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Saussure and Beyond

Instructor: Paul J. Thibault


Lecture One
Speech and Writing: Two Distinct Systems of Signs
Outline of Lecture
Speech, writing, and the general linguistic faculty
Does Saussure ontologically privilege the spoken word?: a reply to Derrida
Saussure's reasons for the methodological privileging of langue
Spoken and written linguistic signs are both 'concrete' and 'tangible'
langue and criture are two distinct systems of signs
Saussure's use of technological metaphors
Some theoretical implications of the meanings of the French terms langue, parole,and criture
1. Speech, Writing, and the General Linguistic Faculty
The status of writing and its relationship to (1) the language system; and (2) to the spoken language
have presented Saussure's commentators with a number of difficulties of interpretation. The first
mention in CLG of the visual image as a possible resource for making linguistic meanings occurs when
Saussure discusses Whitney's claim that it is purely by chance that the human vocal apparatus is used
to produce linguistic signs. Saussure considers Whitney's position to be an extreme one. Nevertheless,
he derives an important lesson from it:
" ... for Whitney, who takes the language system [la langue] to be a social institution on the same level as all the others, it is
by chance, for simple reasons of convenience, that we use the vocal apparatus as the instrument of the language system;
men could just as well have chosen gesture and used visual images in place of acoustic images. Doubtless, this thesis is too
absolute; the language system is not a social institution which is like the others in all respects [ ... ]; moreover, Whitney
goes too far when he says that our choice [of the vocal apparatus] fell by chance on the organs of speech; it was to be sure
imposed on us in some way by nature. But on the essential point, the American linguist seems to us to be right: the
language system is a convention, and the nature of the sign on which one is in agreement is indifferent. The question of the
vocal apparatus is, then, secondary as far as the problem of language [langage] is concerned". (CLG: 26)

Whitney "goes too far" because he attributes to chance or blind necessity the adaptive emergence of the
vocal apparatus as a means of communicating linguistically with one's fellows. Presumably, the rest is
left to inheritance in such a (Darwinist) view after chance has started things off. This view leaves
nothing to the agency of the individuals in whom language first developed. That is, this change "fell by
chance" to the vowel organs, rather than to the agents who use the vocal organs for the purposes of
socially organized linguistic interaction. It is a random mutation occurring at a lower scalar level than
the individual agents who use their vocal apparatus for determinate social purposes. Saussure claims
that the vocal apparatus is "secondary" as far as language is concerned. What does this mean? In my
view, this may be taken to refer to the ways in which the lower order biological organization - the
vocal apparatus and its functioning - is integrated into that of the higher order social-semiological
system of langue. This means that the latter cannot be explanatorily reduced to the former. In this
process of 'upwards' integration, the bodily potential afforded by the vocal apparatus is reconstructed
and directed towards specifically social-semiological ends; it becomes a means whereby the individual
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makes contact with others and hence increases his or her own agency in the social world. Whitney's
explanation, as it stands, cannot explain why it is that the vocal gestures of nonhuman primates such as
the chimpanzee and the bonobo did not develop into linguistic communication. If the organs which
produce human speech sounds had evolved for the sole purpose of breathing, chewing, licking,
grabbing, swallowing, smelling, and so on (Abercrombie 1967: 20), then it would be difficult to
explain the substantial differences between the vocal apparatus and the nervous systems of humans, on
the one hand, and nonhuman primates, on the other (Peng 1994: 111). The vocal apparatus of
nonhuman primates such as chimpanzees did not develop for the learning of oral language presumably
because primate forms of social organization did not require it (Kendon 1991: 112, quoted in
Armstrong et al 1995: 145).
From the point of view of the language system, the linguistic sign may be realized in a number of
different perceptual-motor modalities. These include sign language, writing, and speech. There is, then,
no necessary or naturalistic connection between the neurophysiological processes involved in vocal
articulation and the language system as a whole. That is, the language system is not organized solely or
even primarily on the basis of the neuroanatomical substrate which enables the individual to produce
coarticulated speech sounds or any other modality of linguistic semiosis. For this reason, it cannot be
explained in terms of or reduced to the workings of the vocal apparatus. What interests Saussure is the
need to base the explanation of the language system on social-semiological criteria, rather than on
biological criteria of human anatomy. In an admittedly inchoate way, he recognizes that structures at
the social-semiological level regulate and entrain the individual's biological predisposition to interact
with others. The social-semiological resources of langue provide the stable regulating environment in
which the individual's sign-making faculty develops. Such a faculty may be seen as a precursor of the
principle of epigenesis in biology. Thus, the faculty specifies the normal routes along which the
individual obtains necessary information from this environment at the same time that it provides the
individual with neuroanatomical capabilities for selecting from and adaptively modifying this
information:
" ... it could be said that it is not spoken language[le langage parl] which is natural to man, but the faculty of constituting a
language system [une langue], that is to say, a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas". (CLG: 26)

The language faculty, as Saussure defines it, is what enables individuals to participate in and hence to
be entrained by the higher-order social-semiological system of langue. The centrality of meaning,
rather than neuroanatomical criteria, in the explanation of the language system means that the latter
cannot be localized in any specific centre in the brain or in any particular anatomical substrate.
Saussure refers to Broca's anatomical findings in this regard. The anatomical research of the French
physician, Paul Broca (1861), is sometimes cited as evidence of the localization of language in the
third convolution of the left frontal lobe of the brain. However, Broca's clinical findings in connection
with his patient, Tan Tan, do not specifically state that language is so localized. What is localized,
according to Broca, is the ability to produce speech sounds, i.e., 'the faculty of articulate speech' (see
also Harris 1987: 16). That is, the localization identified by Broca would be connected with the stratum
of the phonic signifier. Subsequently, Broca's claim has often been taken as evidence for the
localization of a more general language faculty (see McCarthy and Waddington 1990: 2-5 for
discussion). In my view, this is a misreading, which Saussure, as we shall see below, does not
subscribe to. In actual fact, Broca identifies a specific brain function which is relevant to the
production, or articulation, of speech sounds. This does not mean it is the same as the whole of
language. Rather, it is just one of the areas in the brain which is functionally involved in the production
and comprehension of language (Peng 1994: 125).
The centrality of Broca's area lies in the fact that it is concerned with the production and coarticulation
of the sound sequences onto which lexicogrammatical and semantic structures are mapped (Edelman
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1989: 174-5). Interestingly, Broca's patient was able to comprehend, if not produce, speech and tended
to compensate, to some extent, his inability to coarticulate speech sounds with a system of gestures
(Broca 1965 [1861]: 226). This may suggest the possibility of a deeper homology between the gestural
dimension of vocal articulation and the manual-brachial modality of linguistic semiosis or sign
language. Saussure makes it clear that whereas specific faculties such as those of articulating speech
sounds or tracing graphic signs may be related to specific brain functions, the language system as a
whole may not be so localized in any one part of the brain. Instead, language in the individual is the
result of the global integration of many levels of neuroanatomical and perceptual-motor organization.
It is not specific to any single centre in the brain or any specific perceptual-motor substrate. In this
way, Saussure provides a remarkable anticipation of some of the most recent research concerning
language and brain functions (Edelman 1989: 179; Peng 1994: 124-5; Armstrong et al 1995: chap. 4).
Here is how Saussure formulates the relationship between specific brain functions and langue:
"Broca discovered that the faculty of speaking [la facult de parler] is localized in the third frontal convolution of the left
hemisphere of the brain; this has also been used to attribute a natural character to language [langage]. But it is known that
this localization has been observed for everything that is related to language [langage], including writing, and these
observations, together with the observations made on the different forms of aphasia due to lesion in the localization centres,
seem to indicate: 1. that the various disorders of oral language are caught up in a hundred ways with those of written
language; 2. that in all cases of aphasia and agraphia, what is affected is not so much the ability to utter this or that sound or
to trace this or that sign, but the ability to evoke by any means whatsoever the signs of a regular language. All this leads us
to believe that above and beyond the functioning of the various organs there exists a more general ability, that which
governs signs, and which would be the linguistic faculty par excellence. (CLG: 26-7; emphasis in original)

The two quotations cited above show (1) that spoken language has no privileged natural status in
Saussure's theory; and (2) language is not a natural kind. For Saussure, the language faculty enables the
individual to "evoke by any means whatsoever the signs of a regular language". The global character of
language in the individual means that any number of diverse neuroanatomical capabilities may be
entrained in the coarticulation of the gestures - vocal or manual-bracial - which are the substrate of
linguistic interaction. Saussure does not ascribe a specifically biological or natural status to the
linguistic faculty par excellence. He remains neutral on this point. Certainly, it is possessed by all
individuals who are not otherwise impaired for organic reasons. However, the function of this general
faculty, as the above passage shows, is to integrate the functioning of the more specific faculties which
are involved in the production and comprehension of all of the various modalities of linguistic semiosis
- speech, writing, sign language. The basis of this integration, which would seem to include all of the
relevant neuroanatomical and neurophysiological functions, is meaning.
Saussure's argument is very much in line with recent proposals that language is not uniquely
specialized to the brain in conjunction with the vocal and auditory apparatus per se. Instead, these
along with the manual-brachial and visual perceptual-motor systems are all involved with language
(Armstrong et al 1995: 19). In this way the linguistic faculty par excellence,which refers to the lower
scalar level of the individual dimension of linguistic production and reception - i.e., the body's
potential to interact in socially organized ways with others - meshes with the higher-order language or
other semiotic systems of a given community. The linguistic faculty, whether natural or not, is common
to all individuals, irrespective of which language they speak. A language system, on the other hand, is
social-semiological in character and varies from one language community to another (CLG: 44; 31117). Saussure concludes his discussion of this issue with the following remarks which lend further
support to the precursor epigenetic perspective that I proposed above:
"In order to attribute to the language system first place in the study of language, one may finally make this argument
prevail, that the faculty - natural or not - of articulating words is only exercised with the aid of an instrument created and
provided by the collectivity; it is not, therefore, chimerical to say that it is the language system which gives language its
unity". (CLG: 27)

