De Saussure, Ferdinand. “Arbitrary Social Values and the Linguistic Sign,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Edited by Charles Lemert. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2010.
Discussion notes by Sonja E. Kelly
Thesis of the essay: Language is no longer a social contract, but rather an imposed social norm. It is a self-reinforcing system of values, composed of ideas and arbitrary (but indisputable) sounds. Our linguistic arsenal is constructed through a network of these signified and signifier relationships.
Summary of the reading:
· While the comparison is imperfect, language can be categorized into signified and signifier relationships. For example, the word “tree” is a signifier for the idea of a “tree.” Together, the entire mutually-reinforcing relationship between the former sound image and the later concept is called a “sign.”
· The signifier (created by a collection of sounds we make with our mouth) is arbitrary to the signified insofar as it could be anything. The association is not natural, but social. We create the connection.
· However, because the signs are fixed (i.e. neither you nor I can just choose to call the idea “tree” a gallufisblat), language is not a social contract any longer. Instead, it is a community law (de Saussure refuses to even address the question of where language comes from or how it evolves—he considers such questions irrelevant to his discussion).
· The continuity of language cancels the freedom of language
· Through language do we express values, for example, the value that one object has in relation to another. These values are culturally confined (“mouton” in French has a different value than “sheep” in English).
· The “signs,” linked together, compose a system. We understand words in connection to one another. The linkages can be rearranged to form different values, depending on cultural context.

De Saussure, in the last paragraph on p. 160, advances to a more nuanced example, employing the signified “to judge” alongside the signifier, “juger.” This sign can only be understood in a web of context with other words and concepts. Other nuanced words can be substituted—sovereignty, for example. How does changing and/or altering the web of relations change the meaning of the word? Sovereignty, for example, evolving to include the failed state exception.
That de Saussure does not go into depth with regards to the establishment of and evolution of language leaves follow-up questions to his argument. The US, for example, started as a British colony, but has since developed its own nuances and values in American English. How would a discussion of the evolution of language in this context change de Saussure’s assertion that language is no longer a social contract? Together, for example, we have established such words as the verb “google” (as in “google it).
We assign values to words and to concepts. In the study and practice of international relations, what does it mean when we employ language that is not gender-neutral, or, conversely, that is gender-neutral? How does the use (or misuse) of gender inform our concept of, for example, development? Daniel Esser recently released a study examining the rhetoric that UNDP uses when discussing development. The rhetoric remains strangely gender-neutral, and similarly has UNDP pulled back its programs aimed at women specifically.