Language and Parole

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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. The Course thus follows the second route in this inevitable “bifurcation,” setting out the groundwork for all attempts to grasp the basic conditions of possibility for language and language use generally. There would be no coherent and meaningful utterance without the institution of norms that Saussure calls langue. So it is this that forms the object of study for modern linguistics. Such an object could not 1 ever be made visible (as a stretch of text can) but one can in principle establish the rules and conditions that make it possible to speak and write in meaningful ways. Langue and parole has been translated by alternative semiotic categories like system and process (A J Greimas) or code and message (Roman Jakobson), which interpret Saussure’s distinction in specific ways. The main assumptions of structuralism and semiology (or semiotics) would be that for every process (an utterance for instance) there is a system of underlying laws that govern it; and that the system arises contingently (there are no natural or necessary reasons for the relations within it to be as they are). The scientific approach to systems, inherited by Saussure, assumes that the elements which make them up correspond to organized and integrated unities. Each element in a system should be located in its place on the web of relationships between elements. The elements of the linguistic system are, however, the mental phenomena called signs. A sign is comprised of both a mental image (signifier) and an idea (signified). Saussure’s most famous statement concerns how these signs are differentiated in themselves and related to each other. “In language,” he says, “there are only differences without positive terms.” He distinguishes between meaning and value to get the point across. “What we find, instead of ideas being given in advance, are values emanating from a linguistic system. If we say that these values correspond to certain concepts, it must be understood that the concepts in question...
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