Study Guide

Ferdinand de Saussure Files

Letter to the Editor Regarding Jacques Derrida's Essay Critiquing My Whole Idea About the Superiority of the Speaker to the Writer

Dear Editor,

Do you have any idea what it's like to be the Father of Twentieth-Century Structural Linguistics? I thought not. It's one thing to have youngster linguists riding on the coattails of all of my discoveries, but it's something else altogether when big name French theorists sweep in and don't give due respect to all of my hard work.

I read your review of Derrida's interpretation of my work ("Sure He's Smart, But Is He All That and a Bag of Potato Chips?" from January 6, 1985), and I have a few choice words for that dashingly handsome Deconstructionist.

As your readers likely know, I believe that language is a "structure"—or a "system," if you will. Anyone who has read my much-ballyhooed Course on General Linguistics can tell you that I argue for a binary structure in language—that is, we've got the signifier and the signified. This is a solid situation.

Then Rico Suave comes along and reduces all of that to smoking rubble by saying that language is decentered. What gives? When I say the word "croissant," everyone knows I mean a delicious buttery crescent-shaped pastry treat. The croissantness of a croissant is somewhat abstract—it is the taste of butter, the feeling of buttery flakiness on the tongue, and the smell of a quaint patisserie. It is not a Pillsbury crescent-dough roll-up. That has altogether different implications, not least of which is an empty American imitation of "bread."

The two are different.

On top of that, people know the word "croissant" and what it refers to simply because this word sounds different from all other words. Hearers know what croissant means the second I utter its two nasal syllables (kwa-san).

Who is Derrida to question the importance of that sound? He dares to call me "phonocentric." I looked that one up, and when I found out that it means I privilege speaking over writing, I took umbrage. Any structural linguist who follows my school of thought knows that while I do not dismiss the importance of writing, I do think that it puts distance between the writer and his or her words—you lose the intimacy that always exists between the speaker and what the speaker says.

Derrida says that language is always unanchored from its speaker or its writer. Worse still, this situation does not seem to disturb him. I encourage readers of his book and of your editorial to go back to the source and save themselves from the false belief that the written sign and the spoken sign are equally free-floating, unmoored, and disconnected.

Now, credit where credit is due: Derrida is on to something with his idea that a spoken or written sign is always arbitrary. I do not agree, however, that speaking a word and writing a word are the same deal. Just my two cents. I have no personal investment in this argument. It is totally intellectual.

Yours truly,
Ferdinand "Saucy" de Saussure, the speaker (not writer) of the Course in General Linguistics

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