notes collected as Cours de linguistique générale (or Course in General Linguistics) by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Prior to Saussure ‘linguistics’ was little more than taxonomy. Saussure set out to put linguistics on the same theoretical footing as the natural sciences. The first thing he had to do was define exactly what the object of study of linguistics should actually be. Where linguistics prior to Saussure had studied language diachronically, or historically, as a matter of philology or etymology, Saussure argued that it should be studied synchronically, as a system. To do this he distinguished between la langue, the impersonal system of signs, and la parole, the personal use of language within a specific speech act. It was towards la langue that linguists should direct their attention.

The Sign, the Signifier and the Signified

For Saussure, language is comprised of signs. The sign is composed of two elements, the signifier, the shape of a word, or its sound, and the signified, the idea or concept which the signifier expresses. The relationship between the signifiier and the signified is its signification (illustrated by the arrows opposite).

Saussure focused primarily on the spoken rather than the written word: for Saussure the written word is a secondary sign system which signifies a sound rather than the concept itself. In Saussurian linguistics the word ‘tree’ is a sign consisting of a signifier (the ‘sound pattern’ of the spoken word ‘tree’) and a signified (the concept of a tree). For Saussure both the signifier and the signified are psychological phenomena, form rather than substance (though ‘modern’ Saussurians generally regard the signifier as having material form). The sign is a link between a concept and a ‘sound pattern’, the image acoustique, the psychological impression of the sound, rather than material vibrations in the air; the sign itself is ‘immaterial.

For Saussure, the signifier and the signified are inseparable, like the recto and verso sides of the same sheet of paper:

Language can also be compared with a sheet of paper: thought is the front and the sound the back; one cannot cut the front with out cutting the back at the same time; likewise in language, one can neither divide sound from thought nor thought from sound; the division could be accomplished only abstractedly, and the result would be either pure psychology or pure phonology.

– Ferdinand Saussure Course in General Linguistics (p.113)

The Arbitrary  Nature of the Sign

Saussure’s other major claim about the sign is that it is arbitrary: the word ‘tree’ bears no similarity to the concept it expresses: the link between signifier and signified is entirely conventional.

Some might object that onomatopoeia and interjections are exceptions to the arbitrary nature of the sign these are often culture specific: for instance, the sound of a clock in English is tick tock but dī dā in Mandarin and katchin katchin in Japanese, while the English exclamation ouch is aïe in French.


The value of a sign is determined by its place within the system of signs: each sign takes its value from its position and relations with other signs within that system.

Language, according to Saussure, works according to  a system of differences. The signifier ‘tree’ is what it is because it is not ‘true’ or ‘free’ or ‘three’. Similarly the signified tree is not the concept of a bush or a vine or a flower.

In language there are only differences, and no positive terms

– Ferdinand Saussure Course in General Linguistics

(Which is, of course, what Jameson was alluding to above.)

While the signification of the sign is determined by the relationship between the signifier and the signified the value of the sign is determined by its relationship to other signs: it has no absolute value independent of the system.

Saussure notes that different languages divide the world up in different ways: for instance the French words bœuf and mouton describe both an animal and its meat while in English we have separate words for ox and beef, and sheep and mutton: a perception of difference between the concepts of the animal and its meat is absent from the French vocabulary just as in English the word chicken does not distinguish between the concept of the animal and its meat. In this way a word may have the same meaning but a different value:

The French word mouton may have the same meaning as the English word sheep; but it does not have the same value. There are various reasons for this, but in particular the fact that the English word for the meat of this animal, as prepared and served for a meal, is not sheep but mutton. The difference in value between sheep and mouton hinges on the fact that in English there is also another word mutton for the meat, whereas mouton in French covers both.’

– Ferdinand Saussure Course in General Linguistics (p.113)

Paradigms and Syntagms

Saussure identified two forms of relationships between signs: paradigmatic and syntagmatic.

The word paradigm comes from the Greek paradeigma meaning pattern, example or sample, and in Saussurian linguistics refers to a set of associated signifiers or signifieds which are members of some defining category but which are significantly different (in fact Saussure himself preferred the term associative). Paradigmatic (or associative) relationships are those of substitution and differentiation: ‘this-or-this-or-this…’

Paradigmatic relationships can be easily illustrated with an explicit example drawn from Doctor Who: the New Paradigm Daleks include the red Drone, the blue Strategist, the orange Scientist, the yellow Eternal and the white Supreme. Red, blue, orange, yellow and white belong to the paradigm of colour while Drone, Strategist, Scientist, Eternal and Supreme belong to the paradigm of roles within Dalek society. (The paradigmatic relationship between signifiers or signifieds chosen and those which are not  is a key feature of intertextuality, which is something I will explore elsewhere.)

