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Saussure, F.


Preface ; Negativity and difference

pp. 3-6,42-44

Ferdinand de Saussure., (2006) Writings in general linguistics, null Oxford University Press

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Course of Study: PH7805 - Topics in modern European philosophy A

Title: Writings in general linguistics
Name of Author: Ferdinand de Saussure.
Name of Publisher: Oxford University Press

I Preface*
It seems impossible in practice to give priority to any particular truth in
linguistics so as to make it the key starting point. However, there are five or
six basic truths which are so interrelated that it is equally possible to use any one
as the starting point, and to arrive logically at all the others and at every minute
ramification of the consequences, starting from any one of them. 1
It is sufficient, for example, to consider this simple fact: it is wrong (and
impraticable) to oppose form and meaning. What does need distinguishing,
however, is the vocal figure (Ia figure vocale) on the one hand and the meaning-
f form (Ia forme-sens) on the other. 2
In fact, anyone pursuing this idea to its logical conclusion will automatically
reach the same results as someone who starts from an apparen_tly very different
premise, such as:
In langue 3 we need to differentiate between phenomena that are internal or in
the mind and external, directly apprehensible, phenomena.

2 Points of view
2a Dual essence: The 'first and last' principle of duality
When looking for what might truly be the first and last principle of this constant
duality, which strikes one even in the slightest paragraph of a grammar where
barring editorial intervention there can always be two totally different but
completely legitimate formulations, we believe that in the last analysis one
must always come back to the issue of what in the essence of language consti-
tutes a linguistic entity.
A linguistic entity is unique in that it involves the association of two distinct
elements. If we were invited first to determine the chemical classification of a
sheet of iron, gold, or copper, and then the zoological species of a horse, cow, or
sheep, these would be two easy tasks. But if we were asked to determine what
'species' is represented by the odd combination of an iron plaque attached to a
horse, a gold plate on a cow, or a sheep adorned with something copper, we
would exclaim that the task was absurd. The linguist has to realize that it is
precisely this absurd task that faces him right from the very outset. He tries to

~ Titles marked with an asterisk are Saussure's. All others have been added by the editors.
' The importance of the 'viewpoint' is raised early on in the Cours also. After a brief introduc-
tion on the history of the discipline, the object of linguistics is defined as langue, with the comment
that in the study of language, it is the point of view that creates the object (CLG, 23; CGL-H, 8).
'Vocal figure' here translates figure vocale: cf. image acoustique in the Cours.
For translations of langue, see the Introduction, p. xxvi.

