Ferdinand de Saussure was a very important linguist and he is considered as the father of semiology. In fact, he was so interested in the study of language that he came up with ‘The Theory of Signs’. In this essay I will be trying to give a critical analysis of his theory.
Back in Saussure’s time, the study of language was done by comparing linguistics of different languages to try and find common patterns – a method once invented by the German Franz Bopp. Another famous linguist in his days, Bopp was the first to establish the importance of Sanskrit in the comparative study of Indo-European languages. He developed a technique for analyzing languages by comparing the common origins of Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin and German. Just like Franz Bopp, people wanted to see if behind all the different languages in the world there was a common structure.
Saussure found this technique very interesting, however, rightly so, he argued that by doing so one will still never really get to learn that much about the language and how it works.
On this note I strongly agree with him because in order to study how a language works one cannot just compare it externally. For example, I studied German for seven years. I could have easily compared it to the Maltese language, but I would have never understood how the German language works as a system just by comparing. To learn the language I needed to study the linguistic system on its own.
Precisely, this is what Saussure did. He insisted that his goal was to make the study of language a scientific study. By scientific, he meant rigorous, so Saussure invented ‘The Naming Theory of Language’. He describes it as language as words. Objects’ names will mean that they represent the identity of the object. In this theory, the word ‘represents’ is very important because it applies to the identity of the object. There is a sort of one to one relationship between the word and the object assuming that the objects almost exist independent of us.
However with this theory Saussure has two faults.
1. First of all, the language itself is a system and not a one to one relationship. This is why Saussure never agreed on how people in Bopp’s days used to study language. If the one to one relationship between words and things had to be true, than translating would be super easy. For example, if the word table meant as the object we know it today and seven years ago I wanted to learn German, all I had to do was find the German word for table in a dictionary and substitute it. However today, now that I know how the German language works, I know that it is not that simple because a language is a whole system of meaning and translating word for word will never be accurate. One must understand the sense because words change therefore meaning changes.
2. The second flaw is that this theory assumes that the meanings of words remain the same but the words change. If this theory was to be true then the meaning of the words should not change. For example, the word gay once meant to be happy, joyful, and carefree but overtime in today’s current world and society the meaning of this word has changed drastically referring to a homosexual person or at least the trait of being one. So technically time changes the meaning of a word proving that his theory has a flaw as it doesn’t include the fact that meaning changes. The words change but also the meanings change as well as the reality and concept.
Therefore after realizing the flaws of his previous theory, Saussure gets rid of most of it and instead proposes ‘The Theory of Signs’.
Saussure will now be talking and using the term signs and not words. Basically a word is a sign. Example, the sign table will still signify that particular element.
To begin with, Saussure’s new theory is divided into two categories those being:
1. Natural signs. For example if I see a grey sky and dark clouds, I can say that chances are that it will rain. However Saussure doesn’t talk about these signs.
2. Unnatural signs. These are the signs he is interested in. The non-natural manmade signs.
An important first point in this theory is that a sign is composed of a signifier and the signified and these two are always found together.
· The signifier can be either the vocal sounds; that is when I speak, I produce sound.
· The signified is the meaning or concept of words otherwise it’s just sound; hence why they are always found together.
The relationship between the two is arbitrary because there is no reason why we give a name to a certain specific object. There is absolutely no reason as to why we call a table a table but as a result of society, we humans have agreed and learned to call it so. In different society’s they might call what we call a table a bed. In reality it doesn’t matter as long as we understand each other. There is no natural connection between a word and its meaning because the name doesn’t have a connection to the specific object. When writing the word square, we do not actually draw a square. There is nothing necessary, but what becomes very important is agreement.
What this shows is that according to him, each language and every way of life constructs a separate reality in contemporary culture. This is the reason why we meet people from different cultures and we mis-understand each other because their reality is different from ours. A society decides what the word means by constructing a different reality. The Maltese with our own language create our own world as so do the Germans. The reason being is because we are a product of human agreement.