A PROPER UNDERSTANDING OF SAUSSURE
Being a pioneer is both
a privilege and a liability. It
is the privilege (for example) of announcing from the housetops something
that has since come to be accepted as a commonplace. Those that come later need to place the pioneer
in a proper perspective in order to grasp the proper significance
of his thought. But then it
can also incur the liability (for example) of stating his thoughts
in an extreme form without appropriate qualifications or reservations.
Even when the pioneer is a major thinker those that come later
owe it to themselves not only to pay their homage but also to follow
the advice of Kant (Critique of Pure Reason B 370). Our job,
according to Kant, is to understand Plato better than Plato understood
What was Saussure’s privilege as the founder of modern linguistics
and, with C.S. Peirce, the co-founder of modern semiotics?
In order to understand this one needs to go a few centuries
back in the history of European thought, philosophy included.
Renaissance Europe was anxious to distance itself from what
was seen as religious dogmatism and irrationalism and to search for
alternative foundations to the understanding of the natural world
and the human world, which were being explored anew.
The European thinkers adopted either of two strategies.
There was the empiricist strategy of grounding one’s terms
and/or one’s statements ultimately in experience, especially sense
experience, seen as yielding self-evident descriptions; the descriptions
are deemed to be self-evident or so far as comparing notes with one
another confirms that the exper is a shared. Again, there was the aprioristic strategy of
claiming that man is so endowed that some of the critical terms and/or
critical statements that occur to him need no grounding in experience
to yield self-evident applications; this endowment permits man to
step outside the I, the here, and the now that otherwise delimit his
experience. (Since the ancient Greeks called this endowment logos
opposing it to muthos and doxa, that is, traditionally
handed down story and opinion and since logos was customarily
translated by Latin ratio in this sense, the strategy of apriorism
is often does mean no more than the general opposition to dogmatism
and irrationalism that motivated both empiricism and apriorism.) In
the late 18th century, Kant saw the strength and weakness
of both these strategies and proposed his critical method as a third
way out. The third way reconciles us to which no more than provisional reasoned
certainty: for example, to being content with the best scientific
account available for the time being that amounts, frankly, stands
open to further revision.
All along, the scientific study of the natural world was taking
shape, especially from the time of Newton.
The possibility of giving a similar shape to the scientific
and historical study of the human world came into its own only in
the later half of the 18th century.
Adam Smith saw an “invisible hand” in the price mechanism and
the philologists saw it in the sound forms attested in certain families
The turn of the 19th century, however, saw a serious
questioning of this reasoned and humane view of the human world celebrated
as the Enlightenment by Roussean and the Romantics.
Actually, this counter-Enlightenment move was anticipated even
in early 18th century by the work ‘la Nuova Scienza’ (1725)
(the New Science) by Glambaltista Vico who proposed a new way of understanding
the human world which combined the scientific and the historical perspectives.
Later in the 18th century, Darwin, Marx, the ‘Golden
Bough’ anthropologists, and Freud hammered away at the edifice fashioned
in the course of the Enlightenment.
The tidy, civilized practices of man were seen to be better
explained in terms of underlying compulsions respectively of the biology
of the species, of the forces and relations of economic production,
of the understanding and motivation in the primitive human psyche,
and the biology of the growth of a child in the family. That was the
unvarnished truth about man.
Around the turn of the 20th century there was a
fresh movement in European thought.
In the human sciences one turned away from reductive disenhancement
after the followers of Darwin and the others to a close look at the
object being explained, from large generalization to meticulous analysis
of detail from the sweep of history to successive states of human
affairs, from explaining everything from some single factor like evolution,
economic necessity, primitive mentality, or libido to constructing
tight little systems of limited scope, and from a search for objects
and processes, in substantive reality to a search for networks of
attributes and relations. “Only
connect”, said E.M. Forster around this time in a somewhat different
context. This could well be the watchword of modern
linguistics, modern economics, modern psychology, and so forth.
That is where Saussure stands, giving a positive direction
to the negative shift away from an exclusive concern with linguistic
history, from Hermann Paul’s characterization of linguistics as an
essentially historical discipline. Having won his spurs on a signal triumph of
historical linguistics as a youth, Saussure took the logical step
from the systematic nature of language change to the systematic nature
of language itself. He came
on the scene when the interest had definitely shifted from the prestigious
but dead classical languages to the modern languages and even their
folk dialects. The interest had also broadened beyond the
familiar Indo-European and Semitic languages to the bewilderingly
different systems of ‘exotic’ languages like Chinese or the native
unwritten languages of the Americans, Africa, and northern Asia.