Saussure's ambivalence as to whether this 'faculty' is "natural or not", along with its dependence on a
socially organized language system for its full unfolding or 'ecercise', means that (1) he avoids any
need to specify a complete, prewired language faculty (cf. module or program) in the brain; and (2) he
draws attention to the dialectical interdependence of the two scalar levels. That is, he does not
presuppose a simple unilinear causality, whether from organism (inside) to environment (outside), or
vice versa.
Signs are not localizeable in any given part of the brain. Rather, they are the result of the global
integration of the resources of the brain and the various perceptual-motor systems which are used in
the articulating of the various modalities of linguistic semiosis. These resources include specific
abilities such as those of articulating speech sounds, tracing visual-graphic images on a treated surface
and making manual-brachial gestures. However, these resources have to be integrated with the
signifieds - the lexicogrammatical and conceptual structures - of the language system. These
articulatory resources constitute the perceptual-motor substrate of the signifier. They do not on their
own constitute the signs of a given language. The bodily processes of articulation, irrespective of
perceptual-motor modality, are integrated into higher-order social-semiological structures and
relations.
In the process of integrating the biological into the social-semiological, the latter interpret the former
and in this way individuals may establish social contact with others. Meaning is an embodied relation
between self and nonself on the basis of the individual's entraining into the higher-order and
transindividual structures and relations of langue. For this reason, the social-semiological level of
organization cannot be reduced to the lower-level organismic one. Saussure's perspective emphasies
the potentially modifying effects of emergent higher levels of social-semiological organization on the
lower level biological one. Thus, the various modalities of linguistic semiosis discussed above
constitute parts of a more general sign-making faculty which is subordinated to the supervening effects
of higher, emergent levels of social-semiological organization such as langue. From the perspective of
the individual, this faculty is a general potential to mean, of which the various linguistic modalities are
specific, derived instances. This means that semiosis in Saussure's account cannot be causally located
in the lower-level biological organism per se on the basis of, say, natural selection operating on
individual genes. The neuroanatomical and perceptual-motor resources which are involved in the
production and reception of linguistic signs of various kinds are integrated into and are construed by
the higher-order level of the two orders of difference - viz. phonic, graphic-visual, gestural and
conceptual - of a given language system. It is this process of integration which enables individuals to
create and share experience that is not directly tied to the individual's neuroanatomical capabilities per
se or to the world of immediately perceived experience.
Moreover, it is the social dimension of langue which provides the interface between the individual
dimension in the brain and the speaker-hearer's interaction with other individuals in the speech circuit.
The simultaneously individual and social dimensions of langue provide the bridge between the
individual's neuroanatomical capabilities and the individual's use (execution and interpretation) of
these resources in specific contexts:
"In order to find in the totality of language [l'ensemble du langage] the sphere which corresponds to the language system [la
langue],one must place before oneself the individual act, which allows the speech circuit to be reconstituted". (CLG: 27)

The arguments discussed above draw attention to a complex chain of hierarchically organized factors
which relate the general linguistic sign-making faculty to the individual act of in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Hierarchical integration of individual linguistic act with general linguistic faculty.

In Figure 1 I have reconstructed a parallel set of possibilities for suggesting how, on the basis of
Saussure's own arguments, writing no less than speech and by extension sign language may be
integrated into the overall model of meaning-making which Saussure proposes.
2. Does Saussure Ontologically Privilege the Spoken Word?: A Reply to Derrida.
In section 1, I showed that: (1) the human ability to produce coarticulated speech sounds does not stand
in a necessary or privileged relation to the language system; and (2) the language system is a system of
pure values whose function is to combine the two orders of difference - phonic and conceptual - in the
making of signs (CLG: 156-7). Saussure recognizes that all of the perceptual-motor modalities
mentioned above may constitute the basis for linguistic interaction on account of the supervening role
of the general sign-making faculty. That is, there is no privileged natural relationship between the
spoken language system in particular and the general sign-making faculty. As Saussure points out, this
may be materially manifested in speech, writing, and sign language, all of which are globally
integrated in the brain by the general sign-making faculty.
In recent years, a number of scholars have advanced arguments that suggest that the intermodal nature
of linguistic organization in the individual supports the view that the underlying basis of language is
fundamentally gestural, irrespective of the specific modality which is deployed. Thus, vocal
articulation, signing, and writing are all forms of gesturing. A gesture in this view is a coordinated
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pattern of articulatory movements directed toward some end. In the same way that vocal articulation or
gesturing is phonologically directed, all the various gestural modalities may be said to be directed and
constrained by a supervening system of social-semiological values. From both the production and
reception points of view, vocal articulation is shaped and construed by the phonic values which are
internal to the given language system or, more particularly, its phonology. In this way, bodily activity is
coordinated and entrained according to the requirements of social meaning-making. This is no less true
of writing. In such a view, handwriting is a permanent record on a treated surface of the skilled handarm-eye-writing tool movements required to produce the shapes of the individual letters. Such
movements may be seen as global-synthetic gestural complexes whose execution leads to a permanent
record of their tracing on a surface. These too are shaped by the system of graphic-visual values that
are internal to a given writing system. Further, the fact that writing disorders "dissociate" from other
disorders of voluntary action (apraxias) lends further support to the hypothesis that the writing action is
a gestural modality which is globally integrated with the other linguistic modalities in the left
hemisphere of the brain (McCarthy and Waddington 1990: 249).
I have shown above that Saussure ascribes no privilgegd ontological status to speech with respect to
writing. In the context of the arguments I shall develop in this lecture, the importance of the above
observations cannot be underestimated. This is especially so in the light of Derrida's influential claim
that Saussure subscribes to a logocentric 'metaphysics of presence' whereby the signifier and, in
particular, the graphic signifier are said to be 'derivative' and 'external' with respect to the phonic
signifier. Here is how Derrida puts the matter:
"All signifiers, and first and foremost the written signifier, are derivative with regard to what would wed the voice
indissolubly to the mind or to the thought of the signified sense, indeed to the thing itself [ ... ]. The written signifier is
always technical and representative. It has no constitutive meaning. This derivation is the very origin of the notion of
"signifier." The notion of the sign always implies within itself the distinction between signifier and signified, even if, as
Saussure argues, they are distinguished simply as the two faces of one and the same leaf. This notion remains therefore
within the heritage of that logocentrism which is also a phonocentrism: absolute proximity of voice and being, of voice and
the meaning of being, of voice and the ideality of meaning." (Derrida, 1976 [1967]: 11-2)

Now, Derrida assumes that the signifier has a purely external and 'representational' function with
respect to the signified. Yet, the signifier, no less than the signified, is constitutive of the meaningmaking process in Saussure's account (Thibault 1996: chap. 10). Derrida's assumption fails to
understand the semiological reasons for the stratification of the sign in Saussure's account. Only a nonsemiological or formal theory of language in which form is a mere carrier or vehicle for a nonlinguistic meaning or content would argue as Derrida does. Both signifier and signified are internal to
language form in Saussure's account. Both are constitutive of the meaning-making process in the sign.
The signifier does not, therefore, represent a meaning which is external to it. Rather, it actively
constitutes and enacts the overall process of making meaning in and through the signs that the system
of values in langue gives rise to (Thibault 1996). Further, and as I shall in more detail in the next
lecture, it is the specificallyvisual properties of the written signifier that enable it to constitute meaning
in the particular contextual domains in which writing operates. Nor is there any "absolute proximity of
voice and being" in Saussure's account. The notion of a general sign-making faculty discussed above
shows that Saussure gives no privileged ontological status to speech. Rather, he makes a
methodological decision to focus his theoretical efforts on the spoken language system (langue) while
at the same time recognizing the distinctive character of the written language system (criture). What is
fertile and productive about Saussure's distinction is that it leaves open the possibility - both theoretical
and methodological - of a no less valid study of the written language system and the visual-graphic
principles of organization of its signifiers. There is no reason in principle why a system of visualgraphic terms may not be postulated in relation to the conceptual terms in the written language system,
and how these are combined to form the signs of the written language. In spite of Saussure's apparent
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relegation of criture to a secondary or dependent status in relation to langue (Harris 1987: 16-7), there
are sufficient reasons for arguing that by his own semiological criteria criture may be studied in its
own right. I shall develop this point in Lecture 2.
Derrida's argument also confuses a number of critically important terminological distinctions which
Saussure makes in connection with the difference between langue and parole. Commenting on
Saussure's decision to make the spoken word the object of linguistic science, Derrida has this to say:
"The form of the question to which he [Saussure, PJT] responded this entailed the response. It was a matter of knowing
what sort of word is the object of linguistics and what the relationships are between the atomic units that are the written and
the spoken word. Now the word (vox) is already a unity of sense and sound, of concept and voice, or, to speak a more
rigorously Saussurean language, of the signified and the signifier. This last terminology was moreover first proposed in the
domain of spoken language alone, of linguistics in the narrow sense and not in the domain of semiology". (Derrida 1976

