Structuralism is identified with the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857—1913). His Course in General Linguistics (1916) was reconstructed from the lecture notes of his students and published after his death. Saussure’s structuralist linguistics entails a set of claims about how language is constructed according to certain rules that are frequently contradicted by particular instances of language use.
Saussure distinguished between langue and parole: the system of rules (langue) governing a language, such as grammar and syntax, versus the specific utterances (parole) of individual language-users, which make these rules visible.
In literal translation, the two terms distinguish between “language” and “speaking”, which points to another important division between the written and spoken word.
The linguist must take the study of linguistic structure as his primary concern, and relate all other manifestations of language to it.
Saussure broke with the diachronic principles underlying previous approaches to the study of language (that is, tracking historical changes in language) and argued instead for a synchronic approach: looking at language at a particular point in history. This synchronic approach, according to Saussure, might allow for a thorough, systematic investigation of the relationship between langue and parole at a given phase in the development of a language.
Saussure viewed language as a system of signs and signifying conventions. Crucially, he argued that the conventions that govern a language are arbitrary.
There is no essential connection, for Saussure, between the “signifier” (a phonetic construct or sound pattern) and the “signified” (mental concept), which, taken together, constitute the linguistic “sign”.
The connection between a signifier, such as “dog”, and its signified will differ in different languages: French speakers use a different signifier (chien) and Spanish speakers yet another (perro).
The relationship between signifier and signified is not entirely random — it is a result of historical development and social convention — but it is arbitrary.
Also important is Saussure’s argument that meanings are determined by difference: no sign has meaning apart from its differential relationship to other signs. For example, the signifier “cat” signifies the mental concept of a four-legged, furry animal because the signifier cat is not equivalent with the signifiers bat or mat, etc., rather than because the word “cat” contains any essential or inherent dimension of cattiness. As for the signifier “bat”, is it a piece of sporting equipment or an animal?
Saussure’s linguistics implies a suspension of language’s referential function: it presents language as a self-contained system of signs that operates according to certain principles. Meaning is arrived at negatively, rather than positively.
A cat is a cat because it’s a cat.
Can you really be so sure about that?