Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Relations: Langue as Form, not Substance

Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Relations: Langue as Form, not Substance

Saussure distinguishes between the “syntagmatic” relations a linguistic clement has with the elements preceding and following it in an utterance, and “associative” (now usually called paradigmatic) relations it has to other elements with which it shares partial identity, but which do not occur in the particular utterance at hand. For example, in the sentence “Crime pays” the clement crime has a syntagmatic relationship with “pays” that determines, among other things, their order relative to one another and the fact that pays has the inflectional -s. At the same time, crime has paradigmatic relations with countless other elements, including the inflcctionally related crimes, the derivationally related criminal, the conceptually related misdemeanour (and the conceptually opposite legality), and the phonetically related “grime”. Langue, Saussure insisted, is form, not substance.

According to Saussure the value of each linguistic sign determined by its relationship to other signs within an utterance (syntgmatic), and by its relationship to other signs that could replace it in its position (paradigamtic relationship – F. de Saussure himself used the term “associative”).

Saussurean notion of paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations became the hallmark of the 20th century Linguistics: first, because it proposed that a single principle of structure unites all the levels at which language functions — sound, forms, and meaning; second, because it suggested a Way of analyzing language that would not depend on a simple listing of elements with their “translation” into either another language or some sort of philosophical interpretation. Elements could henceforth be analyzed according to the relations they maintained with other elements, and the language could be understood as the vast system — not of these elements — but of these relations.