A Brief History of Modern Linguistics

In this series, we will talk about the main developments in the discipline that was later called Linguistics, which lead us to our current understanding of the properties of language, the relationship between language and our social world and the creation of meaning itself. In this brief history we will encounter, among others, the likes of Louis Hjelmslev and his Copenhagen School of Linguistics, Roman Jakobson, who paved the way for linguistic thought to enter other domains, such as anthropology or literary theory. Leaving the linguistic field proper we turn to the late Ludwig Wittgenstein and encounter the limits of meaning, before Ernesto Laclau proposes that the linguistic system, such as rhetorical tropes, can be seen as the basis of society as a whole.

Establishing modern linguistics

But all these developments would have been impossible without the seminal work of the Swiss thinker Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). He was mostly unknown during his lifetime and his major work, Course in General Linguistics, was published posthumously by his students, based on a seminar he only started teaching shortly before his death. Before de Saussure, many philosophers grappled with the question of how to make sense of the vast diversity of languages. This could take two different forms: First, was there something innate in languages that no matter how they differed between each other, they all shared? Then philosophers assumed that there would be a universal grammar underlying each language and that languages represent logical thought, not things. Second, they searched for scientific laws that could explain the evolution of languages, which were rightly seen as unfixed, even though not to the radical extent put forward later. It was assumed that the role of philosophers was to uncover those hidden laws and universal patterns.

Breaking up the sign

De Saussure broke with most of those assumptions and especially with the way meaning was supposed to arise. Before it was assumed that a linguistic sign, like the word ”tree” represented an objectively existing part of reality. There was a necessity assumed that the tree was called ”tree” due to its ”tree-like” characteristics, such as roots, a stem and bark. This was variously described as the object ”motivating” its name or as ”Nomenclaturism”, where different languages simply happened to use different names to signify the same essential concept.

The revolutionary and remarkably simple idea that de Saussure came up with, is the splitting of the linguistic sign into concept and sound image, or, in his words, into signified and signifier. Hence, the sign ”Cat” is comprised of the signified, the furry thing that can either be remarkably cute or pee everywhere, and the signifier, ”C-a-t” (or Katze, chatte, gata). Importantly, there is no necessary link between the two, the only thing that is important is that there is a link. This came later to be known as the ”arbitrariness of the sign”. It could be perfectly conceivable that if we were to let every English speaking person on the planet know that cats were from now on called ”dogs” and dogs ”cats”, that we would still be able to communicate without problems. Through this, de Saussure was able to show that there is nothing cat-like about the cat, but we simply agreed to call it a cat.

Meaning as a system of differences

Importantly, de Saussure went on to show that the same thought can be applied to other systems of meaning, such as games. Imagine a game of chess. Because you like travelling and take your chess board everywhere, you happened to have lost the figure of the white king. But if you inform your opponent before every came that the coin you take out of your pocket represents the white king and all his properties, like being able to move only one square at a time, you can still enjoy the game as much as before. Hence, every element in a system of meaning only acquires its identity through its position within that same system and, importantly, by being what other elements are not. There is nothing ”king-like” about the coin, but it gains its identity by virtue of not being a queen, a rook, or a bishop. Therefore, for Saussure ”concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what others are not”.

Conclusion and the future

The world was turned upside down and could not be seen as before with the publication of one book, whose author was not even well regarded during his lifetime. It would have been heretic before, to state that identity is defined negatively and not through positive characteristics, now it could even be considered empty (Ernesto Laclau will bring this thought to conclusion). Further, de Saussure made a distinction between langue” and ”parole, the former standing for the whole system of meaning, such as a language with its vocabulary and grammar, on which language users have agreed and can draw on. By parole he meant the individual act or instance of speaking. We could say, again, that also chess is a langue and the different moves are parole.

As de Saussure regarded language as form and not substance (as basically everyone after him), he was naturally more interested in langue and how, at one point in time, a language was constructed so that human communication was possible. But if we can not conceive of language as representing essential elements, but rather as arbitrary concepts and sound-images, who only gain their identity by virtue of their position (and, hence, difference) to other units in the same system, how can we account for linguistic change? Since we need a rather rigid system to be able to communicate without interruption, the system needs a reasonable amount of fixity. But if the elements of a system all stand in a differential relation to others, how do new meanings emerge? It is obvious that some meanings change or that the same signifier can stand for multiple signifieds. Sometimes even completely new signs have to be found and in which relation do we place them?

These questions will follow us continuously on our road through the history of modern Linguistics. It was Saussure’s goal to found a new science of semiotics, wherein language would be just one part. He was no aware of this, but he ended up founding Linguistics, in which semiotics is now considered one part.