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Language and Parole

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  • March 17, 2011
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Langue and Parole
John Phillips
The distinction between the French words, langue (language or tongue) and parole (speech), enters the vocabulary of theoretical linguistics with Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, which was published posthumously in 1915 after having been collocated from student notes. La langue denotes the abstract systematic principles of a language, without which no meaningful utterance (parole) would be possible. The Course manifests a shift from the search for origins and ideals, typical of nineteenth century science, to the establishment of systems. The modern notion of system is reflected in the title of the course: General Linguistics. Saussure in this way indicates that the course will be about language in general: not this or that particular language (Chinese or French) and not this or that aspect (phonetics or semantics). A general linguistics would be impossible by empirical means because there exist innumerable objects that can be considered linguistic. Instead Saussure’s methodology allows him to establish a coherent object for linguistics in the distinction between langue and parole. Langue represents the “work of a collective intelligence,” which is both internal to each individual and collective, in so far as it is beyond the will of any individual to change. Parole, on the other hand, designates individual acts, statements and utterances, events of language use manifesting each time a speaker’s ephemeral individual will through his combination of concepts and his “phonation”—the formal aspects of the utterance. Saussure points out that the single word “linguistics” therefore covers two very different kinds of study. The study of parole would be entirely focused on individual utterances, using all the available resources of formal and empirical study to analyze actual statements, usually within a specific language. The study of langue would be focused instead on generally applicable conditions of possibility....