avoid it by going off on a tangent-if we may be permitted to use this apt supposition that language phenomena can be given independently of any point
expression. In other words, he classifies the ideas, and then considers the forms, of view.
which seems logical enough; or instead, he ,classifies the forms and then con- We need to say: from the start, different standpoints exist; otherwise it is
siders the ideas. In each case he fails to und/rstand what constitutes the formal simply impossible to grasp any language phenomenon.
object of his study and of his classifications, which is, nothing other than the The identifying link between two items that are by nature different, and
point of connection between these two domains. which we have begun to establish sometimes in one way and sometimes in
Hence the prime clements which are the focus of the activity and attention of another, is absolutely the only primary fact, the only simple fact from which
the linguist are not only on the one hand complex elements, which it is wrong to · linguistic enquiry starts out.
want to simplify, but on the other hand they are elements deprived in their
complexity of any natural unity. These elements are not comparable to a simple zc The nature of the object in linguistics,.
chemical substance, nor to a chemical compound. Instead they are very much
Does linguistics come face to face, as its primary and immediate object, with a
like a chemical mixture, such as the mixture of nitrqgen and oxygen in the air
readily defined object, a group of items perceptible by the sens~s, as is the case
we breathe. Thus air is no longer air if the nitrogen or the oxygen is removed,
for physics, chemistry, botany, astronomy, etc.?
although nothing joins the mass of nitrogen in the air to the mass of oxygen in
In no way and at no time is this the case: linguistics is situated at the opposite
the air. Thirdly, each of these elements is not subject to classification except in
extreme to those sciences which are able to take the data of the senses as their
relation to other elements of the same order, although we arc no longer dealing starting point.
with air once we move to this classification. Fourthly, it is not impossible
A series of vocal sounds, such as mer (m + e + r), may be a phenomenon in
to classify the mixture of these elements. Point by point, these are the charac-
the field of acoustics or physiology; in this form it is not at all a linguistic
teristics of the primary object that the linguist addresses: a word is no longer
a word if. ..
A language exists if an idea is attached to m + e + r.
From this admittedly entirely banal observation it follows:
Finally, it will be said that this is too rough a comparison since the two elements
of air are matter, while the duality of the word represents the duality of the (1) that there is no linguistic entity possible which would be directly access-
physical and psychological domains. This objection is presented here in passing ible through the senses, because none exists apart from the idea which can be
and as if it had no importance for linguistic phenomena; we note it in passing so attached to it;
as to state that it is null and void, and the direct opposite of everything that we (2) that there is no linguistic entity among those available to us which is
affirm. The two elements of air belong to the material order, just as the two simple, since even when reduced to its simplest expression it requires that
elements of the word belong to the mental order: we shall he consistent in our account be taken simultaneously of a sign and a meaning, and to question or
view that not only the meaning but also the sign is a fact of pure consciousncss. 4 forget this duality is tantamount to denying its linguistic existence and relegat-
(And subsequently that the linguistic entity considered across time is simple.) ing it for instance to the domain of physical facts;
(3) that if the unity of each linguistic entity itself results from a complex
zb Identifying linguistic entities* reality consisting of a union of elements, it results moreover from a union of a
very particular sort in that there is nothing in common in essence between a sign
It is not correct to say that any linguistic phenomenon needs to be considered and that which it signifies;
from several points of view; nor even that this language phenomenon is actually (4) that when we attempt to classify the facts of a language we are thus faced
two different things depending on one's standpoint-for this is to start from the with this problem: classifying couplings of two different objects (signs-ideas),
and not at all, as we are led to suppose, classifying simple homogeneous objects,
which would be the case if we had to classify either signs or ideas. There arc two
'A fact of pure consciousness' translates rm fait de conscience pr.re, the latter being glossed as grammars, one flowing from the idea, the other from the sign; each is wrong or
'concepts' in the Cours (CLC, 28; CGL -H, n). incomplete.