The Böhtlingk who made the exciting discovery of the Paninian
approach, at once rigorous and flexible, was also the Böhtlingk who
applied it with success to a Siberian language.
The phoneticians with their pronunciation drills, quaint alphabets,
and strange contraptions were already on the scene.
Henry Sweet, the grammarian of spoken English, was already
inspiring Daniel Jones, Otto Jespersen, and others.
The German geographer Franz Boas had migrated to America and
busied himself with the ethnography of peoples and their languages,
bringing to the new disciplines the objectivity and the refusal to
speculate and wander from the goal imbibed as a trained natural scientist.
The positive direction that Saussure imparted to the new turn
in linguistics consists in certain principles:
The principle of immanence: All the regularities that a speaker needs
to speak in order to be understood and a listener needs to understand
what is spoken must be sought entirely within the closed system of
the given idiom. After all, ordinary speakers and listeners
are not philologists.
The principle of recurring relations: The system consists of relations
between signifying speech forms and signified thought forms and signified
thought forms and between one coupling of this kind and another coupling
of the same kind.
The principle of social sustenance:
The self-contained system is ultimately sustained through actual
social use and social acceptance.
Quite apart from the imperfections in our acquaintance with
Saussure’s thought that have arisen through the peculiar circumstances
of its transmission through posthumously edited students’ lecture
notes, one must look for certain others of the sort that a pioneer
is an heir to. We shall briefly
examine some of these imperfections in the light of our hindsight.
These have to do with certain sets of Saussurean terms:
language, langue, parole
point de vue – synchronique, diachronique, panchronique
significant, signifié, signe
rapport – syntagmatique, associatif
We shall take up these sets one by one.
(a) Language, langue, parole :
Language is the totality of linguistic facts.
Out of these the central facts are the facts of langue and
the peripheral facts are the facts of parole.
Langue is the assembly of linguistic habits that enables a
listener to understand and a speaker to make himself understood; it
is the social product that enables a person to exercise his faculty
of language. Parole is the totality of what speakers say
and listeners understand; it is the individual’s speech activity consisting
of sentence-long portions of speech; it is the site of individual
innovations and their selective individual acceptance.
What is not too clear in this account by Saussure is the following:
(1) What parole is to langue is what langue is to the faculty of language. In each pair one moves from the specific and
the actual to the more general and the potential. (2) Language is actually a conflation of two steps in this series.
Parole is the specific actual implementation of a person’s
version of langue. A person’s version of langue is the specific actual implementation
of the langue accepted by a community of persons. A community’s langue is the specific actual
implementation of the faculty of language.
This language, thus, consists in a four – step progression
from the less accessible to the more accessible (from abstrait to
concrete in Saussure’s terminology).
faculty of language
Steps (i, ii, iii, iv) correspond respectively to Chomsky’s
language faculty, knowledge of language competence, and language performance. They further correspond to the ancient Indian
grammarians’ šabda-bhāvanā, šabda-šakti, šabda-šakti-graha,
and šabda-prayoga (the Sanskrit terms respectively mean speech-potentiality,
speech-power, speech-powergain, speech-performance).
(b) Point de vue – synchronique, diachronique, panchronique :
The facts of langue are open to being considered from the synchronic
point of view, the diachronic point of view, and, may be, the panchronic
point of view. From the synchronic point of view one comes
up with a state of langue that persists over so short a time segment
that one considers the (community) langue to be practically changeless. From the diachronic point of view one comes
up with changes that intervene between successive states of langue. There may also be the panchronic point of view
from which to come up with universals of states of community langue
and with universals of changes intervening between them.
What is not too clear in this account by Saussure is the following:
(1) There is a close relation between seamless states of langue in
time and homogeneous varieties of langue in space and, more importantly,
between langue changes through time and langue variations over space.
Indeed, the three points of view are best seen as analytic (capturing
single state of single variety), historical (capturing change through
time and variation over space), and correlative (capturing recurrence
across time and space). (2)
Saussure appears to be as much aware of analytic typology, historical-change
typology, and, possibly, historical-variation typology as he is aware
of analytic and historical universals. Types and universals are both to be seen as products of the same
non-historical correlative comparison between langues. (3) Since Saussure fails to clearly separate
person langue and community langue, he overemphasizes the separation
between the changeless synchronic and the changeful diachronic. Actually, the changeful person langue is the
requisite link between fluid parole and changeless community langue. It is parole that countenances deviations and
person langue that selectively accepts some of these and rejects others.
