Semiotics is one of the cornerstones of so-called Continental Philosophy. No tradition other than Phenomenology had more influence on shaping the landscape of this tradition in the 20th century.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols derived from the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure’s background was in comparative and historical linguistics; he was an expert in the study of Indo-European languages.

In a series of courses that he gave at the University of Geneva, Saussure outlined his proposition for a new field of study that would be a science of language. The scholarly study of languages at the time was dominated by what is known as philology. Philology however was a historical study of languages but what Saussure was proposing was a scientific study of living language.

The Swiss linguist delivered this Course on General Linguistics only three times –1907, 1909 and 1911. He never published anything on the subject because he always felt that his work was too tentative and that he hadn’t found the solid ground worthy of publishing.

But, after his death in 1913, a group of students and colleagues of Saussure’s took their notes on his course and compiled them into a book called Course on General Linguistics. This work ended up being highly influential in the 20th century in the development of Semiotics as well as Structuralism and Poststructuralism through which it influenced everything from anthropology and sociology to psychoanalysis and literary theory.

In this article we are going to explore the core pillars of Saussure’s Semiotics (or as he called it Semiology). First we’re going to look at what Semiotics is by looking at Saussure’s distinctions between synchronic and diachronic studies of language, and between langue and parole. Then we are going to look at three core elements of Semiotic theory: the structure of a sign, the arbitrariness of language and Saussure’s interesting claim that language is about relations and differences and not about naming.

Diachronic vs Synchronic

In demarcating the subject-matter for the nascent semiotics, Saussure drew a distinction between two ways of studying language which he called the diachronic and the synchronic.

Diachronic (which comes from the Greek words dia– meaning through and chronos meaning time)  is the study of the evolution of language through time. This was the classical field of which Saussure was already an expert. This diachronic mode is the methodology of philology and historical linguistics in studying the historical evolution of languages.

Synchronic (which comes from the Greek words syn- meaning together and again chronos meaning time) on the other hand is the study of language at a moment in time without any consideration of its history or evolution.

This diachronic/synchronic distinction is Saussure’s first boundary marker for Semiotics. It’s basically stating that this new science of linguistics that he is proposing is separate to the historical linguistics that is being done everywhere else. This new science is to explore the language itself at a moment in time.

This distinction was later picked up in the sociological and philosophical traditions by thinkers such as Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Lacan.

Langue vs. Parole

The next boundary marker that Saussure lays down is the distinction between langue and parole.

The synchronic and diachronic is the first distinction to define the subject matter of Semiotics. It tells us that Semiotics is to be a synchronic field i.e. the study of language at a moment in time rather than looking at historical development.

The second distinction hones this definition further. Saussure tells us that this language in any particular moment has two components. He calls these langue and parole — two French words for language each with their own slightly different emphasis.

Langue is the equivalent of the English word tongue. Like the English word this captures the sense of articulate language while also being the word for that all important organ of language that you find in the mouth.

Parole, on the other hand is usually translated in English as speech.

Langue is the entirety of the structure of the language while parole is the language as we speak it. With parole, we make the langue concrete; we are using it in the flow of conversation bringing the langue to life and using it to communicate.

But unlike this concrete instantiation of language, langue is the abstract structure which is always behind parole and which parole always draws upon.

Music as an analogy for langue and parole

A good way of thinking about this is through music. Let’s say you have a musician who is playing Mozart’s Ein Klein Nachtmusik. This musician may miss some notes, they may add some flourishes, they may even stop halfway through. This individual instance and playing of Mozart is what Saussure means by parole. It is the concretising of Mozart’s music.

The piece of music itself however — the langue — is always separate. The musical piece we call Ein Klein Nachtmusik is always separate from its concrete instances. It is one step abstracted from these playings of it. Some of these renditions may be closer to the abstract Ein Klein Nachtmusik and some may be further away but they are all separate to it. This abstract piece of music that we call Ein Klein Nachtmusik then is what Saussure means by langue; the individual renditions of it correspond to parole.

When you speak English, you are like the musician playing Mozart. Your speech or parole is one instance of English, one rendition of the monolithic piece of music that we call the English language or that Saussure calls langue.

