Ferdinand de Saussure: Arbitrary Social Values and Linguistic Signs
(Source: Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Edited by Charles Lemert. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2010)
Summary by Namalie

Background on Saussure: Swiss linguist, credited with being one of the founding fathers of linguistics and semiotics (the study of cultural sign processes, signification and communication). Saussure considered semiotics to be a part of the social sciences.[[#_ftn1|[1]]]


Connection to Durkheim: Saussure influenced current social theory with his theory of signs, the social basis of language, and the theory of linguistic and social values. Saussure believed that when studying human behavior, it is important to understand the subjective impressions the meaning it has for members of a society. Therefore in order to understand human behavior, we have to focus on the meanings actions and objects have in society, and how they fit into this system of norms and rules.

Summary
· Language is not just a naming process; it is a system of signs that express ideas
· These signs are formed by two terms – the concept (signified) and the sound image (signifier).
o In terms of the sound image, Saussure means “the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses” (153). For example, talking to yourself mentally without saying anything out loud.
o The important point to remember is that the relationship between the signified and the signifier is arbitrary– therefore meanings can change over time.
· “Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others” (158). Words and concepts gain meaning from being part of that system.
· Language and Society:
o “Every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior or convention” (154). Like etiquette, for example.
o “Language furnishes the best proof that a law accepted by a community is a thing that is tolerated and not a rule to which all freely consent” (155). The community is bound to language.
o “The thing which keeps language from being a simple convention that can be modified at the whim of interested parties is not its social nature; it is rather the action of time combined with the social force” (156). So over time, the social forces will affect language, potentially altering the relationship between the signified and the signifier – which is why meanings can change over time
o Language needs the community – as the “community is necessary if values that owe their existence solely to usage and general acceptances are to be set up; by himself the individual is incapable of fixing a single value” (157)


[[#_ftnref1|[1]]] More information on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics