Due to his theories on the structure of language, the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is often known as the founder of modern linguistics.
In order to understand Saussure’s linguistic theories, you have to be able to grasp the basics of his psycho-linguistic terminology and his explanation of the nature of language units. Understanding the basic concepts of his linguistic theory is not only essential for linguistic students, but for anyone studying semiotics, or the use of various types of signs to communicate. Semiotics is also a basic element in film theory studies.
In Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, a book summarising his lectures at the University of Geneva from 1906 to 1911, he explained the relationship between speech and the evolution of language, investigating language as a structured system of signs.
It is important to note that Saussure perceived a linguistic unit to be a ‘double entity,’ meaning that it is composed of two parts. He viewed the linguistic unit as a combination of:
1. a concept or meaning
2. a sound-image
Linguistic Units and Sound – Images are Mental Impressions
The first point to understand is when Saussure mentioned ’linguistic units,’ sound-images’ and ‘concepts,’ he was referring to the mental processes that create these entities. He was not referring to spoken or written words, but to the mental impressions made on our senses by a certain ‘thing.’ It is our perception, or how we view this ‘thing,’ together with the sound system of our language that creates the two-part mental linguistic unit he referred to as a ‘sign.’
Let’s take for example the fairly new concept of ‘Google.’ The sound image, or impression in our minds is of the logo representing Google, and through our language system we know how that image sounds mentally. We know the concept or meaning associated with this ‘sound impression’ that ‘Google’ is a large search engine on the Internet. The connections between the two elements are made mentally without uttering or writing the word ‘Google,’ and the two parts formed are joined and become united as a mental linguistic unit. Saussure calls this two-part linguistic unit a ‘sign.’
Understanding the Terms Sign, Signified and Signifier
The part of the sign Saussure calls the ‘concept’ or ‘meaning’ (mental impression/association of the ‘thing’) he named, ’signified.’ The idea of what ‘Google’ is, for example, is signified. The part he calls the ‘sound-image’ (the mental ‘linguistic sign’ given to the ‘thing’) he named the ‘signifier’ – this is the sound Google’s logo creates in our minds.
As Saussure explains, the connection between all ‘signifiers’ which are ‘sound images’ or ‘linguistic signs’ and what they are signifying – their signified object or concept – is arbitrary. In other words, there is not necessarily any logical connection between the two. Again, the word ‘Google’ exemplifies this well. There is nothing in the word ‘Google’ that would suggest that it is a digital means of searching for information on the Internet. It is a random invented word. With the arrival of the Internet, in the waning years of Yahoo! a name, or ‘sound image’/'linguistic sign’ had to be created to describe a new search engine. However, now, when you see the ‘linguistic unit’ ‘Google’ (the ‘sign’), you automatically connect it to its sound image, the signifier ‘Google’ – a ‘linguistic sign‘ which signifies a ‘large search engine on the internet.’
Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. (1959). The Philosophical Library, New York City.