History: E492_Saussure

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Assigned: Ferdinand de Saussure. From Course in General Linguistics (850-66). Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition.

From Course in General Linguistics

From Introduction, Chapter III: The Object of Linguistics

1. On 850-52, what distinction does de Saussure make between "language" (langue) and "speech" (parole)? What is the relationship between an individual speaker and language?

2. On 851-52, what importance does de Saussure attribute to "semiology"? What is, or will be, the province and mission of this science? What factors, according to de Saussure, have hitherto kept people from properly studying and understanding language, or sign systems?

From Part One. General Principles. Chapter I: Nature of the Linguistic Sign

3. On 852-54 top, how does de Saussure explain the parts of a sign and the relationship among them? Consider his remarks about the "sign," the "signified," and the "signifier." And what common idea of how language works does the theory he sets forth attack?

4. On 854-56, de Saussure posits two basic characteristics of the sign: "arbitrariness" and "linearity." What do you understand by the first characteristic? What implications might positing linguistic arbitrariness hold for the way we look at ourselves and the world around us? Why does de Saussure think it is important to point out that signs are linear, i.e. that utterances unfold over a given span of time?

From Part Two. Synchronic Linguistics. Chapter IV: Linguistic Value

5. On 856-57, de Saussure focuses on the social nature of the sign. What metaphors does he employ to suggest the true relationship between "thought and sound" (967), and what relationship do those metaphors suggest? Why is it wrong "to consider a term as simply the union of a certain sound with a certain concept" (968)?

6. On 857-60, de Saussure considers "Linguistic Value from a Conceptual Standpoint." What does the term "value" mean here? Explain also, in your own terms and with the help of de Saussure's illustrations and examples, his statement that "Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others…." What fundamental claim about the nature of "concepts" does this part of de Saussure's text lead him to make?

7. On 860-62, "Linguistic Value from a Material Standpoint," how does de Saussure use the conventions of writing to clarify the points he has already made in the previous section?

8. On 862-63, "The Sign Considered in Its Totality," de Saussure writes that "Although both the signified and the signifier are purely differential and negative when considered separately, their combination is a positive fact," and he goes on to state that between two complete signs (each sign equals "signifier + signified") there is not difference but opposition. Why might it be important that such oppositions in part form the basis of the "entire mechanism of language"?

From Part Two. Synchronic Linguistics. Chapter V: Syntagmatic and Associative Relations

9. On 863-66, how does de Saussure define the two key types of relation – namely, the syntagmatic and the associative? What is the major difference between them? What implications does de Saussure go on to derive from his definitions regarding the analysis of a language system?

10. General question: on the whole, what is de Saussure suggesting about the way linguistic meaning is created and stabilized? Why might this structural linguist's views be rather unsettling to us if we hold common notions about using language and arriving at the meaning of what we say? What attitude does de Saussure himself seem to adopt towards his insights about the way language works?


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