The widely accepted deviations become a part of the next state
of the community langue. This is somewhat like mutations, their selective
perpetuation, and the geno-and-pheno-type of each species in evolutionary
biology). Thus, in saying
that a change such as analogy is not to be deemed to be a change engendered
within the changeless definition system.
Saussure is referring to the community langue and not to the
person langue. (4) Saussure need not have been so unsure about
the panchronique and about the placement of universal and type-generating
features of langue.
(c) Significant, signifié,
Linguistic facts are a special subclass of semiotic facts. From the synchronic point of view, langue constitutes a closed system
of semiotic facts, specifically, semiotic objects and their relations
as distinct from semiotic processes.
Semiotic objects and relations, no less than semiotic processes,
draw their sustenance primarily from social convention, only secondarily
from psychological motivation.
Semiotic objects are of two different orders, the order of
signifiants (Medieval Latin signans) and the order of signifiés
(Medieval Latin signatum). A significant possesses valeur in relation
to some signifié, or alternatively in relation to some significant
in another semiotic system such as another langue.
Thus, louer is a single signe in French, but rent
and rent out are distant signes in English.
The valeur of louer is like collapsing the valeurs of
rent and rent out.
Again, /sīžlaprã/ corresponds to two distinct signes,
namely si je la prend and si je l’apprend, though the
significant is one and the same. Each signe thus has both unity and identity
(that is, - lacking of components and lacking of variants) and in
consequences is more accessible (concret is Saussure’s term) than
either significant by itself, which is no more than a verbal image,
or signifié by itself, which is no more than a verbal concept.
The latter two may lack either unity or identity or both.
As signe may be a simple unit or a complex syntagme inclusive
of other signes. Sentences,
word groups, words, word elements are all signes, simple or complex
as the case may be (A complex X is an X consisting wholly of other
Xs, where X stands for sentence, word group, word, or word element
as the case may be).
Since linguistic significants are verbal images and verbal
images are either spoken sequences (chanîe parlée) or their segments,
linguistic signes, especially complex ones, are linear in nature.
Since linguistic signes are no more than couplings of a significant
with and a signifié, they
are formal and conventional in nature.
The coupling is primarily arbitrary; any motivation is secondary,
unless the signe is complex.
What is not too clear in Saussure’s account is the following:
(a) The term signe has also been used for the combination of a significant
and the corresponding signifié or for the link (Medieval Latin signatio)
between the two. This is awkward, if not confusing. (2) Saussure accepts the linearity of complex
linguistic signes, but emphatically rejects the possibility of partial
resemblance between simple linguistic signes in respect of their significants
or their signifiés. There
is a certain ambivalence here towards the accessible but non-substantial
and formal character of signes.
The ancient Indian grammarians speak of šabda (speech
segment), šabdārtha (speech-value), and šabda-šabdārtha-sambandha
(the link between speech segment and speech value). This link sustains
the activation of in the speaker and the listener is šabda-šakti
speech power, which it will be recalled corresponds to community segment. The three terms correspond to Saussure’s linguistic significant,
linguistic signifié, and linguistic valeur.
Ancient Indian grammarians and other students of language debate
as to whether the link between the two is nitya (causally independent)
or naimittika / kārya (causally dependent) or whether
the link is siddha (ready-given) or sādhya (to
be worked out). This debate roughly corresponds to the European
debate as to whether the link is arbitrary or motivated or the discussion
raised later by Benveniste as to how one reconciles the arbitrary
character of the link with the necessary character of the link. Linguistic necessity corresponds to the logician’s
law of identity as applied to terms rather than propositions (A is
A rather than P implies P).
If one finds it awkward to use the French words significant,
signifié, signe, and valeur in English discourse,
one can use signant, signate, sign, and valence (not
value) respectively in their place.
For the link between significant and signifié one can use signation
both in French and in English.