Your speaking English is a concretising of this abstract langue that exists separate to any usage of it.

Chess as an example

Another example that may make this clearer is the distinction between langue and parole in chess. Chess is a game with a certain set of rules. When you are playing a game of chess these rules are invisible and yet there is no game without them.

These rules give structure and meaning to the billions of games of chess that are played. Each individual game of chess is parole — it is an individual element of chess. The entire structure of the langue need not be exhausted by a game of chess. It is possible to checkmate your opponent before they have moved their rooks, knights or bishops. More obscure rules like en passant need not come into play in every game of chess and yet they are there — parts of the langue but not necessarily part of every parole.

Language is Social

The other thing that Saussure says is that langue is social. It is never contained completely in one individual. There will be words you know of that I don’t and there’ll be words that I know that you don’t; sometimes I might even use the language improperly. This is all part of the incomplete instantiation of langue in the everyday parole.

What Saussure is looking to do with this distinction is to demarcate langue as the field of study for semiotics. Semiotics is to be the science of langue, of this abstract structure of language. This homogenous structure of langue is what Saussure wants to isolate and study with Semiotics.

Signifiers, Signifieds and Referents

As well as marking off the territory of this new field of linguistic study, Saussure offers many revolutionary insights in his Course in General Linguistics. In this article we will look at three of these in particular. These three insights were extremely influential in shaping the intellectual landscape of 20th century Continental Philosophy.

The first is of these is Saussure’s definition of the fundamental linguistic unit. Saussure calls this unit the sign and there are two sides to it that he calls the signifier and the signified. These two aspects are as distinct and interdependent as the two sides of a coin.

The Signifier

The signifier is the sensible aspect of the sign. In speech it is the sound of the word; in writing it is the marks on the page or the pixels on the screen; in sign language it is physical gestures and expressions. But these signifiers don’t just have to be linguistic—street signs or traffic lights are examples of signifiers that don’t use words to signify.

In short, the signifier is the word sign or symbol that points us in a certain direction.

The Signified

The signifier points us to the signified, the second aspect of Saussure’s linguistic anatomy of language. So when you use the word tree that signifier points me towards the signified which is my mental concept of tree. This idea of the signified becomes clearer when contrasted with what Saussure calls the referent.

The Referent

The referent is the objective thing that we are speaking about. So if we take the example of a tree then you’ve got the following:

  1. Signifier: you have your signifier in the word ‘tree’;
  2. Signified: this signifier points you to the signified — in this case the mental concept of a tree. Together this signifier and signified form Saussure’s basic linguistic unit: the sign.
  3. Referent: separate to these you have the tree that you are experiencing in reality and trying to point to with language.

This distinction between the signified and the referent can be a little tricky to grasp at first. You might think that the signifier points directly to the referent and question why we have this conceptual middleman called the signified? Well, this becomes clearer in the case of fictional entities.

Let’s take a dragon for example. Now we can have a number of signifiers for dragon such as fire-breathing monster, a flying lizard or we could take the word for dragon in all the different languages. These are all different signifiers.

But now, if we were to go looking for a referent we would never find one because — I hate to be the one to break it to you — dragons don’t exist (or do they?).

This example of the dragon makes it clear that there is a thing which these different signifiers ‘flying lizard,’ ‘fire-breathing monster’ and ‘dragon’ point to. You know what I’m talking about when I use these words. They are not merely noises.

Though there is no referent, these signifiers do point to something. That something is the concept of a dragon. This concept that the different signifiers point to is what Saussure calls the signified.

Arbitrary Nature of Signifiers and Signifieds

Having uncovered this signifier/signified structure of Signs, Saussure’s exploration of this structure reveals two big insights. The first is that both signifiers and signifieds are arbitrary.

In the case of signifiers what this means is that the words we use for things are not necessary connections but arbitrary ones. There is nothing about the word ‘tree’ itself that is inherently connected to the tree as we experience it.

This makes sense when you think about the fact that the word tree varies from language to language while doing just as good a job at telling people about the referent. In Irish it’s crainn, in French it’s l’arbre. There’s no necessary connection between the English word ‘tree’ and trees. The word could just as easily have been bool or stoog.

