Reciprocal Movement Is What Saussure Identifies As Word

Structure Of Language

With his analysis of language, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure
contributed greatly to the modern structuralist school of thought. Saussure
instituted into language analysis the working concept of wholeness. Prior to
Saussure, language was studied as an independent phenomena arising out of the
individual circumstances of various cultural groups. Using wholeness as a
working concept was a new idea for language theory but it was not a new idea for
the already well established tradition of organic sociology as it was expressed
in the works of Comte and Durkheim. This organic connection became evident in
what Saussure took to be the linguistic principles at work in all languages. The
purpose of language study was in fact to reveal these principles.

Saussure argued that language was a collective, orderly, and coherent
phenomenon. Language, therefore, could be studied as if it were a social system
that was susceptible to understanding and explanation as a whole. Saussure
thought of individual linguistic units as a patterned wholeness. Words, he
argued, were devoid of content when studied in isolation. Their meaningful
content arose only when they were studied in relation to one another. He based
his conception of the linguistic unit on the assumption that where there was
meaning – in a word or sentence – there would also be structure. This idea was
in conflict with the nominalist view of language that took words to be mere
names of things. For instance:

“Some people regard language, when reduced to its elements, as a naming-process
only – a list of words, each corresponding to the thing that it names. This
conception is open to criticism at several points. It assumes that ready-made
ideas exist before words; it does not tell us whether a name is vocal or
psychological in nature (arbor, for instance, can be considered from either
viewpoint); finally, it lets us assume that the linking of a name and a thing is
a very simple operation – an assumption that is anything but true. But this
rather naive approach can bring us near the truth by showing us that the
linguistic unit is a double entity, one formed by the associating of two terms.”
[Michael Lane, Introduction to Structuralism, 1970, p.43]

Saussure goes on to explain how this “double entity” must be conceived. The
word, according to Saussure, unites a concept and a sound-image and not a thing
and a name. In this sense, the sound-aspect of a word becomes inseparable from
the meaning content of the word and the reverse also holds true. This double
movement, sound acquiring conceptual meaning as conceptual meaning becomes
differentiated by sound, is what Saussure identifies as the “structure” of the
word. Saussure, in the following diagrams (unfortunately, my computer only produces words) illustrates this idea.

In the diagram below (missing diagram but the idea is still there) imagine three circles, one around each of the joined identifiers. Then imagine an up and down arrow on each side of each circle—that’s six arrows, three pointing up, three down– and you will have a mental image of Saussure’s diagram.

Concept “tree” picture of tree
Sound-image arbor, connecting arrow

[Ferdinand De Saussure, Course In General Linguistics, Translated by Wade
Baskin, 1959, p. 66-67.]

In these diagrams we see a representation of the working concept of wholeness as
it becomes operationally defined in the linguistic structure of the word. Here
the two elements of sound and word become intimately united, as each refers to
the other. Saussure, by calling the sound-image of a word the signifier,
differentiates the meaning of the word into its two components, the signifier
and signified. Together, the signifier and the signified combine to form the
sign, i.e., the whole as differentiated from its opposing elements.

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About bwinwnbwi

About me: Marvin Gaye’s song, "What’s Going On" was playing on the jukebox when I went up to the counter and bought another cup of coffee. When I got back, the painting on the wall next to where I was sitting jumped out at me, the same way it had done many times before. On it was written a diatribe on creativity. It was the quote at the bottom, though, that brought me back to this seat time after time. The quote had to do with infinity; it went something like this: Think of yourself as being in that place where infinity comes together in a point; where the infinite past and the infinite future meet, where you are at right now. The quote was attributed to Hermann Hesse, but I didn’t remember reading it in any of the books that I had read by him, so I went out and bought Hesse’s last novel, Magister Ludi. I haven’t found the quote yet, but I haven't tired of looking for it either.
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2 Responses to Reciprocal Movement Is What Saussure Identifies As Word

  1. I found great cultural meaning in your words, David, not in isolation, of course, but as part of the whole. 🙂

  2. bwinwnbwi says:

    “The word, according to Saussure, unites concept and a sound-image and not a thing and a name.

    {~bb of b~b~bb births the concept while sound images would not be possible without the b~b of b~b~bb (the aesthetic continuum i.e., reciprocal movement}

    In this sense, the sound-aspect of a word becomes inseparable from the meaning content of the word and the reverse also holds true. This double movement, sound acquiring conceptual meaning as conceptual meaning becomes differentiated by sound, is what Saussure identifies as the “structure” of the word.” Quote from above

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