Saussures Ideas On Language Are Modified English Language Essay

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The structuralist perspective on language by Ferdinand de Saussure, and the deconstructuralist concepts of Jacques Derrida are often deemed as opposing theories. It is true that these concepts have many different ideas on how language should be approached and studied and in some instances over what the term 'language' even means. There are however many instances where the two can be understood. It is for this reason that this essay will look at Saussure's key ideas and how they have both influenced Derrida's and sparked a re-reading and modification of traditional structuralism, rather than refuting it all together. It will also look at the fact that reading these ideas together can be highly advantageous when applying it to the study of literature.

Before structuralism, philology had been mainly focused on the historical development of languages; how they have altered through time and how languages relate to each other. [1] This perspective posed a key failing for Saussure due to the nature of language which makes it highly difficult to study compared to most other disciplines; which often have a well-defined, if not partly concrete, subject matter. According to Saussure, generalisations about language in the material sense are all too easily made and this completely misses the point of the linguistic phenomenon. [2] Language is heterogeneous, meaning it has many variables and other sciences outside the realms of language, such as psychology, that are closely linked to it. This creates dualities and means that it is fluid as a concept unless, Saussure argues, the differences between 'linguistic structure' and 'languages' are made. In his Course on General Linguistics, [3] Saussure coins these different aspects as 'langue' and 'parole'. The latter refers to speech (and writing) as language in a specific action. (Saussure does not distinguish any difference between speech and writing as 'the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first'; [4] a key characteristic distinction between structuralism and deconstruction; which will be discussed later). 'Langue' refers to the system of conventions which pre-exists, individual users. [5] Because it can be understood in a system it is more homogenous, as it is possible to isolate and understand it synchronically; that is the idea that all rules and variables can be examined at any one point in time. This leads structuralism to ignore the origin of language as it is focussed on how the language exists in the present. It is this that Saussure places above all other aspects of language in his studies, due to the fact that it 'introduce[s] a natural order…which lends itself no other classification.' [6] 

This synchronic system is made up of 'signs that express ideas'. [7] Signs, according to this semiology, are made up of a 'double entity' [8] of the signifier, which is the sound image of a word psychologically imprinted in a speaker's mind, and secondly of the signified which is the concept that is attached to this sound image. The relationship between these two entities is both complex and paradoxical due to the fact that language is not a nomenclature, it creates its own categories; signifiers do not merely name their signified reality but construct them, calling and re-calling into existence a 'more definite shape to undifferentiated thought'. [9] Saussure says no ideas can pre-exist language as it is language that gives shape to ideas and makes them expressible. In other words, thoughts cannot exist without language.

The connection between signifier and signified is also arbitrary, which is why Saussure argues that there are not directly equivalent words for the same concepts in different languages. Critics have used the example of onomatopoeia to try and argue that there is perhaps a link between words and meanings, however there are slight differences. For example the English "woof-woof" finds its nearest equivalent in French as "ouaf-ouaf". [10] An example of this arbitrariness in literature can be seen in Lewis Carroll's, Jabberwocky, [11] as he fully exploits the idea of arbitrary signifier and signified in order to ensure the nonsense terms in his poem have meaning to the reader. Readers will attach value to Carroll's invented words, such as 'frumious' and 'frabjous', by comparing them to terms that they already recognise in the established system of language; slotting them into place as concepts by how they differ from words like 'furious' and 'fabulous'.

According to Saussure, determining how terms differ from each other is how all values and meanings of signs are founded and understood. Language is interdependent and no word can exist in isolation and 'are defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system. What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not'. [12] Alongside this Saussure dictates that there are only two different ways of relating language terms in to discover their value; the first, syntagmatic, is the association of words in a linear sequence, such as the association with the word 'Happy' with 'Birthday' or the recognition of the need for word order for a sentence to make lexical and grammatical sense. [13] The second is paradigmatic relation, which is the grouping of similar words such as synonyms or rhyming words, etc. Through this Saussure argues that value and meaning, whilst arbitrary, can be found as long as the interpreter remains synchronic in their understanding.

Interpretation of literature from a structuralist point of view therefore is based on the idea of the texts present structure, discipline and rules and critics argue that with structuralist analysis the interpreter is provided with a methodology of how to read a text. [14] By viewing literature as a model the codes and conventions of texts both singularly and within intertextuality can be easily identified, giving rise to the ability to interpret structure, meaning, genre, character development etc. Not only this, it allows a framework within which interpretations can be made rationally without the influence of such variables as authorial/reader intent or social/historical context. By isolating language and writing synchronically avoids the complication of the origin of the language and allows for close reading.