The syntagmatic relationship, or syntax, determines the order in which signs are assembled – in Saussurian linguistics a ‘finite-state grammar‘ in which each succeeding sign is determined by the preceding one. Syntagmatic relationships are relations of positioning and combination: ‘this-and-this-and-this…’

Paradigms and syntagms can be represented on two axes with syntagms represented by the horizontal axis and paradigms represented by the vertical axis:

A simple sentence like the cat sat on the mat serves to demonstrate the distinction between paradigms and syntagms. The word cat is chosen from the vertical (associative) dimension from other possibilities within the same paradigm (cat, pussycat, kitten, moggy, tom, mouser) and mat is chosen from other signs within its own paradigm (mat, rug, carpet). Paradigms are not restricted to nouns however, and  sat is also chosen from an associative paradigm of verbs (sat, rested, crouched) and the preposition on is chosen from a paradigm of prepositions (on, in, under); even the definitive article the is chosen from a range of possibilities including the indefinite article a. These choices are linked according to the horizontal syntagmatic (combinative) plane to formulate the complete sentence.

Criticisms of Saussure

I’ve already touched upon Mikhail Bakhtin and Valentin Vološinov‘s objections to the ‘abstract objectivism’ of Saussure’s theories in my essay Parlare the Carny.

Saussure treats la langue as a complete system – but what defines the boundaries of that system? As Bakhtin argued languages are stratified internally, by class, by region and by profession. Does the ‘system’ of English include specialist jargon alien to most speakers or do these professional discourses constitute a system of their own? Does ‘English’ include American English, australian English, etc? What about pidgin versions of English? A synchronic analysis is also unable to account for changes in language over time as new words are invented (neologism) or imported from outside (I look at the political implications of  imported words and phrases in my section on Rudolf Rocker in my essay on Bakhtin and Anarchism).Is it even possible to study language as a system (la langue) without reference to particular instances of its use (parole)? Many everyday phrases require context-based intuitions regarding the speaker’s intentions to not only determine their meaning but also to determine the grammatical structure of what is being said. The rules of syntax, for instance, cannot distinguish between a meaningful sentence like John plays golf and nonsense like Golf plays John. Deictic shifters I, you, now, then, etc – also indicate the extent to which meaning is determined by context.

Saussure’s distinction between syntagms and paradigms has also been criticised by Norman Holland. Saussure describes a form of ‘finite-state grammar’ in which sentences are generated by means of a series of choices made ‘from left to right’: each successive term is determined by the preceding elements. Such a syntax cannot account for the distinction between sentences such as ‘John is eager to please’ and ‘John is easy to please’: in the former, John is active, in the second passive.‘John is too angry to talk to Bill’ and ‘John is too angry to talk to’ differ in only one signifier but in the first case it is John doing the talking and in the latter someone other than John: each of the signifiers ‘is too angry to talk to’ have changed their meaning. In these cases the ‘structure’ of the sentence lies at a much deeper, more complex, level than Saussure’s vertical paradigms and horizontal syntagms can account for.

Saussurian linguistics cannot distinguish between sentences which share almost identical grammatical structure, for example the sentences which John Searle gives in his essay ”Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics”:

John is easy to please

John is eager to please These sentences share the same sequence of nouncopulaadjectiveinfinitiveverb, but in the first sentence John functions as the direct object of the verb to please; i.e. it is easy for someone to please John. In the second sentence John functions as the subject of the verb to please; i.e. John is eager that he please someone else. That this is a difference in syntax is demonstrated because the second sentence allows us to form the noun-phrase John’s eagerness to please more easily than we can generate John’s easiness to please from the first sentence.

Another example Searle gives is I like her cooking, which contains no ambiguous words and has a very simple superficial grammatical structure (nounverbpossessive pronounnoun) but the sentence is ambiguous: It can mean I like what she cooks, I like the way she cooks, or even, if you are a nutcase, I like the fact that she is being cooked.

There is no syntax without semantics: without interpretation, without meaning, structure cannot be seen.

– Raymond Tallis, Not Saussure (p.73)

 Saussure’s theories represent an

…impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language

– Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind (1972)

Misrepresentations of Saussure

Impoverished and inadequate as conception of language though it may be, Sussurian linguistics still provides the basis for Cultural Studies and literary theory – and post-Saussurians have even extended Sausurian theory far beyond its founder, often grossly misrepresenting Saussure in the process.

The most common misrepresentation of Saussure concerns a basic misunderstanding regarding the value of the sign, particularly confuse the signifier and signified with, respectively, sign and referent, an elementary mistake made by Terry Eagleton when he claims that claims that the relationship between sign and referent is arbitrary (Literary Theory, p 108) – but Saussure’s claim was specifically about the relationship between signifier and signified.