[1967]: 31)
In this passage, Derrida does not heed the importance of the distinction which Saussure makes between
'concept' and 'acoustic image', on the one hand, and 'signified' and 'signifier', on the other. The two sets
of terms are not commensurate. They refer to two distinct perspectives on the sign. The former refers
to the sign in the speech circuit. This is the instantial perspective of parole. The latter refers to the sign
from the systemic perspective of langue (Thibault 1996: 215-6, 230-1).
In failing to accord this distinction its rightful place in Saussure's theory, Derrida is led to assume that
the system perspective is necessarily based on the spoken language and that the written language is,
therefore, excluded from this definition. However, Saussure's methodological decision to base his
theory of langue on the spoken language does not mean that writing is bracketed out, ontologically
speaking. Rather, the notion of the language system encompasses, as I shall argue in detail below, both
the spoken and the written language systems.
In order to understand this last point, it is necessary to return to first principles. That is, the system of
langue, as Saussure defines it, is founded on the two orders of difference - phonic and conceptual - that
combine in the making of the forms (signs) of the spoken language. The two orders of difference
comprise the differential relations among the phonic and conceptual terms which are selectively
combined to produce language forms or signs. The signifiers and signifieds which so combine
constitute the signs of the language system as seen from the point of view of the cross-coupling of the
specifically phonic and conceptual orders. It does not follow, however, that the written language is
'external' to the language system per se. More correctly, it is external to langue. That is, to the language
system which is founded on the combination of specifically phonic and conceptual terms. This is a
crucial point to which I shall return later.
Derrida's way of posing the problem is badly formulated. This is so in two ways. First, he does not ask
the question as to what the language system would look like from the point of view of the crosscoupling of the graphic (not phonic) and conceptual orders of difference. Thus, the possibility that
something analogous to the emergence of 'thought-sound' (CLG: 156) may also take place in the crosscoupling of thought-substance and visual-graphic substance is suppressed in Derrida's account.
Secondly, he does not ask how the spoken language system and the written language system are
systematically and internally related to each other. The one is not external to the other. Instead, there
are complex relations of both partial homology and difference between the two systems. For this
reason, I do not entirely share Harris's argument that the conclusion to be drawn from Saussure is that
"writing is of interest to the linguist only insofar as it is amenable to treatment as a representation of
langue: its other properties are strictly irrelevant" (1987: 17). In my view, it is precisely because of its
other, specifically visual-graphic properties, that it poses specific methodological problems which
Saussure seeks to avoid in his positing of langue as the object of study. This will be discussed in
Lecture 2.
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In eliding the terminological distinction Saussure upholds between concept/acoustic image (parole)
and signified/signifier (langue), Derrida implies that the language system is necessarily based on the
spoken language in Saussure's view. On the other hand, Saussure's distinction suggests, by definition,
that the system may be variously manifested in spoken, written, and other modalities. His decision to
make langue, in the specific sense of the cross-coupling of the phonic and conceptual orders of
difference, focal, does not a priori exclude the possibility that a semiological study of the language
system may also take into account other possible manifestations in other linguistic modalities. If
linguistic signs are constituted from the combining of the two orders of difference, then there is no a
priori reason as to why this cannot take place on the basis of the combining of phonic, visual-graphic,
or manual-brachial differences with conceptual differences. Further, Derrida's claim that the word is
"already a constituted unity" in itself treats speech as ontologicallly prior, and in ways that Saussure
does not. Language forms or signs are NOT pregiven in Saussure's account. Rather, they are made in
and through the combining of the two orders of difference. That is the semiological principle which
underlies all the various classes of social signs system, of which langue is just one instantiation. In
arguing in this way, Derrida falsifies the semiologically stratified and emergwent character of the sign
in Saussure's account. The spoken word is not 'already constituted' and, hence, ontologically prior to
the written word. Rather, it arises from the combining of terms from the specifically phonic and
conceptual orders of difference. In exactly the same way, the written word may be said to arise from
the combining of terms from the graphic and conceptual orders of difference. There is no prior
ontological unity of the voice with meaning. What is 'prior', logically speaking, are the systems of
value-producing terms from the phonic, graphic, and conceptual orders of difference which are
combined in the various modalities of linguistic semiosis which are based on sound and the visual
image.
As Saussure himself points out,"langue is a system of signs for expressing ideas, and for this reason,
comparable to writing, the alphabet of the deaf and dumb, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military
signals, etc." (CLG: 33). Now, the basis on which langue may be compared to other sign system
depends on specifically semiological criteria. In particular, the ways in which the two orders of
difference are combined to form the signs of a given sign system (see above). langue may be compared
to these others on the basis of both the similarities and differences between different sign systems.
Saussure points out that in all these cases 'ideas' are expressed when conceptual terms are combined
with some other order of difference in and through which the signifiers if the given system are
constituted. In this connection, I take Saussure's term 'ideas' to mean something like 'conceptual
meanings', rather than something subjective, psychological and hence pre-semiotic. It follows, then,
that signs based on the visual-graphic image, no less than those based on the acoustic image, serve to
signify socially made and shareable meanings. There is no a priori reason why phonic substance should
be privileged over visual-graphic substance. Both have the potential to enter into the processes of
social semiosis, viz. when combined (cross-coupled) with the conceptual order of differences.
This does not mean that there is a language, or other semiological, system whose definition is totally
abstracted from questions of which substance - phonic or graphic - is cross-coupled with the
conceptual order. This is manifestly clear in Saussure's phonological theory, where the phonic terms
are the first order differences out of which phonological forms emerge (Lesson 3). In other words, the
specifically phonic and graphic orders of difference have a shaping influence on the internal nature of
the spoken and written language systems.
Saussure's response to this issue is to propose the spoken and the written language systems as two
distinct systems of signs. This follows from the fact that the phonic and graphic orders of difference
differentially cross-couple with the conceptual order. Clearly, there is no graphic term comparable to,
say, the phonic term [+nasality]. It follows, therefore, that the phonic and graphic orders of difference
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are not isomorphic. The way in which phonic terms - c.f. features in later terminology - configure to
produce phonological shapes or forms and the way in which graphic terms configure to produce
graphological shapes or forms require explanations which deal with the specificity of both phonic and
graphic substance. This specificity means, in turn, that their cross-coupling with the conceptual order
differentially shapes the internal character of the spoken and written language systems. For this reason,
the one cannot be assimilated to the other. Rather, each must be theorized and described on the basis of
both the differences and the similarities between the two systems. This leads to the further question as
to why Saussure directed his attention to the spoken, rather than to the written, language system.
3. Saussure's Reasons for the Methodological Privileging of langue.
My contention is, then, that the arguments I have put forward in the preceding sections support the
view that Saussure's social-semiological theory of langue can be extended to writing and other
modalities of linguistic semiosis. This in no way contradicts any of the basic principles of Saussure's
theory. I shall shortly advance more detailed arguments in support of this position. But first a brief
word on the reasons why Saussure decided to privilege the study of the language-system-based-onsound, or langue. These reasons, which are both historical and methodological in character, reflect the
kinds of problems which Saussure found himself up against in his attempt to define a place for an
'autonomous' linguistic science at the time that he delivered his lectures on general linguistics at the
University of Geneva. These reasons may be summarised as follows:
The overwhelming majority of the world's languages (past and present) have only a spoken language
system
the child learns to speak his or her mother tongue before learning to write
19th century historical and comparative linguistics were massively based on written evidence
concerning languages which are no longer extant
19th philology was concerned with textual interpretation and commentary, rather than the theoretical
reconstruction of the language system and the grammatical forms this makes possible (CLG: 14)
writing and its associated literary traditions are based on normative and prescriptive codes
the evolution of the spoken language system and that of the written language system, when the latter
exists, are not synchronized
theories of the sign in the Western tradition since classical antiquity have had no scientifically founded
theory of the signifier (c.f. phonology and graphology). Hitherto, discussion of the sign was concerned,
above all, with questions pertaining to the signified. In contrast, Saussure's phonological theory
represents a pioneering and far-reaching attempt to integrate the study of the signifier with that of the
signified in a unified account of language form.
It was for the above reasons that Saussure sets about the task of correcting what he sees as a massive
bias towards the study of written texts in previous linguistic and philological studies. Saussure's
perception of the problem has proved substantially correct: it is only in the past few decades that
linguistics has begun to pay serious attention to spoken language, to analyse the substantial differences
between speech and writing, and to show the relationships between them. Saussure did not achieve
this. He did not analyse sufficiently large-scale syntagms (texts) so as to reveal the ways in which
speech and writing deploy the lexicogrammatical resources of the language system in often very
different ways (see Halliday, 1985). However, it must be said that the social-semiological metatheory
which Saussure began to elaborate in his Geneva lectures provides the foundations on which solutions
9

to these problems can be developed. Such solutions simply did not and probably could not exist at the
time Saussure delivered his lectures in Geneva.
4. Spoken and Written Linguistic Signs Are Both Concrete and Tangible.
A further set of reasons has to do with Saussure's focus on the language system. In this connection, it is
worthwhile considering the following remarks which Saussure makes on the relationship between
langue and parole:
"The language system no less than parole is a concrete object, and this is a great advantage for the study of it. Linguistic
signs, in order to be essentially psychic, are not abstractions; the associations ratified by collective agreement, and which as
a whole constitute the language system, are realities which have their centre in the brain. Moreover, the signs of the
language system are, so to speak, tangible; writing [l'criture] can fix them in conventional images, whereas it would be
impossible to photograph in all their details acts of parole; the phonation of a word, however small it might be, represents
an infinity of muscular movements which are extremely difficult to know and to represent. In the language system [langue],
on the contrary, there is nothing more than the acoustic image, and this can be translated into a constant visual image. For if
one abstracts from this multitude of movements which are necessary for realizing it in parole, each acoustic image is only,
as we shall see, the sum of a limited number of elements or phonemes, liable in turn to be evoked by a corresponding
number of signs in the written language system [l'criture]. It is this possibility of fixing things relative to the language
system that enables a dictionary and a grammar to be a faithful representation of it, the language system [la langue] being
the store of acoustic images, and writing [l'criture] the tangible form of these images". (CLG: 32)

In this passage, Saussure points out that there is nothing fixed or tangible about the "infinity of
muscular movements" which constitute the act of phonation (articulation) in parole, however concrete
these are. The enormous variety of muscular and other movements which is potentially involved in
these sensorimotor activities of phonation are 'fixed' or constrained by the acoustic image. It is the
latter which belongs to the language system. The acoustic image functions as a higher-order constraint
which controls and categorizes the neuromuscular activities involved in the articulation of a given
speech sound. These are coordinated and entrained by the acoustic image so as to instantiate a sound
which conforms to the schematic criteria imposed by the acoustic image. The acoustic image is a
higher-order or more schematic category of sound. According to Wernicke's (1977 [1874]: 105-6)
neuroanatomical research, acoustic images are stored in acoustic memory and linked to the motor
speech images by association. Acoustic images 'activate' the motor images whereby the neuromuscular
activities of phonation are coordinated so as to produce a recognizeable speech sound (Wernicke 1977
[1874]: 106). The acoustic image is said to be more 'fixed' and 'tangible' because it specifies those
structurally stable features which are criterial to the recognition and production of given speech sounds
in spite of the many physical-material variations from one instantiation to another. That is why, as
Saussure observes, it is made up of a "limited number of elements or phonemes". These may, in turn,
be "evoked" by corresponding signs in the written language system in the sense that there exist
conventions for translating between the sound of a word and the sequence of letters corresponding to
its spelling. It does not follow, however, that there is always a straightforward correspondence relation
between the two systems, as the example of English shows very well.
It is only through parole that the linguist can reconstruct langue (CLG: 30-1). It is no accident that
Saussure uses the word parole in this sense. The French word parole may be translated as 'speech' in
English. That is, speech, rather than writing, is the linguist's means of access to langue. Saussure does
not say what a theory of the language system which is based on writing [criture] might look like. This
does not mean that such a theory cannot be developed. It can. This is an issue I shall return to below.
But first, I should like to consider some aspects of the above passage in more detail.
Saussure does not say that the study of langue is based on parole. This would be a contradiction in
terms: langue and parole are two methodologically distinct domains of linguistic inquiry. Saussure
10

