Defining Sausure's "The Sign"
Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, in his Course in General Linguistics (1915), presented a science that he called "semiology". This science, more commonly known as semiotics, is the study of signs, and how they relate to, and function within, the gamut of human experiences (Abrams, 289). Structuralist literary critics, who believe that a text cannot be fully understood without putting it into the context of the larger structures in which they are part of (Barry, 39), used Saussure's approach of studying signs as the basis for their way of critiquing literature. But what, exactly, is the sign? And how do structuralists use the concept of the sign in the way that hey interpret literature?
The sign is composed of two elements that are very closely related: the signifier, and the signified. The signifier is a sound-image, and the signified is the concept that the sound-image is relating to (Saussure, 78-79). As an example, let's use the word "circle". The word "circle" is the signifier. The concept of a circle the 360 geometric shape is the signified.
When talking about the sign, it is important to note that Saussure is not referring to a thing and a name. Saussure explains that the sound-image "is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses (Saussure, 78)." Likewise, the signifier merely refers to the concept of a physical object. We can say the word "circle" mentally without moving our lips. In the same way, we can picture the image of a circle without actually looking at a physical rendering of one.
That being said, when we as speakers of English identify a 360 geometric shape as a "circle", it is only because that is the excepted word in our language. There is nothing intrinsic is a circle that causes us to use that specific term. This doesn't mean, however, that we can use any signifier of our choosing to refer to an object or a concept. It simply means that language, as a system of signs, is arbitrary (Saussure, 79). Onomatopoeia (naming something based on the sound associated with it) could be seen as an exception. But even onomatopoeic words differ from language to language. Saussure gives the example of the word for a dog's bark. The English word is bow-bow, whereas in French it is oua-oua (Saussure, 80).
Another way that language is arbitrary is the fact that there could be multiple signifiers for one signified concept, and there could be many signified concepts for one signifier. To illustrate this, let's stick with our trusty circle. As a signifier, circle could mean the geometric shape (a noun). It could also be a verb as is "the wrestler's coach told him to circle his opponent", or "after hitting a homerun, you circle the bases." In the latter example, a baseball diamond isn't even in the shape of a circle.
The signified object that most of signify as a circle looks something like this:
But depending on who you ask, it may be called a ball, a sphere, a zero, the letter O, crculo, cerchio, and some may even see it a face without features.
The circle, whether it is the signified or the signifier, means nothing when it is isolated. It only receives a value or meaning when it is in the context of other adjoining words. In other words, it received it's value from how it is different from other words that are related to it. (Barry, 42). Consider the following example:
square circle triangle octagon
We understand the value of a circle because it is not a square, a triangle, or an octagon. Furthermore, if we were to change one letter in the word "circle", it would either take on an entirely different meaning, or it would be nonsense.
So, Saussure's thinking about language, and specifically how language as a system of signs is arbitrary, influenced structuralist critics in the way that they relate individual texts to larger contexts. They took from Saussure the idea that an individual thing, whether it be a text or a word, achieves value and meaning based on what it is surrounded by. For instance, when a structuralist critic analyzes Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess", she wouldn't isolate the poem as a liberal humanist would do. She feels that the only way to truly understand the poem is to put it in a larger context, to take into consideration other 19th century poetry, to understand the events that inspired this poem, to understand Browning's background, etc. If language is a structure of arbitrary signs, then the structuralism believe that language isn't a true reflection of the world (Barry, 42).
This approach is very different from liberal humanist views on understanding and explaining literature. According to Saussure's theory, a liberal humanist is not getting any value from a text without a larger context in which to place it and understand it.
Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey G. Harpham. "Semiotics." A Glossary of Literary Terms.
Boston, MA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005. 289.
Barry, Peter. "Structuralism." Beginning Theory. Manchester: Manchester University
P, 2002. 39-60.
Saussure, Ferdinand. "Course in General Linguistics." Literary Theory: an Anthology.
Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. 76-89.