Ferdinand de Saussure

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


(shorter quotes and annotations from the rest of the book are also available.)

You may also want to check my introduction to, and developments on, this discussion of syntagmatic relations in relation to interactionism and conversational analysis

Part II - Chapter V


1. Definitions

In a language-state everything is based on relations. How do they function?

Relations and differences between linguistic terms fall into two distinct groups, each of which generates a certain class of values. The opposition between the two classes gives a better understanding of the nature of each class. They correspond to two forms of our mental activity, both indispensable to the life of language.

It is scarcely necessary to point that the study of syntagms is not to be confused with syntax. Syntax is only one part of the study of syntagms (see pp. 134 ff.). [ed.]

In discourse, on the one hand, words acquire relations based on the linear nature of language because they are chained together. This rules out the possibility of pronouncing two elements simultaneously (see p. 70). The elements are arranged in sequence on the chain of speaking. Combinations supported by linearity are syntagms. The syntagm is always composed of two or more consecutive units (e.g. French re-lire [reread], contre tous [against everyone], la vie humaine [human life], Dieu est bon [God is good], s'il fait beau temps, nous sortirons [if the weather is nice, we'll go out] etc.). In the syntagm a term acquires its value only because it stands in opposition to everything that precedes or follows it, or to both.

Outside discourse, on the other hand, words acquire relations of a different kind. Those that have something in common are associated in the memory, resulting in groups marked by diverse relations. For instance, the French word enseignement [teaching] will unconsciously call to mind a host of other words (enseigner [teach], renseigner [acquaint] etc.; or armement [armament], changement [amendment] etc.; or education [education] apprentissage [apprenticeship] etc.). All those words are related in some way.

We see that the co-ordinations formed outside discourse differ strikingly from those formed inside discourse. Those formed outside discourse are not supported by linearity. Their seat is in the brain; they are a part of the inner storehouse that makes up the language of each speaker. They are associative relations.

The syntagmatic relation is in praesentia. It is based on two or more terms that occur in an effective series. Against this, the associative relation unites terms in absentia in a potential mnemonic series.

From the associative and syntagmatic viewpoint a linguistic unit is like a fixed part of a building, e.g. a column. On the one hand, the column has a certain relation to the architrave that it supports; the arrangement of the two units in space suggests the syntagmatic relation. On the other hand, if the column is Doric, it suggests a mental comparison of this style with others (Ionic, Corinthian, etc.) although none of these elements is present in space: the relation is associative.

Each of the two classes of co-ordination calls for some specific remarks.

2. Syntagmatic Relations

The examples on page 123 have already indicated that the notion of syntagm applies not only to words but to groups of words, to complex units of all lengths and types (compounds, derivatives, phrases, whole sentences).

this is what all work on sociolinguistics, particularly conversation analysis, has expanded to include conversation, that is speaking [parole] across people that can be shown to have its own orders (langue). I explore this elsewhere.

It is not enough to consider the relation that ties together the different parts of syntagms (e.g. French contre [against] and tous [everyone] in contre tous, contre and maitre [master] in contremaitre [foreman]); one must also bear in mind the relation that links the whole to its parts (e.g. contre tous in opposition on the one hand to contre and on the other tous, or contremaitre in opposition to contre and maitre).

An objection might be raised at this point. The sentence is the ideal type of syntagm. But it belongs to speaking, not to language (see p. 14). Does it not follow that the syntagm belongs to speaking? I do not think so. Speaking is characterized by freedom of combinations; one must therefore ask whether or not all syntagms are equally free.

It is obvious from the first that many expressions belong to language. These are the pat phrases in which any change is prohibited by usage, even if we can single out their meaningful elements (cf. à quoi bon [what's the use?]allons donc! [nonsense!]). The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of expressions like prendre la mouche [take offense easily], forcer la main de quelqu'un [force someone's hand], rompre une lance [break a lance], or even avoir mal à la tete.) [have (a headache], etc.) à force de soins [by dint of care], que vous en semble? [how do you feel about it?], pas n'est besoin de . . . [there's no need for . . .] etc., which are characterized by peculiarities of signification or syntax. These idiomatic twists cannot be improvised; they are furnished by tradition. There are also words which, while lending themselves perfectly to analysis, are characterized by some morphological anomaly that is kept solely by dint of usage (cf. difficulté [difficulty] beside facilité [facility] etc., and mourrai [[I] shall die] beside dormirai [[I] shall sleep').'