Another elementary error is a misunderstanding of Saussure is regarding the negativity of the linguistic sign.

Although both the signifier and signified are purely differential and negative when considered seperately, their combination is a positive fact; it is even the sole type of facts that language has

– Ferdinand Saussure Course in General Linguistics (p. 120-1)

So while the signifier and the signified are purely differential terms their combination – the sign – is not: it is a positive fact. Saussure could not be clearer on this point – but it is, as we’ll see, a major point of misunderstanding among Post-Saussurian theorists.

According to Raymond Tallis in Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory (1988, 2nd ed. 1995) notion that extra-linguistic reference is impossible rests upon three fallacies: that all structures or systems are closed; that meaning is identical with that in virtue of which it can be specified; and that meaning is the same as reference.

Terrence Hawkes describes structure as ordered, possessing of wholeness, of transformational procedures, and self-regulating: these properties

…act to maintain and underwrite the intrinsic laws whoch bring them about, and to ”seal off” the system from reference to other systems.

– Terrence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (p.16)

From this he concludes that language, being such a structure

…does not construct its formulations of words by reference to the patterns of ‘reality’, but on the basis of its own internal and self-sufficient rules.

– Terrence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (p.16-17)

Tallis gives the example of the human nervous system as an example of a system which is necessarily not closed off from the external world: the nervous system possesses wholeness, complex transformational procedures, and is self-regulating, yet each of these properties open the body to experiences of the world.

It is no exaggeration to say that it is the very structure of the nervous system that creates the condition for there being explicit outsideness, a consciousness of extra-cerebral reality.

– Raymond Tallis, Not Saussure (p.77)

To deny this is to decend into pure solipsism.

The assumption that if the instruments by which meaning is specified are internal to the system, then meaning is itself internal to the system, rests upon the confusion of the system (la parole) and specific utterances (la langue). This belief is demonstrated by Catherine Belsey:

If discourses articulate concepts through a system of signs which signify by means of their relationship to each other rather than to entities in the world, and if literature is a signifying practice, all it can reflect is the order inscribed in particular discourses, not the nature of the world.

– Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (p.46)

Structuralism notoriously reduces experience to a series of binary oppositions, for instance in Structuralism and Semiotics Terrence Hawkes argues that light is understood in opposition to dark, up in opposition to down, etc. According to structuralism the system determines the opposition of these terms because there is no meaning without structure but Tallis argues that extra-linguistic experience of these terms determines their meaning rather than just linguistic opposition.

(iii) Post-Saussurians claim reference is internal to language; that language, if it is about anything at all, is about language itself. This fallacy follows from confusing meaning with reference. Reference is always to particular instances while meaning is general.

Gottlob Frege explored this distinction in his 1892 paper Über Sinn und Bedeutung (On Sense and Reference). This was a response to John Stuart Mill‘s claim that a proper name has no meaning beyond its referent. Frege’s argument is that the names Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain may share the same referent (Bedeutung)a particular historical figureyet these the expressions convey a different meaning (Sinn, or sense).

Expressions are general and an unlimited number of referents may answer to the same particular expression: for instance dog can refer to any particular instance (or token) of a general type. Transitions from the general meaning of a referring expression such as dog to a unique referent – say, Greyfriars Bobby depends on the context of the utterance. Without this context reference could not take place. Furthermore, it is possible for terms to have meaning without any particular referent, as with deictic shifters such as I or today, whose meaning is determined entirely by context: who uses the term, and when.

(I’ll be returning to the distinction between sense and meaning eventually with a discussion on Bertrand Russell)

  • Chomsky, Noam (1957) Syntactic Structures
  • Chomsky, Noam (1972) Language and Mind
  • Frege, Gottleb () On Sense and Reference
  • Hawkes, Terrence (1977) Structuralism and Semiotics
  • Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I
  • Holland, John R. (1972) ”The Trouble(s) With Lacan”
  • Jameson, Fredric (2007) Archaeologies of the Future
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1983) Course in General Linguistics
  • Tallis, Raymond (2nd ed. 1995) Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory
  • Tallis, Raymond (2nd ed. 1998) In Defense of Realism
  1. Violet says:

    Be interesting to know how you could adapt Saussure’s theories specifically to an understanding of literature?
    So some people believe Literature is based on ostranenie and the making strange of language; for Eagleton context makes Literature not intrinsic value.

  2. […] His contribution to linguistics can hardly be out stated, although many of his views have been superseded and criticized (as one should expect, given the amount of time that has passed since his death in […]

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