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Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure
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Ferdinand de Saussure

Ever heard of words? Well, then you're already interested in the work of Switzerland's very own Ferdinand de Saussure, the granddaddy of linguistics (the science of language) and semiotics (the "science of signs," in case you aren't fluent in Greek). We'll get into the hairy details later, but for now, it helps to know that semiotics studies the social function of language—language as it is spoken by real, live people.

Saussure and his peeps held the strong conviction that language forms the way we think, and that, in turn, in turn influences culture. According to Saussure, if you're interested in understanding a culture, you have to start with that culture's language. It's all in them words, so get out your toolkit and start taking apart any and every metaphor, symbol, narrative device, and figure of speech that comes your way.

It's a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that Saussure is the founder of twentieth-century linguistics, more specifically known as Structural Linguistics. It may not seem like much in our 140-character world, but Saussure recognized the important cultural meaning of words.

If you want to get all Sherlock Holmes with a language, you can discover 1) what that language says about a culture's social interactions, and 2) how its speakers use language to describe and understand the world. Words are embedded in society. Language allows us to communicate within society, but it also tells us a lot about the society in which it is used.

If you are student of language, philosophy, or anthropology, you will inevitably run head-on into Saussure's world-famous Course in General Linguistics. (Fun fact: this guy didn't even write the work he's most famous for. Devoted students put it together from notes they had taken in his lectures.)

So, what is Saussure's big point in the Course in General Linguistics? We'll take this slowly: he analyzed language scientifically by considering it a formal system in which words are understood only by comparing and contrasting them to other words.

Stay with us.

Saussure also believed that language is arbitrary. Huh? Well, that just means that, according to Saussure's argument, the word for toe has no tangible connection to an actual toe. Unlike a lot of Chinese characters, words in English and French (for example) do not look (or even, usually, sound) like the things they represent.

For Saussure, the word "toe" is what he calls a "signifier," while the actual, real-life toe is called a "signified." Together, the signified and signifier make up a "sign." You still with us? Well, according to Saussure, the connection between signified and a signifier is arbitrary (translation: it's, like, totally random—there is no physical or natural relationship between the two).

Signifiers are differential and relational: they only make sense in relation to other signifiers. In other words, we only know that "toe" refers to a toe because we know that "finger" doesn't; it's not that there's something inherent in the word "toe" that just has some deep connection with toes.

Basically, all words must be different from each other, or things would get really confusing. A toe is a toe because it's not a finger or a flower. But other than that, it has nothing to do with an actual toe.

Yeah, it just got real. Or... maybe the point is that it didn't get real? Either way, Shmoopers, fear not: we're here to tackle this thing for you.

Next Page: Biography

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