Exceptions to the rule

There are exceptions to this which serve to make Saussure’s point all the clearer. One exception is onomatopoeia. Words like bang, meow or smack are not arbitrary. That is to say, they do actually bear a necessary relation to the signified. The word meow is intended to represent the actual sound a cat makes.

But this is a case of the exception proving the rule. Most words do not bear any such connection and could easily be switched for another without any loss of effectiveness as signifiers. This is what Saussure means when he says that signifiers are arbitrary.

From arbitrary signifiers to arbitrary signifieds

But that is not all. Saussure also tells us that signifieds are arbitrary. This one is a little trickier to get your head around because you think well surely the concept of an oak is something fixed.

But, says Saussure, if signifieds weren’t arbitrary then we would have this Platonic realm of fixed concepts that we merely needed to put signifiers on. If this were the case, then we would expect all words to be directly translatable between different languages. The variation between languages would merely be a matter of changing the signifiers for different concepts. In English we say cat in French they say chat. Same concept different word.

But this is not always the case. One example that Saussure gives is of the French word boeuf. If you were to translate this French word into English you would have two choices. On the one hand you might be talking about the food product beef but, depending on the context, you might also be talking about the animal that this food product comes from — the ox.

What’s going on here is that the French concept of boeuf doesn’t exist in English. In English we have two concepts instead of one, we have two signifieds instead of French’s one.

The same goes for the French word  belle-mère. If you were to translate this word into English you would have two choices: stepmother or mother-in-law.

In both these examples we can see that the French language has cut up the conceptual landscape in a different way to English.

This conceptual landscape doesn’t just vary between languages but over time. The colour orange only entered the English language in the early 1500s. The word orange had been in the English language since the 1300s — in exclusive reference to the fruit — but over time it came to capture the colour between red and yellow.

If you had asked an English speaker about the colours of the rainbow in the 1300s their account would not have included the colour orange. But over time the conceptual landscape shifted so that the concept of orange emerged as a distinct signified. In this case it’s not that the referent orange did not exist, it’s that the way the landscape of reality was cut up by language was different. This is what Saussure means when he says that the signified is arbitrary; he’s pointing to the fact that the conceptual landscape varies across cultures and across time.

Language is All Differences and Relations

Saussure’s other big insight comes from the implications of this arbitrary nature of the signifiers and the signifieds.

Because when Saussure realised that the signifier and the signified are arbitrary, he began to wonder how the hell language actually operates. And what he realised is that language doesn’t work by naming things — otherwise it wouldn’t be arbitrary — it communicates through a system of relations and differences.

The example that Saussure uses to illustrate this principle is the 08:25 Geneva to Paris Express train. Saussure says that we think of this 08:25 Geneva to Paris Express as the same train everyday even though the train itself may be a different vehicle, it may be operated by a completely different group of people without a single passenger in common. And the train may even be late.

Nevertheless we all take it for granted that this is the same train regardless of the physical train, the people or even the time.

What’s important according to Saussure is that it be distinguished from the 10:25 Geneva to Paris Express, the 08:25 Geneva to Dijon local and all the other trains that are flowing in and out of the station.

Another example is of a chess board. Let’s say you’re missing a knight on the chessboard. You can easily swap in another object in its stead and this object will function as a knight because of its difference and relation to all the other pieces around it.

This is what Saussure meant when he said that in the system of language “there are only differences, with no positive terms.” He was referring to this definition of terms requiring their relation to other terms in order to derive their meaning.


To summarise then, we looked at how Saussure demarcated the field of Semiotics using the distinctions between synchronic and diachronic and between langue and parole. These told us that Semiotics is the study of language at a moment in time rather than historically and that it’s the study of the structure of language rather than its use in speech.

From there we looked at the structure of the basic linguistic unit the sign and how it is composed of signifiers — the words we use for things — and signifieds — the concepts that these words point to.

We then looked at how these signifiers and signifieds were both arbitrary and changed between languages and over time and finally we looked at what Saussure meant when he said that language works by relations and differences.

Hope you enjoyed this overview of Semiotics. It can be daunting coming to grips with a whole new field of inquiry but I hope that this article has tamed the wilderness around the term a little so that the next time you encounter the term Semiotics it might not appear such an alien thing.

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