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Structuralism, Language, Semiotics: From Saussure to Strauss

  • Introduction

This paper aims to explain different approaches of Saussure and Strauss to language and its relationship with culture in a nutshell. While comparing their positions, it would be easy to trace back the different paths in the discussion revolving around structuralism. Even though Saussure and Strauss have been considered as structuralist, it does not mean that there are no differences among their arguments. In fact, it would be not wrong to claim that Lévi -Strauss’ arguments on languages are derived from Saussure’s position as discussed in this present paper. With this background, this study consists of two main parts including Saussurian and Straussen approach to language and culture. Each part provides a summary of how language and structuralism can be combined to understand and interpret the notion of culture.

  • Saussure’s Theory of Sign

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguistic who has taken the 19th century linguistic approach and put it one step further by developing his arguments within the scope of semiology, which refers to the science of signs. Until Saussure, linguistic studies were mostly about how particular languages have evolved in time. In other words, it has been common to investigate the development and function of languages with classical linguistic approach. It would be reductionism if it is stated that linguistic has only focused on historical development, but what was missing in such a traditional line is a little bit of philosophy. In that sense, what Saussure has accomplished by his theory of sign is essential to figure out how things/phenomena can be explained in a structuralist way, rather than as a function of individual actions.

Saussure’s contribution to the classical linguistic approach cannot be limited to his theory of sign, however, it is very important to understand why we need to apply for his studies for understanding the basics of structuralism. Saussurian theory of sign alludes to the combination of the signifier and the signified which bring us to the concept of sign. According to this, signifier is “form of the sign what he called sound-images” (Walton, 2012: 27); pertaining to the concept of signifier, signified refers to the meaning which is associated with the form of the sign. For instance, the word “glass” itself can be count as signifier and the meaning of glass when saying glass is signified. These are coming together and combining the sign of glass. The importance of this conception lies behind how Saussure approaches to language as a structure. Put it differently, the link between meaning and concept in Saussure’s arguments creates a path conveying us to symbolic reading of languages, which might be viewed as a structure in communication to some extent.

While understanding structuralism, it is important to scrutinize each language apart from its linguistic basis. Saussurian approach to language, in this sense, might be examined within the scope of structuralism because his works have provided a unique room for the relational feature of languages. In other quarters, these concepts refer a sign when signifier and signified would combined.

The relation between concept and meaning create a sign system in a language, which is independent from individuals. This point is highly important to understand the difference between language (lange) and speech (parole), which was developed by Saussure to show the dichotomy within the scope of structuralism in terms of language. On this spot, language is the system of language which is essential and structured within the scope of its logic. In opposition to Saussurian approach to language, speech alludes to tangible utterances having contingent characteristics as compared to language. Considering this, Saussure focus on language rather than speech most of the time within an umbrella of semiology. In this vein, semiology is not something that should be applied for analyzing the relationship between meanings and concepts. As an alternative to such a reductionism in semiology, Saussure has made an important contribution to this literature by approaching semiology through also the lenses of philosophy.

Another important point to mention about Saussure’s theory of sign includes the dichotomy between diachronic and synchronic approaches to language. As mentioned above, traditional linguistic studies have paid too much attention to the instrumentalization of languages by studying them within chronological significance. When it comes to understanding structuralism, such a historicist view would fail to explain languages as structures of culture. As related to the terminology, which Saussure applied for describing his theory of sign, is diachronic and synchronic approach. On the one hand, diachronic approach-which is also known as historicist school of thought in linguistic studies- describes how languages and etymologies evolved in time. On the other hand, the later one of this terminology- which is synchronic approach- is related to framing a language system at a given moment rather than approaching languages as historical product. As previously explained, Saussure’s argument on language is developed within the scope of synchronic approach to language. It is also important to understand the concept of semiology because synchronic approach to languages provides a philosophical background of structuralism. In other words, the revolutionary turn in linguistic studies by Saussure’s contribution to this field is connected to the discussion revolving around concepts and meanings as well as relational characteristics of these concepts and meanings.

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