Ferdinand de Saussure Course in General Linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure Course in General LinguisticsThis article discusses Saussure’s book Course in General Linguistics, Langue and Parole, Structuralism, Sign and other concepts. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) was a Swiss thinker who is very well known for his work in the fields of Linguistics and Semiotics. He began teaching Linguistics in 1907. ‘Cours de Linguistique Générale’  (Course in General Linguistics  ), his work that popularized his most important views regarding Linguistics and gave him the fame that he enjoys got published posthumously in 1916. It was published by two of his former students Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. They derived the matter for the book from notes taken from Saussure’s lectures in Geneva.

Saussure has been one of the most important names in the field of Linguistics, despite the fact that many of his most famous ideas have also been criticized by many thinkers. He is considered to be the founder of modern Linguistics. He has had influence in varying degrees on each of the various schools of Linguistics. He has defined a number of distinctions concerning the nature of language.

He clarified certain ideas related to structure and system in language to develop understanding of language as a system. Following are some of the main concepts in Linguistics contributed or touched upon by Saussure:


One of the most well known of his views related to language is that language is arbitrary. He meant that the signs (letters) forming a word have no logical or direct relationship with the meaning of the word. The meaning of the word is based only on the understanding that is derived from use of language. For instance, the letters forming the word ‘book’ can give no idea about the meaning of the word unless a person knows from his experience of language what ‘book’ means. Since different languages have different signs to suggest the same things, the arbitrariness of language becomes even more clear.

The sign

sign langue and paroleOne of Saussure’s major achievements is the clarification of the concept of a language system. According to him, any sentence is a sequence of signs and each sign contributes something to the meaning on the whole. The term ‘sign’ is equivalent to letter. The signs have different kind of relationships amongst themselves and these relationships give language the various qualities that it owns. Saussure identified two ideas associated to the use of signs in a language- signifier and signified. ‘Signifier’ refers to the physical units (like words) while ‘signified’ refers to the meaning conveyed by the signifier.

Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic relations

Saussure identified two types of relationships between various signs. The linear relationship between the signs present within a given sentence is called a ‘Syntagmatic Relationship’. For instance, the four signs in the sentence “I will meet him” have a syntagmatic relationship with one another. The relationship could also be defined in an abstract way- Pronoun+ Auxiliary Verb+ Verb+ Pronoun.

However, a language is inclusive of another kind of relationship as well- ‘Paradigmatic Relationship’. It is a relationship between a sign present in a sentence with some signs that are not present in the sentence but are part of language on the whole. The relationship is based on the ability of these signs to play similar role in different structures. For instance, the relationship between Personal Pronouns.

The following examples clarify the difference between Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic relationships.

I         will         meet         him.

I will meet him.

He will help her.                                        Paradigmatic Relationships

They are cheating me.

She has helped them.

Langue and Parole

Saussure identified a sharp distinction in three terms- language, langue and parole. He believed that language is not only about the faculty of speech (ability to speak) that human beings get due to heredity. It also depends on suitable environmental stimuli for its development. It is not limited to an individual but is a social concept.

Keeping this fact in mind, Saussure devised a new term- Langue. According to him,  Langue is the sum total of all the rules and conventions that could be associated to the language on the whole. It is inclusive of all the practical and abstract ideas concerned to the language.

Parole, on the other hand, is the practical application of Langue on the part of a speaker. It includes only those rules and conventions that a person actually makes use of when he uses the language. Since every person makes use of language in his/ her own way, Parole of one person may differ from that of another person.

Langue and Parole differ from each other in the sense that Parole could differ from one person to another while Langue is the same for every person. Langue includes even those aspects (rules, beliefs and conventions) of language that are not applied in practical interaction between people but Parole includes only those aspects that a person uses practically.

Saussure used example of the game of Chess to clarify the difference between the two. He stated that ‘Langue’ in case of Chess would be inclusive of all the possible moves that could be made in the game of Chess. Parole of the game would be the choice of moves that a person makes in the game. So, understanding Parole of Chess could not give thorough understanding of the game. According to Saussure, if a person wishes to have universal understanding of language, he should understand Langue since Parole could not be enough for the purpose.

Synchronic and Diachronic Axes

The differentiation between Synchronic and Diachronic study of language is also a prominent contribution by Saussure in the field of Linguistics.

Synchronic Study of language describes language at a particular stage of its development. It restricts itself to the study of a language at a particular point of time. For example, study of English in Mexico on present day or study of Hindi in Delhi in 1998 is example of Synchronic Study.

Diachronic Study of language, on the other hand, is the thorough study of evolution of language including study of its birth, various stages of its development and the changes it undertook. It identifies the fact that language is a continuously changing phenomenon. For instance, the study of the development of modern Italian from Latin and that of Modern English from Old English are examples of Diachronic study of language.


The various ideas presented by Saussure regarding aspects of language established the concept of structuralism in linguistics. Structuralism in linguistics basically suggests that the study of language is inclusive of the study of a number of structures that come together to give language its final form. Thus, the ideas like ‘Langue and Parole’ and ‘Paradgmatic and Syntagmatic  study of language‘  clearly suggest that analysis of language includes the study of the system underlying it which includes various structures.

Multiple Choice Questions on Saussure


1. Saussure began teaching linguistics in

  1. 1907
  2. 1916
  3. 1922
  4. 1913

2.Cours de linguistique générale was published in:

  1. 1913
  2. 1916
  3. 1922
  4. 1897

3. The idea of arbitrariness of language is concerned to:

  1. Form and meaning
  2. Number of signs
  3. Grammar
  4. None of the above

4. The physical units used in language have been termed by Saussure as:

  1. Arbitrariness
  2. Signified
  3. Signifier
  4. Langue

5. The relationship between different words belonging to same grammatical category, as per Saussure’s concepts, is:

  1. Langue
  2. Parole
  3. Paradigmatic
  4. Syntagmatic

6. Which of the following is false?

  1. Langue is a broader concept than Parole
  2. The term ‘Langue’ basically mean ‘language’
  3. Parole depends on the choice of Linguistic aspects by an individual speaker
  4. Parole is to be studied to study language thoroughly


Key to MCQs on Saussure

  1. a
  2. b
  3. a
  4. c
  5. c
  6. d