Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist often considered to be the father of semiology, left quite an influence upon structural linguists that came after him. He received a doctorate from the University of Leipzig in 1881 and soon after began various ambitious types of projects. Queries regarding the nature of language along with the methodology of linguistics were fundamental concerns for Saussure. Some of these projects he later on abandoned, while others were never published. During 1907 he was in charge of a general linguistics course at a university for a specific set of students. He actually restructured this course each time he gave it.
Questions concerning the means by which a message is produced by language, and what is included as part of the identification of a word, were of utmost importance to him. In fact he returns to the central question about identification of a word, numerous times in his work ‘Course in General Linguistics’. It is imperative to point out that Saussure died in 1913 and left behind no extensive notes regarding his theory. This resulted in the editors of the book having to rely solely on the unusually detailed notes of the small amount of students that attended his lectures, in order to complete the book. His former colleagues, to show their appreciation of his lectures, gathered the original manuscript notes of Saussure along with the notebooks of his students. Despite the fact that ‘Course in General Linguistics’ indeed turned out to be a very influential book in the twentieth-century, it is important to approach the text within a broader context since Saussure was not the actual one who wrote it. Unfortunately, upon publication many argued that the final text was rather misleading, including one of his scholars Simon Bouquet. He argued that the text was rather a very bad misrepresentation of Saussure’s ideas.
What is language? According to Saussure it is a system made of signs. “Noises count as language only when they serve to express or communicate ideas; otherwise they are just noise” (Culler, 1991, p.28). Forming a core element for semiotics are the terms ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’. These two entities only exist as components of said ‘sign’. ‘Signifier’ is known as the word or the pointing finger, while ‘signified’ is the concept or meaning that is being indicated by the signifier. It can be said that a signifier without the signified is merely noise. On the other hand the signified without the signifier is practically impossible. Having an arbitrary type of relationship, signifiers can change over a period of time within the same language. The meaning takes place only when an agreement is made by the people that the sound combination indicates a specific object or idea. “It must indeed be conceded that Saussure’s explanation of what he means by ‘arbitrary’ is fairly casual” (Holdcroft, 1991, p.53). At the same time it should be taken into consideration the fact that it was quite natural for him to introduce key distinctions rather sketchily before developing them into further detail. With that said, each language has the ability to construct a separate reality. For instance, eskimos have eight different words for snow, therefore their experience is clearly different from ours. This further emphasizes that every way of life constructs a different reality. Emphasis is made upon the fact that the linguistic sign does not unite a thing with a name, rather a concept with the sound-image. The latter is mainly the psychological impact or impression that the sound leaves on the individual. The simplest possible explanation is that Saussure’s implication was that words are what name the objects. With relevance to speech alone, upon pronouncing a word, a visual image is perceived by the listener, and speech is therefore understood. Importance is given to several different concepts that go on in the individual’s mind. The sound is uttered and perceived, the automatic reaction of the brain identifies the sound with the idea, and the cultural aspect helps in assigning the word to its’ idea. Any discussion between two individuals has three main elements: the language, the listener and the the speaker.
An interesting comparison can be made between Saussure’s theory of sign and Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of sign. In opposition to Saussure’s dichotomy system, Peirce provided a theory which focuses on a trichotomy system. He classified ‘sign’ using the three following aspects; the representatum, the referent and the interpretant. The first aspect of Peirce, the ‘representatum’, is consistent with the ‘signifier’ of Saussure, however in Peirce’s theory it does not necessarily have to be materialistic. On the other hand, what Saussure termed as ‘signified’, is split into the other two concepts by Peirce. The ‘referent’ indicates what is being represented by the sign, which could be both concrete or abstract. ‘Interpretant’ refers to possible meanings which the ‘representatum’ would reveal about the ‘referent’. Another contrast between these two can be made with regards to the limitations of the sign. Saussure focused on the study of behaviour, whereas Peirce focused on logical thinking. Saussure came to the conclusion that individuals deliver a sign with a specific implication intentionally. He tried to explain that not everything in life can be considered as a sign, thereby implying that there is indeed a limitation for the sign. Moreover this shows that a sign is subject to a mutually agreed upon concept by all individuals in the culture itself. Nevertheless he also argued that in spite of the previously mentioned, an arbitrary characteristic is still intact. This means that all in all the same ‘sign’ can still produce numerous meanings depending on the interpretation. Peirce was, in contrast, captivated with the prospect of how human beings think. The basis of his theory relies on the fact that anything can be a sign, “as long as it has the ability to represent something according to the individual’s interpretation and thought” (Mohd Yakin, Halina Sendera, Totu, & Andreas, 2014, p.7). Peirce’s principle of sign incorporates all that can be generated by individuals or other, as long as it can be understood by the human mind.