There are further proofs. To language rather than to speaking belong the syntagmatic types that are built upon regular forms. Indeed, since there is nothing abstract in language, the types exist only if language has registered a sufficient number of specimens. When a word like indecorable arises in speaking (see pp. 167 ff.), its appearance supposes a fixed type, and this type is in turn possible only through remembrance of a sufficient number of similar words belonging to language (impardonable [unpardonable], intolerable [intolerable], infatigable [indefatigable] etc.). Exactly the same is true of sentences and groups of words built upon regular patterns.

Combinations like la terre tourne [the world turns], que vous dit-il? [what does he say to you?' etc. correspond to general types that are in turn supported in the language by concrete remembrances.

But we must realize that in the syntagm there is no clear-cut boundary between the language fact, which is a sign of collective usage, and the fact that belongs to speaking and depends on individual freedom. In a great number of instances it is hard to class a combination of units because both forces have combined in producing it, and they have combined in indeterminable proportions.

3. Associative Relations

The last case is rare and can be classed as abnormal, for the mind naturally discards associations that becloud the intelligibility of discourse. But its existence is proved by a lower category of puns based on the ridiculous confusions that can result from pure and simple homonomy like the French statement: "Les musiciens produisent les sons ['sounds, bran'] et les grainetiers lee vendent" `musicians produce sons and seedsmen sell them.' [Cf. Shakespeare's "Not on thy sole, but on thy soul." (Tr.)] This is distinct from the case where an association, while fortuitous, is supported by a comparison of ideas (cf. French ergot `spur': ergoter `wrangle'; German blau `blue': durchblauen `thrash soundly'); the point is that one member of the pair has a new interpretation. Folk etymologies like these (see pp. 173 ff.) are of interest in the study of semantic evolution, but from the synchronic viewpoint they are in the same category as enseigner: enseignement. [Ed.]

Mental association creates other groups besides those based on the comparing of terms that have something in common; through its grasp of the nature of the relations that bind the terms together, the mind creates as many associative series as there are diverse relations. For instance, in enseignement [teaching] enseigner [teach] enseignons [(we) teach] etc., one element, the radical, is common to every term; the same word may occur in a different series formed around another common element, the suffix (cf. enseignement, armement, changement, etc.); or the association may spring from the analogy of the concepts signified (enseignement, instruction, apprentissage, education, etc.); or again, simply from the similarity of the sound-images (e.g. enseignement and justement [precisely')." Thus there is at times a double similarity of meaning and form, at times similarity only of form or of meaning. A word can always evoke everything that can be associated with it in one way or another.

Whereas a syntagm immediately suggests an order of succession and a fixed number of elements, terms in an associative family occur neither in fixed numbers nor in a definite order. If we associate painful, delightful, frightful, etc. we are unable to predict the number of words that the memory will suggest or the order in which they will appear. A particular word is like the center of a constellation; it is the point of convergence of an indefinite number of co-ordinated terms (see the illustration on page 127).

11 Cf. English education and the corresponding associative series: educate, educates, etc.; internship, training, etc.; vocation, devotion, etc.; and lotion, fashion, etc. [Tr.]

But of the two characteristics of the associative series-indeterminate order and indefinite number-only the first can always be verified; the second may fail to meet the test. This happens in the case of inflectional paradigms, which are typical of associative groupings. Latin dominos, domini, domino, etc. is obviously an associative group formed around a common element, the noun theme domin-, but the series is not indefinite as in the enseignement. case of enseignement, changement, etc.; the number of cases is definite. Against this, the words have no fixed order of succession, and it is by a purely arbitrary act that the grammarian groups them in one way rather than in another; in the mind of speakers the nominative case is by no means the first one in the declension, and the order in which terms are called depends on circumstances.

This page is part of a unit about Saussure used in my course Culture and Communication as well as a series on syntagmatic relations in conversation.

Last revision: January 27, 1997