designates these two domains as 'internal' linguistics and 'external' linguistics, respectively. Further,
both langue and parole are said to be "concrete in nature". langue is dually concrete: (1) it exists in the
conventions which are ratified by "collective agreement"(CLG: 32) and (2) it exists in the brains of
each of the individuals whose interactions constitute some social group or language community (CLG:
38).
Parole is concrete in the sense that it is the physical-material instantiation of the language system in
some act of phonation by a speaker. The methodological distinction between langue and parole is
really a question of two different perspectives on the same overall phenomenon, which Saussure refers
to as "the global totality of language". The difference between these two perspectives is, then, one of
schematicity, to use the term I have borrowed from Ronald Langacker (1987). Thus, langue is more
schematic; parole more specific and detailed. The concrete nature of langue also means that this is not
a Platonically real, yet abstract object, as in Katz (1981). The methodological distinction between
langue and parole does not translate into an opposition between the 'abstract' and the 'concrete'. langue
is not divorced from concrete social and psychic phenomena. It refers both to the collective
conventions of a speech community as well as to the representations of these which the members of a
community have 'imprinted' in their brains through the practices of parole.
Having said this, the remainder of the passage under consideration merits close reading. Saussure says
that the signs of the language system [la langue] are "tangible": "writing", Saussure points out, "can fix
them in conventional images". Now, it is necessary here to heed very carefully the precise contours of
Saussure's argument. He does not say that writing makes the signs of the spoken language system
[langue] 'tangible'. Rather, they are already 'tangible' from the point of view of langue itself. That is,
the acoustic image is itself 'tangible'. The fact that this may be 'fixed' by a conventional graphic image
in criture only provides further evidence for this tangibility. Saussure does not say that linguistic signs
are intangible until their 'fixing' as written images makes them 'tangible'. The fact that they can be so
'fixed' is evidence of their tangibility in the first place. The word 'tangible', then, refers to the system
perspective, irrespective of whether that system is based on the acoustic image or on conventional
graphic-visual images. This is verified by the use of the epithet "conventional" in connection with the
visual-graphic image. The real contrast in Saussure's argument at this point is that between the
conventional or schematic, yet tangible, character of acoustic and graphic images from the system
perspective, on the one hand, and the far more specific and detailed material reality of the muscular
movements involved in phonation from the instance perspective, on the other. The use of the
adversative conjunctive relation 'whereas' [tandis que] signals this very clearly. That is, the contrast
Saussure sets up is one between a system perspective based on either speech or writing and an instance
perspective, which is exemplified here by parole. The importance of this step in Saussure's argument
cannot be underestimated.
The tangibility of linguistic signs from the system point of view is not to be confused with the material
specificity of concrete acts of parole. These are too detailed and subject to individual variation to be
easily tangible in the way Saussure intends. Saussure's point is that it is the schematic character - their
structural stability - of acoustic and graphic images in the system which makes them tangible.
Phonation, on the other hand, refers to the physical-material domain of the neurophysiological
substrate which underpins acts of parole. In a given act of parole, this domain is cross-coupled with the
social-semiological resources of langue to produce an act of social meaning-making. Thus far,
Saussure's arguments hinge on the possibility that the language system, at some suitably high level of
generality, encompasses linguistic signs which are based on both the acoustic and the graphic image.
That is, there are two distinct possibilities, systemically speaking, for making the linguistic sign
tangible. These are the two systems which Saussure refers to as langue and criture, respectively. The

11

first refers to the language system as based on the acoustic image; the second to the language system as
based on the visual-graphic image.
5. Langue and criture are Two Distinct Systems of Signs.
The fact that there are two distinct systems of signs is further evidenced by the fact that Saussure
derives the acoustic image by a process of abstracting from "the multitude of muscular movements
necessary for realizing it in parole". Saussure's term 'realizing' means, in actual fact, instantiation. The
move from langue to parole is an intra-stratal one of increased specificity. That is, from most schematic
to most specific (Langacker 1987: 68; Thibault 1996: 173-80). The crucial point here is that it is only
after (not before) this process of abstracting from parole has taken place that the acoustic images of the
spoken language system may be translated into "a corresponding number of signs in the written
language system".
Langue and criture are not, therefore, opposed to each other, as in Derrida's reading. Rather, the two
terms are co-hyponyms on the same level of generality. They stand in a relationship of hyponymy to
some still more superordinate notion of "the global totality of language" from which both are derived.
This relationship may be schematized as in Figure 2.

system:

LANGUE

ECRITURE

instance:

PAROLE

Figure 2: langue and criture as cohyponymous terms standing in a specific-general relation to "the global totality of
language".

Both langue and criture are specific and distinct systems of signs which are derived from "the global
totality of language". In turn, the spoken system of langue is instantiated in acts of parole. Saussure
does not provide a corresponding term to indicate what the instantiation - Saussure's term is
'realization' - of the system of criture in acts of writing might be called. The reason he does not do so
almost certainly lies in his decision to focus on langue, rather than criture. Therefore, the further
question as to the instantiation of the system of criture in acts of writing is not taken up in CLG.
The difficulties Saussure refers to in 'photographing' the muscular movements involved in phonation
serve to illustrate the material differences between speech and writing. Both acts of parole and acts of
writing are different semiotic modes of deployment of the resources of the language system. That is,
speech and writing coordinate and entrain different material resources in the cross-coupling of these
with the social-semiological resources of the language system. Acts of parole entail the cross-coupling
of acoustico-articulatory and other bodily processes (facial expressions, gestures, posture, and so on)
with the resources of langue. Acts of writing, on the other hand, cross-couple the processes of musclejoint-skin kinaesthesis with the resources of criture. This is so when a surface (paper, etc.) is treated
so as to deposit on it by means of engraving, indenting, tracing, and so on invariant structures
(drawings, pictures, graphic images) which alter the transmitting and reflecting qualities of the hitherto
untreated surface (Gibson 1986: 272). The 'fixed' character of the written image and the mobile
character of the acoustic image do not refer to properties of the language system. Rather, they refer to
the material resources with which the two systems are cross-coupled in acts of parole and in acts of
writing, respectively. In the first case, the visual image occurs in the spatial dimension; in the second,
the acoustic image unfolds in time. The word 'tangible' means 'able to be perceived', i.e., having the
potential to be perceived. Acts of parole and acts of writing are, then, specific manifestations of this
potential in their respective semiotic modalities.
12

The arguments I have made thus far concerning the nature of the relationship between langue and
criture are further evidenced by the next move which Saussure makes in the passage cited above.
Again, the particular conjunctive relation Saussure uses is most revealing. In this case, I am referring
to the use of 'on the contrary' [au contraire], which construes a relationship of contrast between the new
move in the argument and some aspect of the prior discourse. Specifically, langue is contrasted with
the materiality of the muscular movements involved in phonation. The contrast Saussure makes is
pivoted on the introduction of a new term, 'acoustic image', into the argument. This belongs to langue,
rather than parole. The contrast Saussure is drawing out at this point is one between the materiality of
acts of phonation in parole and the purely schematic character of the acoustic image in langue.
In langue, Saussure points out, "there is only the acoustic image". langue is a system of phonic and
conceptual differences which have been abstracted from phonic substance and thought-substance,
respectively. A system of differences per se has no cross-coupling with the material. For this reason, it
is mono-modal. From the system perspective, there are no cross-couplings with other semiotic
modalities. The reason for this is very simple: a system of pure differences has no phenomenal status.
It exists outside semiosis; abstracted from specific contexts of use. It follows that a system of
differences which is based on langue, rather than on criture, is based on differences in patterns of
sound. That is why, from the system perspective, differences based on phonic substance and
differences based on graphic substance must not be confused. To confuse the two would result in a
methodological monstrosity. Saussure expresses this problem with greater clarity in Engler's Critical
Edition:
"langue and criture are two systems of signs of which the one has as its sole mission to represent the other. It seems that
this distinction can run no risk of being misunderstood. It would be an error to conceive of the relationship of the written
word to the spoken word thus:
written word
--------------- = object (of linguistics)
spoken word
(We would then have an indefinable unit which would be neither the written word nor the spoken word nor both".

(Saussure/Engler 1957: 67)


As systems of differences per se based, respectively, on the acoustic image and the visual image,
neither langue nor criture are cross-coupled with the physical-material domain. The description of
these two systems of signs is necessarily mono-modal because, from the system perspective, there are
no intra-semiotic cross-couplings with other semiotic modalities.
On the other hand, all acts of social semiosis deploy and orchestrate a diversity of semiotic modalities
in the making and enacting of a given text. In acts of parole, for example, the linguistic semiotic
combines with gesture, kinesics, prosodies, and so on. Similarly, a written text simultaneously deploys
and orchestrates linguistic, visual, spatial, and graphic modalities of semiosis in order to produce a
composite visual text. The diverse semiotic modalities so deployed do not operate independently of
each other. Rather, they contextualize one another in the making of an integrated textual meaning.
Saussure goes on to say, as I pointed out above, that the acoustic image "can be translated into a
constant visual image". The question I wish to focus on here concerns the meaning of Saussure's term
'translated' in this connection. Again, it is important to bear in mind that Saussure is adopting the
system perspective of, respectively, langue and criture. The semantic and lexicogrammatical
parallelism between the terms acoustic image and visual image indicates that these are on the same
level of abstraction in Saussure's framework. langue is founded on the cross-coupling of terms from the
phonic and conceptual orders of difference. If the acoustic image can be 'translated' into the visual
image, then this suggests that there is no reason why an account of the language system which is
13

founded on the cross-coupling of the graphic and conceptual orders of difference is not also possible.
The further question arises as to the relationships between the two systems of langue and criture. This
is both entirely consistent with, as well as being an extension of the claim that systems of difference
per se are semiotically mono-, rather than multi-, modal.
The two systems of langue and criture would, therefore, stand in a relationship of complementarity
to each other. They constitute different domains of meaning potential in a given language. There are
both points of intersection and points of divergence between the two systems of signs. Acts of parole
and acts of writing may, of course, interact in semiosis, but in the system perspective they are kept
apart.
Now, given his methodological privileging of langue as the object of study, Saussure is obliged to
choose as to which semiotic modality the system of pure values is to be based on. This follows from
the fact that the system perspective is necessarily mono-modal. That is, he must choose whether to
base his theory on a system which is based on phonic differences or one which is based on visualgraphic differences. The two cannot be mixed from the monomodal point of view of the system.
Saussure could just as easily have decided to base his theory on the written language. There are no
ontological reasons as to why he should not. However, given the historical and other factors
concerning the state of language studies in the early twentieth century, Saussure had good reason to
adopt the course of action he did. That an account of the language system which is based on the visual
image is both possible as well as important in its own right will be discussed further below. Suffice to
say for now that langue, which is based on the combining of the phonic and conceptual orders,
represents Saussure's methodological base-line for the construction of a social-semiological theory of
language in relation to other systems of signs in a given society.
In section 7 I shall discuss a further reason for this choice. But first a brief word on Saussure's use of
technological metaphors in his discussion of spoken language and written language.
6.0 Saussure's Use of Technological Metaphors.
6.1 Photography.
During the period from 1905 to 1915 the transition from typographic to electronic culture took place.
In his study on the history of bourgeois perception in European culture, David Lowe refers to this
period as "a switch from communication by means of the type to that by means of the bit" (1982: 5).
This does not mean that the latter is discontinous with respect to the former. There are continuities and
discontinuities as the electronic culture of modernism is overlayed on typographic culture. Typographic
culture privileges the linear, rational, and visual modes as exemplified in alphabetic writing systems. It
separates knower from known as knowledge becomes increasingly objectified. Electronic culture is
based on probabilistic and stochastic processes. Such processes are based on the binary digitalization
of an analogue continuum into distinctive oppositions.
Saussure is a leading exponent of the new view of language as a probabilistic system based on pure
values. It is revealing, in this connection, to examine the technological metaphors which Saussure, at
times, uses in order to conceptualize the distinction between langue and criture. In particular, the
dominant visual technologies in typographic culture were those of the printed word and the
photograph. Metaphors based on both of these visual technologies inform Saussure's discussion of the
relations between langue and criture.
At the beginning of section 2 of the chapter entitled 'Representation of langue by writing', Saussure
makes the following observation:
14

