Saussure: The Signifier and the Signified


Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1906-11. "Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign" (152-160)


Saussure (1857-1913) lived at same time as the classical theorists Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, Freud, Mead. He was a Swiss linguist who worked in Germany, Switzerland, and France studying Indo-European languages. His most famous book, Course in General Linguistics, was actually put together after his death by former students based on lecture notes from his courses.

This excerpt is important in the history of theory for three reasons. One is that later it will constitute a founding document for the line of thinking that comes under the banners of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and related perspectives.

Second, the image we have here of language as something that is binding and constraining, but arbitrary and in force only insofar as a linguistic community actually uses it, will become an important model for thinking about the kind of thing that society is. In particular, Anthony Giddens "structuration theory" (1980s and 1990s) will make use of this idea.

Third, in connection to the sociology of the self, we have here a founding document about how the self participates in the social. Linguistic signs ARE how we think and they are neither natural nor individual. This is a very fundamental idea — much of what goes on in our heads and especially much that has to do with meaning, is received by us as already their when we are socialized into a given community and it has power over us but only because of the community of "users" around us. There is lots more here, but that's a critical tidbit to be sure you take away from this reading.


  1. Language is more than a naming process.
  2. Presumes ideas; doesn't locate names experientially; treats linking name and object as simple; but basic notion right: it's about linking two terms.
  3. Both elements psychological.
  4. Sign unites concept and sound image, both psychological.
  5. We can speak to ourselves in our heads without vocalization.
  6. Sound image begets concept and concept begets sound image.
  7. The linking is taken as reality.
  8. For Saussure, "sign" is the combination of sound image and concept.
  9. Sign = signifier + signified
  10. The sign is arbitrary.
  11. Basis is collective behavior. Convention.
  12. Symbol a slightly different thing — things stand for something for a reason.
  13. By contrast, the signifier has no natural connection with signified.
  14. Despite being arbitrary, individuals are not free to change it; connection is fixed with respect to a given linguistic community.
  15. Language as model of law not as social contract. (155.2)
  16. Language is always a heritage: experienced from the start as already there. (155.3)
  17. But this alone is not an explanation. (155.5)
  18. Language transmission as institutional transmission. How does it work? Why does historical receipt dominate how we deal with language?
  19. Combination of time and social nature (community of speakers) of language (155.8-9)
  20. Funky comparison with other disciplines and analogy of linguistics and economics (labor:wages :: signifier:signified)
  21. Both ideas space and phonic space are continuous and undifferentiated. (157.4)
  22. Language is this two sided thing — sound and idea — and they can't be separated.
  23. Linguistics is about a form, not a substance. (157.5)
  24. "The arbitrary nature of the sign explains in turn why the social fact alone can create a linguistic system." (157.7)
  25. We are zeroing in on how to talk about the "interdependent whole" (157.8)
  26. How to distinguish "value" of a word:
  27. Critical: the value of each term in a language depends on simultaneous presence of others (158.5)
  28. In language as elsewhere, value has to do with comparing similar things and dissimilar things. (158.8)
  29. Each word stands in relation to what it signifies and to all of its nearby signifiers (159.3)
  30. POINT: words do not stand for pre-existing concepts (159.5)
  31. "[Concepts] most precise characteristic is in being what they are not." (159.9)


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