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Ferdinand de Saussure's Nature of the Linguistic Sign

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In this Nature of the Linguistics Sign essay, Ferdinand de Saussure delves into many of the long-held assumptions about the way we use to language to distinguish objects from one another. Ferdinand de Saussure discuss the three categories of language:

  1. Signs
  2. Signifiers
  3. Signified

Ferdinand de Saussure's Nature of the Linguistic SignThese operate together to form semiotics. According to Saussure's system of thought, the sign represents the junction of the signifier and the signified. Although it has long been held that most language is arbitrary, that is, that the word "book" has nothing inherent to tie it to the object it describes, Saussure asserts that each word contains a "sound image" that creates a strong psychological association in our minds between the uttered noise and the object it describes, and the crux of this relationship is literary and linguistic meaning.

Saussure's Nature of the Linguistic Sign

Saussure, in Nature of the Linguistics Sign, feels that our traditional assumptions about language and signs do not adequately account for the way that the signifier influences our ideas about the signified. However, since at this point in history, the human race is completely immersed in language and signs, it is difficult to assess the true utility of Saussure's ideas, simply because it is impossible to fully imagine a context in which signs do not already exist.

Although there is no completely objective method whereby to assess personality, all measurements depend at least in some part on subjective evaluation. One problem lies in the variability of the signs themselves. Even the very instruction to simply draw a house or tree or person is open to a multitude of readings, any of which could be correct or faulty. For instance, what kind of house would be drawn by a child living in the inner city who has rarely, if ever, seen an actual house? Can there be any standardization of expectations in the drawing of a tree by a child living in a rural area and a child living, once again, in the inner city? There has been a significant amount of research produced that has questioned the validity of using any kind of sign as a measurement of personality. As de Saussure has pointed out, signs are in no way objective but completely open to subjective interpretation.

Unlike Saussure, who contended that within each lexical construct there is an underlying structure, Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of “dialogism” asserts that understanding the intent of the speaker or writer can only contextualize the essential nature of any utterance. This dependence of the individual utterance on its context is what Bakhtin means by the term heteroglossia, which expresses the way in which every utterance is informed by its social and historical context. This in turn allows Bakhtin to draw the conclusion that every utterance is unique to the moment it is uttered. Even if the same sentence is repeated at a different time, the context of its utterance and the climate into which it was born will change its meaning.

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