Signification through Language, as according to Saussure: On the Course in General Linguistics

Language can confuse anyone. That’s what Ferdinand de Saussure is trying to explain his essay, the Course in General Linguistics.

Saussure stated that there are 3 criticisms he noted in the origins of language: the historical background & etymology; the expressivist view of language in the individual level; & the referential theory.

He then went to say that words or language work/s at all given moments throughout its development within a specific area, in other words, it’s synchronic.  Then he states about the nature of signs & how they work. Signs refer to anything, he said. He also debunks the idea that there are such things as ‘ready-made words exist before the world’ & said that ‘our thought… is only a shapeless & indistinct mass’; what he means is that language is the one necessary matrix without which meaningful thought can’t occur.

He called signs as the basic elements involved in producing meaning; they don’t simply label or even refer to a prior reality or referent; the old formula once said that sign = referent; Saussure didn’t agree so. He insisted that a sign is composed of the signifier (sound image) & the signified (an idea about reality itself). Also, he said that signs are arbitrarily, since that some singfiers are attached to the signifieds by conventions, instead of necessity. He also proposed a new formula: Signifier + Signified = the Referent/ the real object.

Then, he also state that language doesn’t provide us an unmediated access to or a window into ‘reality’, what it does is it shapes of how we see & grasp reality, or just confuse us to no end, he claimed. He also said that we can never the ‘real’ anymore, for different languages have offered their versions of reality, hence different languages signify ‘real’ differently. There’s also the fact that a certain sign means what it means, only because it’s a part of the sign-system, & different is the major cornerstone of the functioning of all sign-systems. Then there’s an emphasis on the phonetic component of a word.

Of course, he provided the terms: Langue & Parole (not a civil law term for repentance for a criminal). Langue is the abstract system within or the basic rules by which all signs mean; parole, on the other hand, is the concrete/ physical applications and/ or instances of such rules. One example would be the English Renaissance, back then William Shakespeare’s sonnets were prominent of his times and many writers & poets attempted to follow his style of writing.

The author notes that, in conclusion, that sometimes language can make one confuse about reality, to the point everyone doesn’t know to pin-point it after all. But keep in mind, this is just one theory one can learn, but don’t take it for grant.


Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York City, New York, United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

A little reminder of this lesson:

This figure shows arbitrariness of the sign.

This figure shows arbitrariness of the sign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)