zd The principle of dualism (The units in this domain are first of all necessarily given by those of the
previous domain; but after that become the second order oflinguistic units, not
The profound dualism which splits language (langage) is not rooted in the
to be confused with the previous one.)
dualism of sound and idea, of vocal phanomenon and mental phenomenon;
that is a facile and a dangerous way of conceiving of it. This dualism is rooted in Ill and IV resulting from valid approaches to:
the duality of the vocal phenomenon AS SUCH, and in the duality of the vocal
Ill. ANACHRONIC, artificial, deliberate and purely didactic point of view PRO-
phenomenon AS SIGN-in the duality of the (objective) physical reality and the
JECTING one morphology or one former language state onto another morph-
(subjective) physical-mental reality, and not at all in the duality of the 'physical'
ology (or onto another later state of the language).
reality of sound as against the 'mental' reality of meaning. There is one domain,
interior, psychic, where both sign and meaning are to be found, bound indis- (The means by which this projection can be carried out is by the examination
solubly one to the other; and there is another-exterior-domain, where only of the transversal units, II, combined with the morphological examination of
the 'sign' is to be found, but in this case the sign reduced to a series of sound the first state according to I);
waves deserves in our view only the designation or
vocal figure. - not different from the RETROSPECTIVE ANACHRONIC point <;>f view, this point
of view is the ETYMOLOGICAL point of view: including matters other than
ze rour points of view those which are normally termed etymology. One of its characteristics in
comparison with IV is not taking account of period B in its own right.
I and II resulting from the nature of the very phenomena of language.
IV. The HISTORICAL point of view establishing two successive etats de langue,
I. Point of view of the etat de langue 5 itself, 6 each initially considered in its own right and without one being subordinated to
- not different from the instantaneous point of view, the other, followed by an explanation.
- not different from the semiological point of view (or that of the sign-idea),
- not different from the point of view of the individual will outside history, Of these four valid points of view (and apart from these no others are accept-
- not different from rhe morphological or grammatical point of view, able), it is really only the second and third that have received attention. Indeed,
- not different from the point of view of combined elements. the fourth cannot be fruitfully worked on until the day that the first ...
(The units in this domain are fixed by the relationship between meaning and On the other hand what has been extremely prevalent is the deplorable
sign, or by the relationship between the signs, which is no different.) confusion between these different perspectives, even in works claiming to be
highly scientific. In this respect, there is certainly very often a complete absence
II. Point of view of transversal units, of reflection on the part of these authors. But let us be clear: however much we
- not different from the diachronic point of view, are convinced, rightly or wrongly, that in the end it will be necessary to bring
- not different from the phonetic point of view (or from that of the vocal figure everything down theoretically to the four valid points of view that we have
detached from the idea and detached from the function of a sign, which justified, which in turn rest on the two necessary points of view of the syn-
comes back to the same thing as in I), chronic and diachronic, nevertheless we are in some doubt about whether it will
- also not different from the point of view of isolated elements. ever be possible to establish precisely the fourfold or even twofold terminology
that this requires.
' Since the French phrase etat de lang"e to describe the state of a language at a particular point
in time is well established in English, we have retained it here. 3 The object of linguistics
The reader may wish to refer to the definition of synchronic and diachronic given in the Co,.rs
(CLG, 14o; CGL-H, 98): 3a Approaching the object
Synchronic lilrguistics will be concerned with logical and psychological connections between
coexisting items constituting a system, as perceived by the same collective consciousness. Anyone who confronts the complex object that is language so as to make a
Diachronic ling,.istics on the other band will be concerned with connexions between sequences study of it will necessarily approach this object from one side or another, which
of items not perceived by the same collective consciousness, which replace one another without will never be the whole of language-even assuming that it is well chosen. If it is
themselves constituting a system.

20 Negativity and difference phenomena that arc in contrast to it. A chemical substance, or an animal
species, on the other hand, is an object which (unless, I repeat, we reconsider
2oa Negativity and difference, r
the philosophical question of the value of knowledge itself) has its own exist-
1 ence, independent of ob;ects of the same order. The contrary is true for any
(Quite important:) The negativity of terms in language may be considered
before deciding on the place of language. For this negativity, we can provision- linguistic item, which since . .. cannot exist, even fleetingly, in its own right and
ally accept that language exists outside ourselves and our mind, since we are independently of its contrast with others, and which cannot be anything greater
only highlighting the fact that different terms in language, unlike different than an approximate encapsulation of the swn of differences at work. Only
elements in chemistry, etc., are no more than defined differences between these differences exist; which means that the whole object of the science of
terms which would be empty and void of definition without these differences. language finds itself in the realm of relativity, and completely and radically
beyond what is usually meant by the 'relativity' of linguistic units. ' 8
2ob Negativity and difference, 2 In tum these differences which make up the whole of the language system
would represent nothing, would not even have meaning in a given area, unless
Let me draw attention to something, and thereby make an assertion: under- by saying that we meant either formal difference (but this is the least import-
standing the purely negative, purely differential, essence of each of the elements ant), or else formal difference recognized by the mind (which has some import-
of language that we hastily assume to exist, is a never-ending task. Not one of ance, but not much in language) or else differences borne of complex interaction
them, however ordered, possesses this supposed existence-although admit- leading to a final balance.
tedly we may have to recognize that without this invention the mind would be Hence not only are there no positive terms but only differences; but secondly
literally incapable of dealing with such a mass of differences, with no positive, these differences are the result of a combination of form and perceived meaning.
solid reference point at any place or time. This shows that a linguistic item requires a separation between the dia-
chronic and synoptic viewpoints.
Unless I am mistaken, objects of study in other areas can be said to have their
own existence, or failing this to encapsulate certain positive things or entities
2 r Identification; relative values, point of view
requiring different formulation (unless perhaps facts are taken to the very limits
of metaphysics, raising the question of the nature of knowledge, which we We accept morphological identity (necessarily in two defined languages ):
cannot go into). The science of language appears to be in a different situation,
[ 1] identity in morphological analysis: alka alka
whereby the objects it must deal with never have any innate reality, are never
[2] meaning of palka empi-alka
distinct from other objects of inquiry. There is nothing underlying their exist-
ence other than their difference, or DIFFERENCES of whatever kind that the mind and finally identity in terms of the potential sequence which creates identity
manages to attach to the fundamental difference (however, each one's entire
existence depends on reciprocal difference). Never do we abandon the funda-

