Saussure’s Linguistic Terminology – Signs, Language, Chains, and Associations


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Linguistic units connect together. Image by Dave Bleasdale

Ferdinand de Saussure views language as having an inner duality, which is manifested by the interaction of the synchronic and diachronic, the syntagmatic and associative, and the signifier and signified.

Throughout his linguistic theories, he used a number of terms that are often confused, notably sign, signified and signifier; langue, langage and parole; synchronic and diachronic, and syntagmatic and associative.

Synchronic and Diachronic Linguistics

According to Saussure, synchronic linguistics is the study of language at a particular point in time, and diachronic linguistics is the historical or evolutionary study of language which is dependent on social activity and change.

According to Saussure, diachronic changes occur within  individual speaking patterns before being eventually accepted as a part of language.

As Sausseur explained, “Speech always implies both an established system and an evolution; at every moment it is an existing institution and a product of the past.”

 Understanding  Speech, Language, and Speaking

However, in order to successfully follow any linguistic study according to Saussure, it is important to understand three of his terms:   ‘speech,’ ‘language,’ and ‘speaking,’ or ‘langage,’ ‘langue,’ and ‘parole’ respectively.

Speech (langage) is physiologically and psychologically based and has both an individual and a social side.
According to Saussure, when the complex acoustical-vocal unit we know as ‘sound’ combines with a thought,  a new complex physiological-psychological unit is created that we call  ‘speech.’ He emphasizes that sound without thought is not ‘speech.’

Saussure points out that ‘speech’ is individualized in that it is produced willfully and intellectually by a person, by way of ‘speaking’ (parole). Saussure also refers to ‘parole’ as the ‘executive’ side of speech –  that which puts speech into practice. However, the way speech is used is determined through its society over time according to their language (langue).

Language, although significant, is only one part  of speech. It consists of a collection of conventions that have been adopted by a community in order to structure and organize the mass of disorganized ‘speech’ we hold in our minds. Thus ‘language’ developed and keeps on developing so members of any community can use and understand their particular ‘langue.’

Infinite mental word associations. Image by Dave Bleasdale

Words – Bonded in a Syntagmatic Chain

According to Saussure, discourse is linear in nature because all language chunks are chained together in a sequence. (To check this, just try pronouncing two words simultaneously.)

He called this sequential relationship ‘syntagmatic,’  and he called the linguistic combinations of two or more units that create the chain, ‘syntagms.’ Syntagms are defined by their relationships in the sequence of other linguistic units and syntagms,  where they are a part of (praesentia) discourse.

As part of a chain these groups of words have limited linguistic freedom, especially if they are parts of clusters  such as  idiomatic expressions.

Words – Cognitively Free to Associate

In our minds and outside (absentia) discourse and syntagmatic relationships, Saussure explains that words acquire different relations because they become connected and associated with other words that have similar meanings By themselves they  form ‘associative relations’ which  are not necessarily supported by linearity, but maybe by mnemonics or other means and limitless associations are possible.

Saussure clearly differentiated between the two types of relationships. “Whereas a syntagm immediately suggests an order of succession and a fixed number of elements, terms in an associative family occur neither in fixed numbers nor in a definite order. (126)”

To explain the syntagmatic and associative way of viewing language, Saussure provided a fine example. He said that a linguistic unit can be viewed as part of a column. The column is related to the structure of the building that it supports. The arrangement of the blocks of the column represents the syntagmatic relationship. The associative relationship occurs when the column is recognized as Doric and is compared with other architectural periods.

Saussure’s Linguistic Terminology

Although the terminology he used to describe the value of language signs may be confusing; sign, signified and signifier; langue, langage and parole; synchronic and diachronic, and syntagmatic and associative, and so on, Saussure’s linguistic theories are sound, and fascinating to explore.


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

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