Saussure – Understanding the Linguistic Value of Language Signs


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Understand the differential value of linguistic signs. Image by Dave Bleasdale

In his Course in General Linguistics, a book complied from notes by his students, linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure investigated language as a structured system of linguistic signs or linguistic units that organise the mass of confused thoughts that fill our minds.

He explained the idea grounding his theory of language being made up of linguistic units that are composed of two parts – a concept or meaning and a sound-image – respectively, ‘the signified’ and ‘signifier.’

Saussure also explains that the combination of ‘the signifier’ and ‘the signified’ is arbitrary; i.e., any ‘signifier’ or ‘sound-image’ – any string of language sounds – can be created to signify a particular concept.

The choice is usually dependent on the community that uses that language. A concrete example would be ‘chair.’

The concept of a ‘chair’ is similar across Western thinking, yet the sound images created to label this object are different across European languages; ‘chaise,’ ‘silla,’ ‘stuhl,’ and ‘sedia’ for example.

Saussure made the point that you cannot divide thought from sound, nor sound from thought, “… an idea becomes fixed in a sound and a sound becomes the sign of an idea.” That language is not just an arbitrary naming system. Linguistic signs have values.

Saussure’s Linguistic Values

According to Saussure, the value of a linguistic sign does not come from its intrinsic signification, and it cannot be determined by the sound image alone. In fact, this arbitrarily chosen ‘signifier’ has no value, and the concept – ‘the signified’ – does not have true value by itself because it exists within a language system. Instead, the linguistic value of a sign is determined by other factors within its environment, by the other linguistic signs.

Accruing Linguistic Value

The value of a sign grows in relation to its external environment within the language system, not from its internal components. Linguistic signs can gain value in two distinct ways, both conceptually and materially.

Conceptually, linguistic meanings do not exist in a vacuum; they are not independent. Rather, they are dependent on other linguistic signs within their language system to determine what they are.  Therefore, the actual idea or concept that the sign expresses can be understood by what it is not – by its differences to other linguistic signs.

As Saussure explained “Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system.  Their most precise characteristic is in being what they other are not.” (117) For example, if something isn’t ‘hot’ or ‘cold,’ it must be ‘warm.’  If something is ‘good,’ it means it is not ‘average’ or’ excellent.’

So, one way for a linguistic sign to gain value is through its conceptual nature. The other way is from the material value of the sound-image.

The sound image or ‘signifier’ is defined by its differences from other sound images in the language system in a similar way to the conceptual value –what it isn’t determines what it is. Since we distinguish the sounds in a word by their distinct differences to other sounds in the string, we also differentiate linguistic chunks or ‘words’ from each other by their unique sounds.

As Saussure explained “Phonemes are characterized not, as one might think, by their own positive quality but simply by the fact that they are distinct. Phonemes are above all else opposing, relative entities.” (119)
The word  is not its sound alone but its unique distinctive sounds. Its ‘phonic differences’ enable us to distinguish it from other ‘sound images.’

Language signs gain value from other linguistic signs. Image by Anya Quinn

Overall Linguistic Value

When a negatively-determined sound image (signifier) and a negatively determined concept (signified) combine together they form a ‘sign.’ To determine their uniqueness and differentiability all signs in a language are related negatively to other sounds around them, but signs in the same language are also related to each other in two further ways – associatively, or paradigmatically and syntagmatically within language strings.

The overall linguistic value of a ‘linguistic unit’ or ‘sign’ is then determined by 4 factors:

1.    Its unique concept within a language
2.    Its unique sound within a language
3.    How it can be combined with other words in a syntactical string
4.    Its associated differences and similarities to other language signs

Linguistic Systems: Similarities and Differences

Saussure wrote that just as in any system of signs, the  linguistic system consists of a series of differences in sounds together with differences in ideas. The differences distinguish one sign from all the others that constitute the system. It is these distinguishing differences of the separate entities that “create the character and the value of the unit.”


Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. (1959)  The Philosophical Library, New York City.

Hugh Bredin.  Sign and Value in Saussure. Philosophy, Vol. 59, No. 227 (Jan., 1984), pp. 67-77. Cambridge University Press on behalf of Royal Institute of Philosophy.

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