on language - saussure (2008)


Even though one can say we give labels through our language for identities in the world, it is, in fact, the opposite, and that according to Saussure, language precedes the existence of identities: before an identity was there, we already had labels in place to differentiate between concepts. Saussure gives evidence of his argument through his system of signs; the linking of a concept with its sound image (a signifier.) He also notes that:

“If words stood for pre-existing concepts, they would all have exact equivalents in meaning from one language to next; but this is not true.”

                 “Extract III, [1] Saussure, 1974, pg.116”

The evidence put forward is that, because different languages have different ways of representing the same thing, it suggests labels are not given to pre-existing entities, but rather the opposite occurs: language precedes the existence of independent entities.  

It seems Belsey does give an accurate representation of Saussure’s Course. She outlines Saussure’s objection with language labelling the names of things. Secondly, Belsey outlines Saussure’s linguistic link of concept and sound pattern, identifying these two important elements.

“The linguistic sign is, then, a two sided psychological entity.”

            “Saussure, [2], Chapter 1: General Principles, p.66”

Belsey picks up on this saying Saussure’s system compromises of signs:

“The sound image dog is inseparably linked in English with the concept of dog, and the two can be isolated from each other only analytically.”  

            “Belsey, [1, Extract II”

Belsey continues by saying that Saussure’s theory of the signifier and signified can not be separated:

“…the sound-image of dog belongs with the concept dog and not, say, with the concept cow.”

            “Belsey, [1], Extract III.”

This is true of Saussure’s point: that we connect the sound image and concept together, within the understanding of the language we speak, and so cannot separate the two. In Saussure’s example, the word tree is a sign, only because with that word, it carries the concept of an actual tree.

And so, Belsey does seem to give an accurate account and representation of Saussure’s argument: she correctly identifies his fundamental notion of labels preceding entities, and correctly establishes his linguistic sign theory: of signifier and the signified: sound image and a concept.

Although Belsey’s statement is well thought out, I would disagree with her that “language precedes the existence of independent entities, making the world intelligible by differentiating between concepts” on the fundamental basis that in order to talk about something, something has to be there to talk about first.

Objects and identities had to precede language, and language would have to be an invention made out of identities. One does not need language to differentiate between two objects: I am quite sure a person with no knowledge of language can differentiate between soap and a car if presented in front of them. In this case: our eyes can comprehend the difference: it is not language that differentiates the concepts.

It is only when we do not have the things we talk about in immediate grasp, that language is an intervener for this gap: to communicate something. It is out of identities that language is created, and not, as Belsey says, that language precedes the existence of independent entities. Language seems man-made (or life-made, as animals have forms of communication). Before life forms, language would not have existed, but identities would. It is only out of what exists, that something can be created in conjunction with it.  

In response to Saussure’s claim that concepts came prior to words because we have different meanings in different languages, I feel that in essence, each language tries to deal with the same outcome, trying to describe the same thing, but in a different language. One cannot help where he comes from. There needs to be identities to be able to talk about: and it so happens that identities are spread across the world, meaning the people who talk about these identities will have different ways of describing them. My view still stands that identities come first, and then we give labels to them.


[1] Harris, Belsey, Hartley        Extract Sheet: I, II, III.

[2] F. de Saussure                   Course in General Linguistics, Extract Sheet.