" ... the linguistic object is not defined by the combination of the written word [mot crit] and the spoken word [mot parl];
the latter alone constitutes the object of study. But the written word gets so intimately mixed up with the spoken word of
which it is the image, so that it finishes up usurping the principal role; one comes to give much more importance to the
representation of the vocal sign than to the sign itself. It is as if one believed that, in order to get to know someone, it is
better to look at his photograph rather than his face". (CLG: 45)

The analogy which Saussure proposes between langue and criture, on the one hand, and between a
photograph of a person's face and the actual face, on the other, is most revealing. Superficially,
Saussure's metaphor suggests the methodological and descriptive difficulties the linguist encounters if
he or she tries to describe langue on the basis of the visual image of the written word. However,
Saussure's metaphor is symptomatic of a still more far reaching problem. The mapping of the two
distinct thematic domains in Saussure's metaphor also suggests the ways in which dominant
technologies of the media shape our perception and understanding of language and other semiotic
modalities, and in ways that are not unrelated to the ways in which these are used in a given society.
Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography (1977), has drawn attention to the fact that the
photographic image is a transformation or recontextualization of the original context of which the
photograph is an image. Saussure's 'photographic' metaphor recognizes, if only implicitly, that the
written word is a cultural technology which transforms and recontextualizes the spoken word on
analogy with the way that a photograph transform and recontextualizes the human face of which the
former is an image. Saussure's view of this relationship is not a naively realist one. Neither
photography nor writing simply replicate, respectively, human faces or speech. In each case, the former
transforms (re-contextualizes) the latter into a new semiotic modality. In other words, Saussure
displays an awareness of the semiological potential of the visual media of writing and photographing
to transform speech and our perception and understanding of the 'real'. This has important implications
for Saussure's understanding of the relationship between langue and criture. Saussure takes the written
language system, on analogy to photography, to be a meanings of 'fixing' some prior semiotic modality.
It is not possible, he argues, to 'photograph' the "infinity of muscular movements" involved in
phonation. But it is possible for a "constant visual image" to 'translate' acoustic images into visual
images.
This is an accurate enough analogy. A written transcription of some prior speech event cannot
'translate' all of the details - semiotic and material - of that prior event. Any attempt to do so would
condemn the analyst to an infinite regress of recursive attempts to approximate by other semiotic
means all of the detail of the original speech event. This is an impossible task: the written 'translation'
is a necessarily incomplete record of the prior speech event on account of the fundamental
irreversibility of the physical-material processes involved. Saussure's photographic metaphor
recognizes this most fundamental limitation. This is so in the sense that the photograph of the face
cannot return us to the infinite detail of the original. Saussure's solution lies in the fact that criture,
rather than evoking a potentially infinite regress of material and semiotic differences in acts of parole,
may 'translate' from langue and criture. Of the difficulty in representing the "infinity of muscular
movements" involved in phonation he observes:
"In the language system, on the other hand, there is only the acoustic image, and this can be translated into a constant visual
image. For if one abstracts from this multitude of movements necessary for realizing it [the acoustic image] in parole, each
acoustic image is, as we shall see, no more than the sum of a limited number of elements or phonemes, susceptible in turn
of being evoked by a corresponding number of signs in criture". (CLG: 32)

This is why the system-system complementarity I discussed above is important. The 'translation' from
acoustic image to visual image always takes place in and through the meaning potential of the systems
of langue and criture. The translation is never directly from acts of parole to the written word. This
better explains why Saussure concludes the paragraph from which the above quotation is taken as
follows:
15

"It is this possibility of fixing things relative to langue which makes it possible for a dictionary and a grammar to be a
faithful represention of it, langue being the repository of acoustic images, and criture the tangible form of these images".

(CLG: 32)
The point is that the acoustic images in langue both 'fix', in the sense of categorize, the "infinity of
muscular movements" in phonation as structurally stable acoustic images relative to a given language
system. This does not mean that the relationship between system - the acoustic images in langue - and
environment - the muscular movements in phonation - is a rigidly patterned and sterotypical one.
Rather, it is best described as one of symbolic transduction: the acoustic image modulates the flux of
muscular movements in phonation but does not rigidly determine it. In turn, the acoustic image may be
'fixed' by a visual image in criture according to this same principle. This is always "relative to langue"
because the 'translation' always occurs on the basis of the system-system complementarity referred to
above. The system of criture does not simply replicate that of langue. Instead, one system of values is
reconstrued in relation to the values which are intrinsic to the second system. This point has been
entirely lost in Roy Harris's translation of the passage quoted above. Here is Harris's translation of the
same passage:
"Our ability to identify elements of linguistic structure in this way is what makes it possible for dictionaries and grammars
to give us a faithful representation of language. A language is a repository of sound patterns, and writing is their tangible
form". (Saussure/Harris, 1983: 15)

The "things [les choses] relative to langue" that Saussure speaks of are not "elements of linguistic
structure", as Harris would have it. Rather, Saussure is talking about the 'things' which are outside
langue. In this particular case, these are the muscular movements which are categorized by the acoustic
images (the phonological categories) of the language. These are categorized by the system of values
internal to langue. In this case, Saussure draws attention to the fact that the multitude of muscular
movements involved in phonation is reconstrued as specific categories of phonemes in a given
language system. This can only occur on the basis of a stable system of phonological categories in
langue. Saussure's point is that it is only by virtue of the fact that such a stable spoken language system
exists that acoustic images may in turn be 'translated' into visual images in and through the resources of
the written language system.
6.2 The Phonograph.
The other technological metaphor of interest here concerns Saussure's reference to the phonograph.
The phonograph can extend sound across space and time. For Saussure, it represents a means of storing
and accessing langue in ways which extend across historical time and geographical space. Unlike the
photograph, Saussure sees the phonograph as a means of providing "direct" evidence of langue. This
suggests a revealing asymmetry in Saussure's conception of visual and acoustic modalities of semiosis.
The photograph transforms the face just as the written language transforms speech. On the other hand,
the phonograph, for Saussure, provides direct documentary evidence - in the form of acts of parole whereby the linguist may reconstruct langue itself. Saussure also points out that the evidence gathered
in this way would nonetheless need to be transcribed into written form in order to make it available to
a wider audience. Saussure speaks in a period prior to the mass use of audio recordings. By contrast,
the mass production of photographic images was already wide spread at the time Saussure gave his
lectures in Geneva.
The phonographic recording of speech, like photography, cannot bring the original semiotic-material
event back to the listener. The context, which occurred in some specific time and place, is irreversibly
transformed by the technology of the phonograph and the meaning potential which this affords its
users. Saussure does not actually say that the phonograph can provide the linguist with direct access to
16

langue. It can only record particular acts of parole. Nevertheless, the asymmetry which I mentioned
above rests on the implicit assumption that Saussure appears to make that semiosis which is based on
the visual image (writing, photography) has the power to transform other semiotic modalities, whereas
those based on speech sounds do not.
Both photography and the phonograph are technologies which belong to what Walter Benjamin, in a
remarkable essay, has referred to as 'the age of mechanical reproduction' (1969). Photography and the
semiotic effects of its technology and patterns of consumption were already well absorped into
contemporary patterns of experience and behaviour. Not only did a "plurality of copies" substitute for
the original experience, but the viewer's experience was much more privatised (Benjamin 1969: 221).
Further, the 'transitory' and 'reproducible' character of the photographic image as an object of mass
consumption is emphasised (Benjamin 1969: 223).
Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography (1977), provides ample documentation of the
transformations in visual perception which photography brought about. Photography isolates and
analyses phenomena in the visual field which previously had no special significance. This has brought
about what Benjamin has called "a deepening of apperception" (1969: 235). How does this relate to
Saussure? Saussure clearly appreciates the transformative powers of the visual image. As far as writing
is concerned, this poses a problem. I shall return to this point below. By the same token, he also sees
the phonograph as a means of obtaining "direct documents", i.e., without the distorting - recontextualizing - effects of writing. Saussure clearly appreciates the potential that this technology has
for collecting and storing permanent records of speech. However, Saussure does not mention the fact
that the phonograph, no less than the photograph, has a transformative potential in relation to that
which it records. That is, the semiotic potential of this technology transforms the speech events which
are so recorded. Like photography, the phonograph is not a neutral means of gathering and preserving
spoken documents. It, too, entails a "deepening of apperception", to borrow once again Benjamin's
expression. It, too, isolates and analyses speech sounds in ways not available to the unaided ear in the
contexts in which spoken interaction occurs.
This assymmetry in Saussure's understanding of the transformative power of both visual and audiobased technologies of reproduction carries over into his understanding of the relationship between
langue and criture. The reason for this asymmetry is probably cultural. Photography was already well
established in European culture. Its potential for cultural transformation was already evident. The
phonograph, by contrast, was a recent technological innovation. Its power to extend over time and
space in the documentation of various languages was confined to the collections held in Vienna and
Paris. The reproductive and transformative potential of the phonograph was, at that time, restricted to a
small number of specialists. Unlike the photograph, it was not yet available to simultaneous collective
experience.
In my view, this asymmetry in the cultural reception of the technologies of the visual and the audio
persuades Saussure that writing is the representation of langue, whereas the reverse is not true. It needs
to be kept in mind here that the phonograph records acts of parole, rather than langue. This fact, along
with Saussure's conviction that the phonograph may provide direct evidence of speech, appears to lead
Saussure to assume, albeit implicitly, that the visual image is technological, whereas the acoustic image
is not. He does not account for the fact that written language may be reenacted as speech, as in reading
aloud and other kinds of semiotic performances. In other words, the system-system complementarity is
a two-way one in the sense that a written text may be recontextualized as spoken performance in and
through the stable phonological categories of the language system. Saussure does not account for this
possibility.

