Language and Linguistics




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 himself!




            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 of languages.


            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:


(a)      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.

(b)      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.

(c)      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:


(a)     language, langue, parole

(b)    point de vue – synchronique, diachronique, panchronique

(c)     significant, signifié, signe

(d)    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).


(i)                 faculty of language

(ii)                community langue

(iii)              person langue


            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, signe :


            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, associatif :


             Semiotic relations (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 kinds.


            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 ha (ready made and wholly arbitrary), yoga-rūha (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, 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 associatifs.


            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)


Somewhat later:


            “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.






  • 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 terms.


  • So, in a state of langue, everything rests on relations.  …Relations between linguistic terms and differences between them unfold 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.



            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).