(d) Rapport – syntagmatique,
(rapports) are either between objects of different orders (that is,
valeur between significant and signifié) or between objects of the
same order (as when the objects related are both significants, both
signifiés, or both signes). A
semiotic system, such as a langue, is a system of semiotic relations
of various kinds rather than an assembly of semiotic relations of
various kinds rather than an assembly of semiotic objects of various
Complex linguistic signes are syntagmes of different kinds. Syntagmes can be either ready-made (arbitrary rather than fully
motivated) such as difficulté, mourrai, avoir mal à (la
tete etc.), à quoi bon?
or regularly and freely worked out or constructed (motivated
rather than fully arbitrary) such as facilité dormirai, indecorable,
la terre tourne, que nous dit-il?
Grammar consists of lexicology (listing simple linguistic signes
and ready-made complex linguistic signes), morphology (accounting
for complex words, especially constructed ones), and syntax (accounting
for complex word groups and sentences, especially constructed ones).
Grammar accounts for only such linguistic relations as are
sustained by native speakers’ use in a society.
(One may note in passing how ancient Indian students of language
spoke of complex linguistics signs as either rūḍha
(ready made and wholly arbitrary), yoga-rūḍha
(constructed but with some arbitrariness), and yaugika (constructed
and wholly motivated).
A rapport between two or more signes is either syntagmatique
or associatif. Rapports syntagmatiques are in praesentia,
that is, the related signes are both effectively present in the ongoing
discourse. Rapports associatifs
are in absentia, that is, the related signes are drawn from memory
in the background. Thus, facil and ité are in facilité
are in rapport syntagmatique. But
difficulté and facilité are in rapport associatif, so
are facil and facilité, té and difficulté,
redouter and craindre (dread, fear respectively), justement
and element (sharing the rhyme ment). When signes in rapport associatif constitute
an array, there is a special paradigmatic variety of such rapports
The valeur of any term included in any syntagme or in any associative
set depends on such inclusion. Thus,
plural as opposed to singular is not quite the same as plural as opposed
to singular and dual.
What is not too clear in Saussure’s account is the following:
(a) If the rapport syntagmatique between facil and ité
is in praesentia, the rapport associatif between facil and
facilité is also in a praesentia.
(2) If the array grand, grands, grande, grandes is in
rapport associatif and constitutes a paradigm, so also the array does
la terre tourne, la toupie tourne, la roué tourne, being a
paradigm of sorts except that this array is open-ended and unordered.
Indeed, Hjelmslev later proposed to speak of syntagmatic and
paradigmatic relations rather than syntagmatic and associative relations;
his paradigmatic extends to open-ended and unordered arrays as well.
(3) Actually, Saussure’s rapport associatif is not a very useful category.
The near-synonyms redouter, craindre and the rhyming
of justement, element are not relations between signes at all
but are relations between two signifies and between two significants
respectively; at best, they are lexicological relations.
The relation between a part and the whole in a syntagme, as
with facil and facilité or with la terre and
la terre tourne is fundamentally different from the elation
between a part and another part within a whole. Indeed, William Haas later proposed to speak
of three kinds of grammatical relations: syntagmatic, paradigmatic,
and functional (part and part, part or part, and part
within whole). This account fulfils the promise of Saussure’s
rather inchoate proposal. In
praesentia and in absentia is not the best way to make these distinctions;
the distinctions are all formal though quite accessible.
The distinction between in prsentia and in absentia actually
corresponds to the distinction between parole and person langue and
has little to do with distinction between different kinds of relations
between objects of (Pg. 15, Last line , Not Visible)
Saussure well illustrates an important feature of the turn
of the 20th century movement in European thought, namely,
the shift from the 19th century reduction to processes
in substantive reality to a new preoccupation with formal connectedness
of things. In this there is
a close resemblance between structuralism, functionalism, and phenomenology
as methods in the scientific study of the human world; compare the
three-way distinction in Husserl’s phenomenological proposal for an
aprioristic scrutiny of meaningful appearances between hulē,
noēsis, noēma (Greek for stuff, thinking, thought) with
Saussure’s three-way distinction between substance, process, form. If the 19th century reductionism
leaned towards the empiricist strategy, the 20th century
formalism leaned towards the aprioristic strategy.
Of course there was no going back to the pre-Kant onesidedness
of the two strategies.
Naturally, Saussure stressed this aspect of the new approach
to the study of language and other aspects of the human world with
a certain emphasis and enthusiasm, a certain shouting from the housetops.