17

7. Some Theoretical Implications of the Meaning of the French Terms langue, parole and criture.
I have already pointed out that Saussure takes langue and criture to be two distinct systems of signs.
Now, the translation of the French word langue as 'language structure' (Harris 1983) or my own
preferred 'language system' does not reveal the semantic connection which the French word has with
the spoken language. This may lead one to conclude that Saussure's conception of the language system
per se is one sidely based on the spoken language at the expense of the written language. In my view,
the distinction Saussure makes between langue and criture shows that this view is mistaken. For
reasons I have already discussed, Saussure builds his theory on the basis of the former rather than the
latter.
What, then, is the relationship of parole to langue? parole is the instantiation of langue. It is also the
basis on which the linguist analytically reconstructs langue. In French, the word langue means
'language' or 'tongue', as in, for instance, la langue franaise ('the French language' or 'the French
tongue'), la langue maternelle ('the mother tongue'), la langue crite ('the written language'), la langue
parle ('the spoken language'), or in expressions such as il ha une langue trs pure ('his spoken
language is very pure'). In these examples, the word langue is not used in the technical sense intended
by Saussure. Nevertheless, they reveal the intimate semantic connection which Saussure's use of this
term has with the spoken language. There is, then, a high degree of systemic, and not merely instantial,
coherence between the terms langue and parole in Saussure's theory.
What, then, of Saussure's use of the term criture? Saussure places this term on the same level of
schematicity as langue. The two terms are co-hyponyms. For this reason, one is not superordinate with
respect to the other. As co-hyponyms, langue and criture stand in a hyponymous relationship to the
superordinate term 'the global totality of language' (see section 4). Co-hyponyms also imply a weak
semantic relationship of antonymy. This is evidenced in Saussure's insistence that langue and criture
are "two distinct systems of signs". That is, they stand in a relationship of contrast to each other.
At this point, the following question arises. If parole stands in a hyponymous relation to langue, and
langue and criture are co-hyponyms in relation to the still more superordinate term 'the global totality
of language', then what is the term which is hyponymously related to criture? In French, the meaning
of the word criture refers to the system perspective. It is therefore parallel to langue. In nominal
groups such as criture phonetique ('phonetic writing') and criture hiroglyphique ('hieroglyphic
writing') the Head, criture, designates the general category of writing system and the Classifier some
subclass of this. In the attributive clause il ha une belle criture ('he has beautiful writing'), the
personal pronoun il ('he') instantiates a graded quality, belle ('beautiful') of the type-class, criture. In
all of these examples, the linguistic analysis shows that the word criture designates a general or
superordinate type-class. That is why, semantically speaking, Saussure uses this term to designate the
written language system, rather than specific instances of writing.
What, then, is the term which is subordinate to criture? In French, the word crit, which variously
means 'piece of writing', 'document', or 'written work', serves this purpose. The nearest Saussure gets to
this term is when he uses the expression mot crit ('written word') (see Saussure/Engler 1957: 67).
Indeed, he even goes so far as to say: "The true relationship is expressed by the equation: spoken word
[mot parl] = object (written word, document)". (Saussure/Engler 1957: 68) Here, the terms mot parl
and mot crit are co-hyponyms. The former is also an approximate synonym of parole. That is, parole
and mot parl are both hyponyms of langue, whereas mot crit is a hyponym of criture. By the same
token, mot parl and mot crit are also weak antonyms of each other for the reasons explained above.
The relations referred to here imply a hierarchy of generality which links the superordinate terms to the
lower-level ones. This is schematized in Figure 3.

18

Figure 3: Criteria for the study of the spoken and written language systems.

Figure 3 also includes Saussure's notion of the language faculty [le facult du langage] as the most
superordinate term in the hierarchy. This is a faculty with which all individuals are endowed. For this
reason, it is the most superordinate term in the proposed hierarchy. However, Saussure devotes little
attention to it. The next level down the hierarchy is that of the phenomenon of language as it appears in
all of its heterogeneity before the linguist imposes a specific conceptual order on it. Thus, 'the global
totality of language' may be taken to refer to all manifestations of language phenomena, both spoken,
written, and signed. At the third level in this ascending hierarchy, Saussure introduces a specific
methodological and conceptual order into this heterogeneity. langue and criture, as two distinct
systems of signs, specify two possible objects of theoretical study. They both stand in an instantial
relation to the superordinate term 'the global totality of language'. Finally, the lowest level in the
proposed hierarchy brings us to the instantiations of langue and criture, i.e., parole/mot parl and mot
crit, respectively. In so far as the latter two terms are the instantiations of the spoken and written
language systems, they are also the linguist's means of access to these.
Figure 3 shows very clearly that there is no theoretical subordination of criture to langue. There is
nothing in Saussure's position which would prevent the development of a parallel linguistic science in
which criture is the object of study. Such a study would be complementarity to, rather than opposed
to, the study of langue. This follows from the fact that the study of, say, spoken and written English is
still the study of the same language system, in spite of the important differences between the spoken
and written modalities of linguistic semiosis. The reasons why Saussure privileged the scientific study
of langue rather than criture have been discussed above. In the next lecture I shall turn my attention to
the specific problematic of criture which Saussure finds it necessary to negotiate in connection with
this endeavour.
References.
Abercrombie, David. 1967. Elements of General Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Armstrong, David F, William C. Stokoe, Sherman E. Wilcox. 1995. Gesture and the Nature of
Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Benjamin, Walter. 1977 [1955]. 'The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction'. In
Illuminations, 217-51. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.
Broca, Paul. 1965. 'On the speech center'. In Richard J. Herrnstein and Edwin G. Boring (eds.), A
Source Book in the History of Psychology, trans. Mollie D. Boring, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 223-9. [(1861) 'Remarques sur le sige de la facult du langage articul, suivie
d'une observation d'aphmie', Bulletin de la Socit Anatomique de Paris 2, 6: 343-57].
Derrida, Jacques. 1976 [1967]. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and
London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
19

Edelman, Gerald M. 1989. The Remembered Present: A biological theory of consciousness. New York:
Basic Books.
Gibson, James J. 1986 [1979]. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, N.J. and
London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Halliday, M.A.K. 1985. Spoken and Written Language. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press.
Harris, Roy. 1987. Reading Saussure. A critical commentary on the Cours de linguistique gnrale.
London: Duckworth.
Kendon, Adam. 1991. 'Some considerations for a theory of language origins'. Man 26, 199-221.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. 1: Theoretical prerequisites.
Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.
Lowe, Donald M. 1982. History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McCarthy, Rosaleen A. and Elizabeth K. Warrington. 1990. Cognitive Neuropsychology: A clinical
introduction. New York and London: Academic Press.
Peng, Fred C.C. 1994 'Language disorders and brain function' Acta Neurologica Sinica 3,3: 103-30.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1971 [1915]. Cours de Linguistique Gnrale. Paris: Payot.
- 1983. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Roy Harris. London: Duckworth.
- 1967. Cours de Linguistique Gnrale. Critical edition in three volumes, ed. Rudolf Engler,
Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography. New York: Delta.
Thibault, Paul J. 1996. Re-reading Saussure. The dynamics of signs in social life. London and New
York: Routledge.
Wernicke, Carl. 1977. 'The aphasia symptom complex: a psychological study on an anatomical basis'.
In Gertrude H. Eggert (ed.), Wernicke's Work on Aphasia: A source book and review, vol. 1: Early
Sources in Aphasia and Related Disorders, The Hague and New York: Mouton, 91-145. [Der
Aphasische Symtomenkomplex: eine psychologische Studie auf der anatomischer Basis, Breslau:
Cohn & Weigert.]
Whitney, William Dwight. 1979 [1875]. The life and growth of language. New York: Dover.
Lecture Two
The Problematic of criture
Outline of Lecture
1. Comparing Langue and criture
2. Criteria for the Investigation of Langue
3. The Semiotic Power of the Visual-Graphic Image
4. The Relationship between criture as Visual Semiotic and Langue as a Semiotic Based on
Sound
5. Conclusion
20

1. Comparing Langue and riture


Having established that langue and criture are two distinct systems of signs, Saussure makes it clear
that the former is to be the cornerstone of his meta-semiological project. That is, Saussure makes a
methodological decision to privilege the study of the language system on the basis of the crosscoupling of the phonic and conceptual orders of difference. However, langue and criture in any given
language are also related to each other. What does it mean, then, to say that there are two distinct
systems of signs which belong to the same language? Before answering this question, it is useful to
reflect on the metatheoretical status of the notion of system in Saussure's conceptual framework.
The systems of langue and criture are not reified categories. They have no independent existence of
their own. In the first place, they are derived from an analytically prior phenomenon, 'the global
totality of language'. In the second place, they are both grounded in instances of language in use, viz.
parole and mot crit. Now, Saussure's concept of system enables both linguists and language users in
general to compare the terms in one system with those in some other. This is one of the principles
underlying the concept of value (Thibault 1996: chap. 7). Saussure refers to the way in which the terms
in one system may be compared to the terms in some other system. Thus, French words may be
compared to English words in this way. Saussure's concept of system is a metatheoretical category.
Similarly, the terms of the spoken system may be compared to those of the written system. Importantly,
this principle (of comparison) is generalizable to a wide range of types of sign systems other than the
spoken language:
"The language system [la langue] is a system of signs which express ideas, and for this reason,
comparable to criture, the alphabet for the deaf and dumb, symbolic rites, forms of politeness,
military signals, etc. etc. It is only the most important of these systems". (CLG: 33)
The matter is put even more clearly in Engler's Critical Edition of CLG:
"It is also evident that langue does not embrace all kinds of systems formed by signs. There must,
therefore, exist a science of signs which is broader than linguistics (systems of maritime signs, for the
blind, deaf and dumb, and finally the most important: writing itself". (Saussure/Engler 1967: 46)
Langue is not an all inclusive notion. In Engler's Critical Edition, the following observations also
occur:
"This comparison [of langue to other sign systems, PJT] could be pushed much further (in detail) and
analogies could also be found between other signs systems (other than writing, even the system of
maritime signals) and that of langue. One is quite aware of being in the same order of facts. However,
it is not necessary to look for perfect identity: a minister can change the system of maritime signals.
But supposing things are left to themselves, they are clearly analogous to that which happens in
linguistics. The same analogy would also be revealed in the language of the deaf and dumb".
(Saussure/Engler 1967: 47)
There are two important points to make here. First, criture and other sign systems may be compared
to langue. Secondly, there are analogies between the different sign systems. For example, there are
analogies between the phonetic facts of langue and some comparable set of graphic facts in criture.
Indeed, Saussure says just that:
"No series of signs will have a more considerable importance in this science than the linguistic facts.
One would be able to find the equivalent in criture of that which are the phonetic facts in langue.
"We will tackle the language system [langue] by a synthetic way. We will tackle that which appears to
us to be its basis, without which it would not be the language system". (Saussure/Engler 1967: 47)
21