According to Derrida, 'the presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain'; which upon superficial inspection seems to concur with the thoughts of Saussure. However he argues that Saussure's theory that language should be viewed as a synchronic system is flawed and full of 'spaces' which he then attempts to fill. By placing the study of language into a system and thereby giving meaning a fixed centre or presence 'limits[s] … the freeplay of the structure' [15] and this has a paradoxical affect; if this centre of the synchronic structure of language, which has therefore constructed the structure around it, it is simultaneously unique from the structure and therefore outside its confines. This would then contradictorily suggest that the centre is not the centre. Presence of meaning cannot be found to be present as it would be constantly substituted. Examples of this can be seen in the history of philosophical thought which is represented in literary thinking with the replacement of God at the centre of the system of the universe during the renaissance with the thoughts of man as being the centre. By common principle, the same happens at the centre of the linguistic structure as the apparent central signified, or the transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. [16] 

This is a movement of Diffèrance; a term created by Derrida in his essay [17] of the same name which refers to the paradoxical nature of the idea that the meaning of signs are only found through differences with other signs. Derrida believes that while these signs differ from each other in doing so they defer their meanings further into the future through a constant chain of signs. An example of this in action is the idea that when a word is looked up in a dictionary more terms are given in order to define this word. In order to understand this meaning completely, according to Saussurian theory, all the words in the definition would in turn have to be defined, creating an infinite circle. This is what Derrida refers to as 'spacing' in the linguistic system. The presence of the initial sign is constantly deferring its own presence onto a chain of signs past, present and future. This interval displaces presentation and remains definitively and 'implacably postponed, it is not that a certain present remains absent or hidden'. [18] The concrete system that Saussure was so sure of is starting to deconstruct under Derrida's scrutiny.

This deconstruction of the linguistic structure is continued in Derrida's essay, Of Grammatology. [19] Derrida argues that Saussure's logocentrism is one of his greatest failings and limits his idea of the existence of a synchronic system and means that 'the integral and concrete object of linguistics' [20] is completely missed. Saussure states that the reason he leaves out writing is because it merely 'exists for the sole purpose of representing [language]' [21] and does not fit into the synchronic analysis as it is too heterogeneous and would involve the inclusion of context which he has so far excluded. But for Derrida diachronic analysis is just as, if not more so, important as, 'il n'ya pas de hors-texte'. [22] Context is everything, as the use and meaning of words, both in speaking and in writing, will be affected by the variables around the user as the perceiver's mental state is in a constant state of flux. This he argues means that no one theory can be applied as universal as it cannot encompass the entire web of language. He suggests that the theory of writing can counter logocentric repression and release semiology from the difficulty of being both its own centre and its telos. [23] It will help the perceiver to understand this web of language and search for the reality of llinguistics at any one point in time. Here is where the real meaning of signs can be found according to Derrida.

Deconstructive literary analysis therefore is primarily concerned with finding the meaning of a text by exposing where it counters the ideas that are expected of a text of that type. Through revealing these supposed contradictions and oppositions theoretically show that its meaning is complex, unstable, or impossible. This lends itself to the idea that any text can have more than one interpretation and thus that an interpretative reading such as structuralism cannot go beyond a certain point. Derrida places a lot of focus on the reader having authority over interpretation as no one reading will ever be the same as another, which runs closely alongside reader-response criticism. However this response leaves many questions unanswerable due to the fact that arguably the true context of literature can never be found. It is highly philosophical and based on ideas rather than structure or guidelines.

Jaques Derrida argues that Saussure's theory of there being a definite structure and that the meaning of signs is concrete is an out-dated theory. What he does to combat this is to raise questions that go beyond structuralism's concerns, expanding them and releasing them from their own restrictive nature. There is more focus on the philosophical nature of language, paying particular attention to context in the study of linguistics including all areas of language especially writing. He does not refute Saussure's ideas all together. In fact he supports the idea of a system but seeks to use it as a vessel in order to discover the hidden meaning of terms. Through the use of these theories in tandem a reader can understand more fully the nature and arguably find deeper meaning behind the signs. The extent to which these theories could stand on their own however I would argue is debateable as structuralism relies on the exclusion of arguable important factors through close reading, whilst Derrida's deconstructionism can arguably not find any more meaning than the fact that it could be hidden deeper in context.