Prior to Saussure, the study of language was primarily diachronic, focusing on analyzing language changes over time. However, Saussure introduced a synchronic approach, viewing language as a structure and studying it in its entirety at a specific moment in time. His ideas and theories greatly influenced linguists and theorists like Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and others.
Key Concepts in Saussure's Linguistics
Saussure made significant contributions to linguistics, introducing various concepts that reshaped the understanding of language. He emphasized that there is no inherent connection between words and things, implying that reality is not independent of language, and language is not simply a system of naming.
He proposed that language is a system of signs, and each word gains its meaning only in relation to other words. For example, the word "cat" derives its significance from being distinct from the word "dog," and vice versa.
Saussure distinguished between "langue" and "parole." Langue represents the structured system of language based on rules, while parole refers to the personalized or individual expressions of language, following the rules of langue.
Language, according to Saussure, is heterogeneous, shaped collectively by communities sharing a common language, making it a social institution distinct from legal and political institutions. On the other hand, speech is homogeneous, where the essential aspect is the union of meanings and sound-images, and both parts of the sign are psychological.
Nature of Linguistic Signs
Saussure's groundbreaking concept of linguistic signs involves dividing the "sign" into two components: the "signifier" and the "signified." The signifier refers to the sound-image or word, while the signified represents the concept or meaning associated with that word.
He argues that a sign does not simply unite a name and a thing but a concept and a sound-image. For instance, the word "table" signifies the concept of a table through the sound-image "table."
His understanding of the sign as a combination of the signifier and the signified challenged conventional notions of language, where it was considered a ready-made system for naming. This insight inspired him to propose a new discipline called "semiology," which would further explore the profound understanding of language and its implications.