The "synthetic way" that Saussure refers to is, quite simply, the methodological procedures which the
linguist uses: (1) to establish what the relevant facts of a given system are; and (2) to make
comparisons between one sign system and another, e.g., between langue and criture. The
metatheoretical notion of system is general to: (1) sign systems of all kinds; (2) all languages; and (3)
the spoken and written systems of any given language. Clearly, the progression from (1) to (3) entails a
descending order of generality, yet the basic category of system remains valid at all levels.
The metatheoretical category of system is, then, generalizable to sign systems of all kinds. Thus,
langue and criture are general theoretical categories which may be applied to any spoken or written
language system. On this basis, some equivalent set of visual-graphic facts may be postulated for
criture in the same way that phonetic facts are postulated for langue (see citation above). On the
other hand, the phonemes or the graphemes which make up, respectively, a particular spoken or written
language system are descriptive categories. That is, they are used to describe, respectively, the phonic
and graphic facts of a particular language. This helps to clarify Saussure's concern for the dangers of
confusing the spoken and written words as the same object of study. The equating of the graphic facts
of criture with the phonic facts of langue entails a confusion on both the theoretical and descriptive
levels. The former cannot be taken as the basis for describing the latter. This issue will be discussed in
the next section.
2. Criteria for the Investigation of Langue
Saussure gives us a further clue as to the specific problem which criture poses in the opening
paragraph of chapter VII of CLG, which is entitled 'Phonology'.
"When one removes writing from thought, that which is deprived of this perceptible image [image
sensible] risks being perceived as no more than an unformed mass which leaves one at a loss. It is as if
someone learning to swim had their cork float taken away.
"It would be necessary to replace all of a sudden the artificial with the natural; but that is impossible
unless one has studied the sounds of the language system [la langue]; for detached from their graphic
signs, they represent only very vague notions, and one still prefers the support, even if misleading, of
writing. The first linguists, who were ignorant of the physiology of articulate sounds, fell into these
pitfalls all the time; letting go of the letter was for them losing their footing; for us, it is a first step
towards the truth; for it is the study of sounds themselves which provides us with the help we are
looking for. Modern day linguists have finally understood this; taking up on their own account the
researches inaugurated by others (physiologists, theorists of song, etc.), they have bestowed on
linguistics an auxiliary science which has freed it of the written word". (CLG: 55)
The problem which Saussure addresses here has to do with the ways in which the "perceptible image"
of writing leads to a theoretically distorted conception of the sounds of the spoken language system, or
langue. The 'fixed' and 'constant' - spatial - nature of the graphic image has rendered this easier to latch
onto than the transient - temporal - nature of speech sounds. Therefore, if the linguist tries to theorize
langue on the basis of the visual image, then, once this is removed, it becomes difficult to see how
thought combines with specifically phonic differences to form the signs of the spoken language
system, or langue. For this reason, thought, without the visual image, will appear to be an unformed
mass. Saussure appeals to the new science of phonology as a means of solving this theoretical impasse
and of placing the study of the spoken language system on a secure theoretical footing. In so doing, he
points the way to an adequate description of the (phonic) signifiers of the spoken language.
In the first paragraph of the passage quoted above, Saussure, in effect, invites his audience to
participate in a small 'thought experiment'. His purpose is to draw attention to the need to distinguish
22

very clearly between the phonic and the graphic orders of difference. The specific problem he poses
concerns the way in which it is misleading to talk about acoustic images on the basis of the graphic
images of the written language. Instead, new theoretical instruments are called for in order to talk
about the specificity of speech sounds.
This does not invalidate the visual-graphic image as an object of study. It is just that it is the wrong
means of access to langue. Afterall, psychologists do not study the acoustic properties of sound waves
by analyzing light waves. At the time Saussure gave his Geneva lectures, recent advances in the
science of phonology had begun to find solutions to the problems of apprehending and studying the
acoustic image. Saussure himself was a leading figure in these developments. But, Saussure points out,
phonology is "only an auxiliary discipline and it only concerns parole" (CLG: 56).
The relevance of this for writing is twofold. First, the newly emergent science of phonology meant that
it had become possible for the first time to study the nature of the acoustic image, along with the
articulatory movements that underpin this, without the obfuscatory influence of the visual image.
Secondly, neither the "perceptible image" of writing nor the articulatory movements involved in
phonation can in themselves provide access to langue. What is important from the system point of
view is the "play of oppositions", and not the material substrate - graphic or phonic - which manifest
signs in social semiosis. This play of oppositions constitutes the system's informational capacity. The
mapping of the system's stored information onto the constantly fluctuating environment of the
muscular movements in phonation serves to control and coordinate these as well as to enable them
(lecture 3).
To summarise the arguments so far: Saussure claims that criture does not constitute a proper basis for
the study of langue. These are two distinct systems of signs. Further, neither the study of phonology
nor graphology can in themselves reveal the mechanisms whereby "the psychic oppositions of the
acoustic impressions" constitute the internal basis of langue. Both the muscular movements involved
in phonation, as well as the "perceptible image" of the grapheme, are external to langue. This is so for
different reasons in the two cases, but the salient point is that neither constitutes a correct point of
departure for studying the inner workings of langue.
The problems Saussure has with criture derive, then, from his desire to understand the internal design
principles of langue, i.e., the language-system-based-on-sound. This point needs to be emphasised.
The theoretical category of langue does not refer to some general notion of the language system,
irrespective of whether it is based on acoustic images or visual-graphic images. Such a notion would
be a contradiction of the fact that a given language system (spoken or written) is based on the crosscoupling of terms from two orders of difference. Thus, langue is based on the cross-coupling of the
conceptual and the phonic orders of difference. Likewise, criture is based on the cross-coupling of
the conceptual and graphic-visual orders of difference. For this reason, Saussure calls into question a
linguistics which would study the system of langue on the basis of written evidence. To do so amounts
to a contradiction in terms. This helps us better understand Saussure's fervent attack on alphabetic
writing systems which are purportedly based on phonetic principles. He repeatedly drives home the
need to distinguish between the systems of langue and criture and to be clear about the different
design principles that underpin each. It is for these reasons that langue and criture are two distinct
systems of signs. criture, no less than langue, is founded on the semiological principle of value. In
chapter IV, in his discussion of the material aspects of value, Saussure compares langue and criture
in the following way:
"One can observe an identical state of affairs in the other system of signs that is writing, which we hall
take as a point of comparison in order to explain this question:

23

"1. the signs of criture are arbitrary; no relationship, for example, between the letter t and the sound
that it designates;
"2. the value of the letters is purely negative and differential; thus the same person may write t with
variants such as: [see original text for handwritten figures]
"The only essential thing is that this sign not be confused in his writing with that of his l, his d, etc.;
"3. the values of the written language system [criture] are only based on their reciprocal oppositions
within a defined system, comprised of a determinate number of letters. This characteristic, without
being identical to the second, is closely tied to it because both depend on the first. The graphic sign
being arbitrary, its form matters little, or rather, it only has importance in the limits imposed by the
system;
"4. the means of production of the sign is totally unimportant, for it is of no interest to the system (this
also follows from the first characteristic). Whether I write the letters in white or in black, incised or in
relief, with a pen or a chisel, is of no importance for their signification".(CLG: 165-6)
Now, Derrida (1976: 52), in his discussion of this passage, comments that "at the moment of
explaining phonic difference as the condition of linguistic value ("from a material view point",) he
[Saussure] must again borrow all his pedagogic resources from the example of writing". Nothing could
be further from the truth. It seems to me that Derrida's seemingly provocative arguments have done
more to limit the terms of the discussion rather than to promote alternative lines of inquiry. Elsewhere
in CLG, Saussure more than amply demonstrates his ability to theorize phonic differences without
recourse to the written language system. Saussure's point in the above passage is quite different. Nor
does he assume the "naturally phonic essence of language", as Derrida (1976: 53) claims. Again, the
key word which Saussure uses to relate the phonological and the graphological systems is
'comparison', as evidenced in the first paragraph of the above passage (see Lecture 1 and above). Given
that langue and criture are distinct systems of signs, then the distinctive values that are internal to the
two systems may be compared. It is the very possibility of 'comparison' which allows for the
translatability of the two systems. The values internal to one system may be used to selectively
contextualize the values of the other in the process of transcoding from the one to the other.
Derrida claims that Saussure's conception of language is 'phonocentric' and founded on a 'metaphysics
of presence'. This rests on the assumption that Saussure's term langue refers to language per se. I have
already shown that this is not so. Instead, it refers to a strictly delimited domain of inquiry. Gayatry
Spivak's translation of langue as 'language' simply blurs over this important distinction in the
Saussurean discourse and, therefore, the specific distinctions Saussure makes. This does not change the
fact that the original 'blurring' has been perpetrated by Derrida, who, in my view, has misread the
Saussurean text.
3. The Semiotic Power of the Visual-Graphic Image
In my view, the problematic of criture resides, for Saussure, in the semiotic power of the visual
image. This gives rise to a curious paradox in Saussure's treatment of this problematic. Saussure does
not simply recognize that criture is a distinct system of signs based on the visual image. He also
implicitly recognizes the transcoding potential of criture with respect to langue. In other words, he
recognizes that what is involved is a process of transcoding between a system of signs based on
acoustic images and a system of signs based on visual-graphic images. This fact explains Saussure's
constantly reiterated frustration at the distortions and pathologies which normative and prescriptive
rules of orthography perform on the phonological system of a given language. The paradox lies in the
way that Saussure's intuitive grasping of the semiotic power of the visual image does not lead him to
develop or to suggest the need to develop a parallel and complementary theory of criture. Saussure
24