Consider the following:
“D’autres sciences opèrent
sur des objets donnés d’avance et qu’on peut considérer ensuite à
différents points de vue; dans notre domaine, rien de semblable …
Bien loin que l’objet precede de point de vue, on dirait que c’est
le point de vue qui crée l’objet, et d’ailleurs rien ne nous dit d’avance
que l’une de ces manihres de considérer le fait en question soit antérieure
ou supérieure aux autres.” (Cours, Introduction, ch.3, section
1) (English renderings of this and later citations in this section
are given at the end)
“les valeurs restent entièrement relatives” (Cours,
Pt.2, ch.4, section 1).
Again, he says:
“Tout ce qui precede revient à dire que dans la langue il
n’y a que des differences … sans termes positifs”
(Cours, Pt.2, ch.4, section 4), em phases original).
And somewhat later:
“Ansi dans un état de
langue, tout repose sur des rapports … Les rapports et les différences
entre termes linguistiques se déroulent… dans le discours … D’autre
part … dans la mémoire…” (Cours, pt.2, Ch.5, section 1).
Objects, valeurs, differences, relations – the whole lot! They are all formal but accessible entities.
Post-modernist thinkers have been trying to cope with the cultural
situation of the late 20th century as defined by the exhaustion
of the possibilities of European modernity defined by the Renaissance
and the Enlightenment and by the flood of momentary artifacts thrown
up by the passing show (the media, travel and tourism, fashion and
pop-culture) which imprisons the attention within the I, the here
and the now. The anarchistic
urge in many of these to celebrate the vanity of all cognitive and
cultural claims (the slogan being there are no foundations
either for understanding things or for coping with life) found in
Saussure’s pronouncements of this kind, duly bereft of their methodological
context, weapons that came quite handy indeed for their own destructive
purpose. Saussure’s principle
of social sustenance often falls by the wayside. Saussure has become a cult figure. That is quite another sort of liability that
a pioneer may incur! Fortunately,
fashions pass, including intellectual fashions of the Paris Left Bank.
OF THE CITATIONS IN SECTION III:
- Other sciences work on objects given in advance which
one can then consider from differing points of view, but such is
not the case with our field. …Far
from the object preceding the point of view, one would say that
it is the point of view that generates the object and, besides,
there is nothing to tell us in advance that some one of these
ways of considering the fact in hand shows precedence or superiority
over other ways.
- The valences (valeurs) remain wholly relative.
- All that has been said far amounts to saying that in
langue there are no more than just differences… without any positive
- So, in a state of langue, everything rests on relations.
…Relations between linguistic terms and differences between
them unfold themselves...in the on-going discourse … and, again,
in the memory in the background.
The English-speaking thinkers have been slow in recognizing
the stature of Saussure: the British philologists waited till linguistics
overtook comparative philology, the American students of literature
and culture waited till post-modernism overtook them, and the American
linguists waited till they finally caught up with Continental linguistics. Indian scholars and thinkers have followed suit: only lately their
thought is getting decolonialized.
It is especially a pleasure, therefore, to offer this homage
to Saussure, from an Indian’s point of view, an Indian enjoying the
double heritage of ancient India and ancient and modern West (‘Ancient’
here include ‘Mediaeval’.)
This was an invited contribution to a British publisher’s project
to bring out a volume of articles on Saussure that did not materialized.
Saussure, being a pioneer in modern linguistics and semiotics,
enjoys a privilege and incurs a liability calling for our sympathetic
but critical understanding.
I. Saussure represents an important turning point in European
attempts to understand the world, especially man, from the time of
the Renaissance onwards. This
underlies the three-way direction he gave to linguistics in terms
of immanence, recurring relations, and social sustenance.
II. Saussure’s thought on language shows certain imperfections
of the kind expected in a pioneer. These have to do with his ideas about the progression of accessibility
from language faculty to language use, about the synchronic, diachronic,
and panchronic perspectives on language, about the semiotic triad,
and about the grammatical triad.
III. One hopes that the appropriation of his formalistic method by
some of the post-modernist thinkers is no more than a passing liability.
NOTE ON THE AUTHOR
Ashok R. Kelkar, born 1929, trained in English literature (M.A.)
from Pune and Linguistics (Ph.D. from Cornell), retired as Professor
of linguistics from Deccan College and Pune University.
Has written extensively in English, Hindi, and his native Marathi
on the analysis and philosophy of language, literature, art, and semiosis. Among his books are Studies in Hindi-Urdu
I (1968), Language in a semiotic perspective: The Architecture
of a Marathi sentence (1997), Ancient Indian poetics: An Interpretation
(in Marathi and Hindi), Vaikhari and Madhyama
(linguistic studies written in Marathi in two collections).