Varenne: quotes from Saussure's Course in general linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure

Course in General Linguistics
Tr. by W. Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill. [1915] 1966

quotes selected by Hervé Varenne

The notes are part of my attempt to reinterpret Saussure's understanding of the 'contract' that makes arbitrary relationships necessary in the terms first suggested by G.H. Mead's interactionism, then developed systematically by Garfinkel and since then explored empirically by conversational analysts in the tradition of Sacks.


(see also quotes from introductory chapters)

(longer quotes from Chapter V are also available.)

Language as Social

In separating language (langue) from speaking (parole) we are at the same time separating: (1) what is social from what is individual; and (2) what is essential from what is accessory and more or less accidental.

four challenges to those concerned with language in all its forms. Each are controversial postulates that remain open for development and challenge [the bullets are mine]

      1. Language is not a function of the speaker;
      2. it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual.
      3. It never requires premeditation, and
      4. reflection enters in only for the purpose of classification.

It is the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself; it exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community. ([my emphasis] p. 14)

The word "contract" refers back to Rousseau's discussion of the "Social Contract" as the basis of sociability (along with its implicit critique of theories of legitimacy purely based on raw power). The word "contract" can also be read forward in terms of Garfinkel's discussion of "trust."

Some people regard language ... as a naming process only ... This conception is open to criticism on several points. It assumes that ready-made ideas exist before words ...; finally, it lets us assume that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation... (p. 65)

Without language thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. (p. 112)

Linguistics then works in the borderland where the elements of sound and thought combine; their combination produces a form, not a substance. ... The arbitrary nature of the sign explains why the social fact alone can create a linguistic system. The community is necessary if values that owe their existence solely to usage and general acceptance are to be set up; by himself, the individual is incapable of fixing a single value. (p. 113)

contrast this to G.H. Mead's insistence that the conversation of gestures precedes symbolic meaning. And yet both emphasize the "social." How would one bring the two together?

Properties of the sign

The term "arbitrary" should not imply that the choice of the signifier is left entirely to the speaker ...; I mean that it is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified. (p. 68-69)

In other words, and against Malinowski who was developing an alternate theory of meaning in parallel to Saussure's, no investigation of the "context" of an utterance can establish the "meaning" of a sign, that is its peculiar power as historical product constraining the future. It is "arbitrary", that is dependent on an implicit (though not always) agreement that this sign is to do anything in particular.

Partial hegemony of the synchronic law

The synchronic law is general but not imperative. Doubtless it is imposed on individuals by the weight of collective usage (see p. 73), but here I do not have in mind an obligation on the part of speakers. I mean that in language no force guarantees the maintenance of a regularity when established on some point. Being a simple expression of an existing arrangement, the synchronic law reports a state of affairs... And the arrangement that the law defines is precarious precisely because it is not imperative. (p. 92)

On syntagmatic relationships

This page is part of a unit about Saussure used in my course Culture and Communication

Last revision: January 27, 1997