The Object of Linguistics: Langue versus Parole

The Object of Linguistics: Langue versus Parole

Another Saussure’s dichotomy that strongly influenced the Linguistics of this century is represented by his theory of the opposition langue/parole. Apart from these terms Saussure distinguishes a third term language, which is a general human ability. It is only language that features universal ability — as opposed, for instance, to animals — to create in language a system of signs that is not inherited. Owing to the multiplicity of languages serving necessarily the same purpose of communication, and denominating basically the same reality, it is obvious that each of these languages is in this sense arbitrary; it is a result of a complex and long historical development in space and time.

Langue is then a system of all rules that must be observed by all speakers of the community; it is an abstract system of conventional rules that are generally recognized by all speakers of the community speaking a particular language. It is only this system that enables individuals to communicate and understand one another. Langue as a social phenomenon is, thus, the property of the society.

Saussurean characterization of langue as a system of “arbitrary” relations between spoken “sighifiers” (i.e. sound patterns) and mental signifieds (i.e. concepts) – relations that are of pure form, where elements may in effect have any substance so long as they differ from one another -moved linguistics away from its nineteenth-century connections with biology and in the direction of mechanical physics.

For F. de Saussure writing is not language, but a separate entity whose only “mission” is to represent real (spoken) language. The danger of writing is that it creates the illusion of being more real and more stable than speech, and therefore gains ascendancy over speech in the popular mind. Over 10 years passed before linguists began to admit that the marginalization of writing had been carried to an irrational extreme; and despite some tentative steps toward a Linguistics of writing in various quarters, this tradition of privileging spoken language – shared though not founded by Saussure – is in no danger of passing away.

On the other hand, parole is an individual phenomenon. It is a concrete manifestation of langue uttered by an individual in a given moment. A concrete utterance can be however, based only on the comprehension and observance of the rules of the system of language.

F. de Saussure points out that langue and parole arc completely different things. Individual spontaneous acts of speech arc fugitive and tied to particular contexts of utterance. They may contain “errors”, like “slops of tongue”, and will almost certainly contain hesitations, false starts, sentences broken off halfway through, and other familiar characteristics of informal speech. F. de Saussure claims that data of this sort do not constitute an appropriate object of study since they are inherently idiosyncratic and influenced by too many extraneous factors: psychological, social and individual.

It is not homogeneous enough to constitute the data for a systematic study of the language system, since the accidental features associated with speech production must be characteristic of the use of language – parole, and cannot be attributed to the system – langue, itself. Hence, linguists are supposed to ignore such features, and seek to identify the system behind them. This system is the proper object of a linguistic study since, unlike parole, it is a well defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech acts, an object which is relatively stable.
Thus, Saussurean contribution was to dissect the total phenomenon of language (langage) into:

e) actual speech production (parole), including the role of the individual will, and
f) the socially shared system of signs (langue) that makes production and comprehension possible.

Although he spoke of a linguistics of parole that would cover the phonetic side of language and the product of individual will, Saussure made it clear that the Linguistics of langue is the essential, real Linguistics. Langue is beyond the direct reach of the individual will.