The Linguistic Sign

Ferdinand de Saussure was born in Geneva and attended University at Leipzig before moving to Paris to teach. He is considered to be the founder of modern linguistics. His work was the starting point for structuralism and much of semiotics.

His lectures were reconstructed from his notes into the renowned book “Course in General Linguistics” (1915), which became the basis of the present linguistics and structuralist critical theory. In his book, Saussure calls for a scientific approach rather than a historical study of language.

Saussure’s most important premise is the conception of language as a system of signs, which are arbitrary (i.e. not bound by specific rules) but conventional (i.e. observing the customs of society). A linguistic sign is thus a union of the signifier (signifiant) and the signified (signifie).

The signifier represents the sound, image or writing marks used to convey an idea, whereas the signified is the concept or idea conveyed.

For example the word pattern “cat” is the signifier, whereas the animal we recognize as a cat is the signified. However, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary because there is no intrinsic relation between them.

They are only associated through linguistic and social conventions. For instance, the word for the concept of a “cat” in Italian is “gatto” and thus different languages have different signifiers for the same signified or concept conveyed.

Saussure named his new science of the life of signs within society as “Semiology” which refers to the systematic study of signs, linguistic as well as otherwise.

The idea of the linguistic sign can be better understood with reference to a distinction made in Semiotics. There are three types of signs:

1. Iconic signs – which resemble the things they represent (e.g. diagrams, star charts, traffic signs);

2. Indexical signs – which point to or have a necessary connection with the things they represent (e.g. here, there, I, a smile to happiness or a frown to anger). The meanings of these signs is thus conditional to actual situations;

3. Symbolic signs – which are only conventionally related to the thing they represent (e.g. a flag to a nation, a rose to love, a wedding ring to marriage).

There is very little in language that is iconic. Onomatopoeic words, which resemble the natural sounds they represent are a likely candidate. However, while for instance “bow-wow” signifies a dog barking in English, other languages represent the sound quite differently. So even such words seem to be highly conventional.

A few aspects of language are indexical such as the demonstrative pronouns “this” or “that”, which point to the things they represents, or adverbs such as “now” or “then” which denote the moment of speaking.

Most aspects of language is however symbolic where meaning is based on arbitrary but conventional connections.