mental, eternally negative factor of the DlFFTIRENCE between two terms, rather alka
than the properties of one term. in time auka
Every author, irrespective of their viewpoint and of the branch of linguistics oka
in which they work, who has produced an essay on a given object of 'phonetics', ok
or 'morphology', or syntax, such as the existence of a grammatical distinction
for the Indo-European feminine, or the presence of the Sanskrit retroflex, has However, we maintain that it is vain to refer to alka, or to imagine that alka is
sought to study a certain area of facts which are negative and devoid· of any something outside one of these implicit identifying operations, which require
innate meaning or existence. Such a study will be fruitful if those terms needing
' This is a different sort of relativity from that referred to in n. 13. This passage refers to the
to be contrasted have been contrasted, and not otherwise. This is not a trivial
idea that any linguistic or semiological entity can only be defined in relationship to another entity.
observation: the phenomenon under study exists only in the presence of those '• Only arka in this paradigm is a Sanskrit word. (Eds.)

the adoption of a particular point of view. Without such a viewpoint, the

multiplicity of potential identifications means that the formula alka represents
literally nothing. .
Just as in chess it would be absurd to ask what"a queen, a pawn, a bishop or a
knight would be, if considered outside the game of chess, so there is no sense, if
language is really what is being considered, in seeking what each element is in
itself. It is nothing other than a piece whose value depends on its opposition to
others within certain conventions.
If it were not for the ultimately contingent fact that the fabric of language
evolves, bringing in its wake an inevitable metamorphosis of the very conditions
of the game, it would not be necessary to inquire into the exact nature of this
fabric, and no one would ever have dreamt of doing so. It would be a positive
waste of time.
To understand the transformation of the various pieces with time, it is useful
to analyse them in themselves. This is not what we wished to highlight, but
rather that in every period there are only contrasts, RELATIVE values (these are in
reality conventional, but their principle basis remains the ability to contrast two
terms by conferring two values on them).
Formulae such as when seen as or from the point of view give considerable .,..
pause for thought in linguistics. Elsewhere, the range of approaches to things is
limited by the things themselves. In linguistics one wonders if the viewpoint
from which the thing is approached is not in fact the whole thing. This begs the
question of whether linguistics has ever had any solid anchorage, or whether it !
comes down to a never-ending multiplication of viewpoints.

22 Sign and signification

22a Phonetics and morphology
Phonetically, or in the field of vocal figures, there is a clear-cut delimitation
between the endless alteration of a figure, and the total effacement of a figure.
Morphologically, or in the field of signs, it is quite impossible to distinguish
between three terms: the presence of a sign, its degree of modification after a
period of time, its destruction after a further period of time. Presence, absence,
forms in succession: all have exactly the same value, i.e. at any moment each has
a perfectly random, unpredictable value, which is the simple, ever-changing
result of its surroundings. Since the first sign had no value other than ~hat
imparted by surrounding signs, it is quite pointless to wonder how those
which arose from it have such a value, or do not have another value, and still
have value after the end of their material existence-unless we decide to