does not go beyond the general assertion that this is a distinct system of signs. His own methodological
and theoretical priorities push him in quite a different direction.
There are two main issues at stake here. First, Saussure critiques the consequences of the notion that
writing of the alphabetic kind conforms - or should conform - to the spoken language. This rests on the
assumption that the letters of the alphabet decode the sounds of the language in a relation of one-to-one
correspondence. This presupposes that there exists a prior speech community sufficienty homogeneous
in its speech practices that writing would represent these in a uniform way. In this sense, the imposition
of a uniform standard of pronunciation on the basis of writing suppresses the heteroglossic diversity of
phonetic practices which span the various dialects and subdialects - social and gegraphical - of a
language. That is why, as Saussure points out, "The language system has then an oral tradition
independent of writing, and fixed in an entirely different way" (CLG: 46). Saussure cites Bopp, Grimm
and others as examples of those historical and comparative linguists who failed to distinguish clearly
between sound and alphabet. In doing so, Saussure establishes an important principle which is both
linguistic and political in its implications. That is, he sets out to deconstruct the normative and
prescriptive rules of orthography whereby "the language system [la langue] appears regulated by a
code" (CLG: 47). This has a number of consequences: (1) the sounds so derived from normative
orthographic rules of pronunciation do not in actual fact correspond to the reality of the spoken
language in all of its diversity. This has the dual effect of (1) imposing artificial standards of 'correct'
pronunciation on speakers of diverse social and geographical provenance with the consequent
suppression of their social diversity; and (2) suppressing the dynamic and independent evolution in
historical time of the spoken language in all its diversity idiosynchronic diversity (CLG: 128; Thibault
1996: 27).
In this regard, Saussure responds to such normative principles by arguing, "That which fixes the
pronunciation of a word is not its orthographic sound, [but] its history" (CLG: 53). It is in this sense
that Saussure attacks normative orthographic models of speech as 'bizarre' and 'pathological' (CLG: 523). There has been considerable misunderstanding of this point, largely due to Derrida's misreading of
Saussure's deconstruction of normative and prescriptive orthographic rules of speaking. Saussure's
point is twofold. These normative rules cannot serve as the basis of a scientific theory of the spoken
language system at the same time that they falsify the distinctively visual principles of organization of
the written language system. It is important to be clear about this critically important point: Saussure is
not attacking the legitimacy of studying the visual-graphic principles of organization of criture.
Rather, he is attacking the ways in which prescriptive and scientifically inaccurate orthographic norms
are used as models of the spoken language and its 'correct' use. Saussure himself implies that this
'literary' model is controlled by the dominant and hegemonic social groups through their dictionaries,
grammars, and schools (CLG: 47).
Second, Saussure does not claim that so called alphabetic writing systems are a direct transcription of
the sounds of the spoken language. It is important to distinguish clearly between Saussure's critique of
normative rules of orthography and the very different claim that langue and criture are two distinct
systems of signs, each with their own semiological principles of organization. In my view, Derrida's
critique of Saussure, paradoxically, rests on this first, normative assumption which forever stalks his
own discourse. This has lead to a great deal of confusion as to the real significance of Saussure's
discussion of writing. Importantly, Saussure makes an initial distinction between ideographic and
alphabetic (syllabic, phonetic) writing systems (CLG: 47).
"There are only two systems of writing:
1. The ideographic system, in which the word is represented by a sign which is unique and exterior to
the sound of which it is composed. This sign is related to the whole of the word, and in this way,
25

indirectly, to the idea which it expresses. The classic example of this system is Chinese writing.
2. The system commonly called "phonetic", which aims to reproduce the sequence of sounds occurring
in parole. Phonetic writing systems are sometimes syllabic, sometimes alphabetic, that is to say, based
on the irreducible elements of parole. (CLG: 47)
Having made this initial distinction, Saussure then shows that it is in fact an idealization of the facts.
No writing system is a pure instance of one or the other of these two main types. Rather, there are, to
varying degrees, mixtures of the ideographic and the phonetic in all writing systems, including the
seemingly emblematic case of the Chinese ideographic system. In the case of Chinese, this fact means
that dialectical differences in the spoken language are not suppressed in the written system: "the
Chinese words from different dialects which correspond to the same idea are equally well incorporated
into the same graphic sign" (CLG: 48). Clearly, this stands in marked contrast to the normative and
prescriptive rules of orthography which suppress phonological diversity in the Western European
tradition of pedagogical grammars. The ideographic nature of Chinese means that the writing system
does not function to decode the spoken system. Rather, each visual-graphic signifier corresponds to a
grammatical unit and indirectly to an 'idea', or, in other words, a semantic unit (Halliday 1985: 19). In
actual fact, all natural languages combine to varying degrees principles from both types of writing
systems.
As we shall see below, Saussure draws an important lesson from the Chinese example. The only purely
phonetic writing system would be the designed systems such as the phonetic alphabet and other
systems of transcription which are used by phoneticians and phonologists to transcribe speech sounds.
Even these artificial writing systems have some kind of derived relationship to the writing systems of
natural language. Here, the ideal would be what Saussure calls a "phonological alphabet" as opposed to
"usual orthography" (CLG: 57). This brings me to a second, crucially important aspect of Saussure's
argument. Speaking of the "question of reading", he observes:
"We read in two ways; the new or unknown word is spelled [pel] letter by letter; but the usual and
familiar word is taken in at a glance, independently of the letters which comprise it; the image of this
word acquires for us an ideographic value. Here traditional orthography can reclaim its rights: it is
useful to distinguish tant and temps, et, est, ait, - du and d, - il devait and ils devaient, etc." (CLG:
57)
In drawing attention to the practices of reading, Saussure points out what had already been established
experimentally by Cattel (1886) to the effect that readers normally process words as global-synthetic
visual units rather than letter by letter. Importantly, the ideographic values assigned to the words are
meaning- rather than sound-based. It is only a certain normative pedagogical tradition which teaches
children to map 'correct' pronunciation onto the individual letters of which a word is composed. As
Saussure points out (CLG: 47), children have already learned to speak before learning to write. This
does not, however, imply a phonocentric metaphysic la Derrida. Rather, in reading words as global
visual units, readers directly construe grammatical units and semantic meanings in these. For an
alternative view see, for example, Kress (1995: 14). They do not necessarily pass through some
intermediate phonic stage before arriving at the meaning of the written sequence of graphemes. Having
done so, they may then map a global-synthetic sound onto this unit of meaning as shown in Figure 1.
Graphemic sequence

Phoneme sequence

[[c + a + t] + [s]] --> GRAMMATICAL-SEMANTIC MEANING --> [/kaet/ + /s/]


Figure 1: Mapping of global-synthetic sound pattern onto written word.

26

This is done on the basis of the global integration of all the modalities of linguistic semiosis in the
brain of the individual (Lecture 1). In the first instance, the child has to learn to recognize the word
qua grammatical-semantic unit rather than as a meaninless sequence of graphemes per se. This is
necessary so that the child is able to map a global sequence of acoustic images onto this same unit of
meaning so as to obtain an appropriate pronunciation, and in ways which does not, however, suppress
dialectical diversity. This follows from the fact that the child has already internalized a global sound
shape for the word in his or her prior experience of the spoken language.
Likewise, listeners do not interpret the meaning of a spoken word by decoding each phoneme
separately as it is manifested in the linear and temporal unfolding of the phonic chain. Rather, the
sound shape of the word as a whole is assigned a distinctive grammatical-semantic value. Saussure
argues that criture is a distinct system of signs. That is, it has its own distinctive (visual-graphic)
resources for construing grammatical units and semantic meanings on the stratum of the signified. This
is not dependent on the spoken system of langue. Rather, it is on the basis of the prior ideographic grammatical and semantic - value readers assign to sequences of graphemes that allows them in turn to
map global-synthetic sound shapes onto these on the basis of their previous internalization of the
acoustic images of the spoken language system. In this way, they come to understand that a given
sequence of acoustic images and a given sequence of visual-graphic images may have the same
grammatical and conceptual value. It is the linear unfolding of phonic signifiers in time or visualgraphic signifiers in space (CLG: 103) constitutes the systemic basis whereby such global meanings
are so mapped.
Saussure does not regard the visual semiotic as a transparent medium which simply reflects an outside
world, or which unproblematically 'represents' the spoken language. Rather than a transparent medium
leading to common understanding, Saussure understands the semiotic power of visual semiosis to
transform, and hence to 'misrepresent' or 'distort'. That is, he recognizes the meaning-making potential
of the visual-graphic modality of linguistic semiosis. But that is as far as he goes. Presumably,
Saussure had quite enough problems to deal with in langue without taking on criture as well.
Saussure's undertheorized grasping of the semiotic power of visual semiosis contrasts with Derrida's
silence on the specifically visual implications of the problematic of criture. It seems to me that
Derrida's metaphysical blindness on this point may be explained on the basis of his privileging of a
notion of the written text as fixed, static, and as standing 'out of time'. This says more about the
academic subculture to which Derrida belongs rather than the somewhat different problematic which
Saussure confronted. Unlike Derrida, Saussure is not referring to written texts. criture does not refer
to writing as a mode of textuality. Rather, it refers, as Saussure himself points out, to a distinct system
of signs which is comparable to, though not identical to, langue (Lecture 1). Derrida, on the other
hand, valorizes criture as a specific mode of textuality. Saussure does not talk about written texts as
such. For example, Derrida (1976: 32) argues that Saussure's notion of criture as a system of signs
precludes "symbolic" and "figurative" writing in which, presumably, the pictorial dimension is salient.
But this miscontrues the notion of system, which is a de-contextualized system of differences or
potential meanings. There is nothing in Saussure's account which says that actual uses of this potential
in written texts may not use this potential for such figurative or other purposes. This would simply be a
specific use of the meaning-making potential of the system of visual-graphic differences in criture.
The problematic that occupies Saussure is concerned, above all, with the transcoding potential of the
visual-graphic signifiers that constitute the system of criture and the problems this poses for an
adequately conceived study of langue. He even suggests that the problem is compounded by a general
preference for visual impressions over acoustic impressions:

27

"For the majority of individuals, visual impressions are clearer and more lasting than acoustic
impressions; for this reason they prefer the former. The graphic image ends up imposing itself at the
expense of the sound". (CLG: 46-7)
This indicates Saussure's awareness of the problems posed by the monoperspectival and objectified
visual perceptual field which is based on Newtonian space-time (see Lowe 1982: 14). It is the culture
of the technologies of typography and photography. The perceptual field of this culture entailed the
unilinear and objectified extrapolation of visual perception in typographic culture, which was the
dominant mode. Saussure's social-semiological theory is part of a general shift towards a multiperspectival and synchronic mode which is founded on difference. It is a topological rather than a
typological mode, as his phonological theory, in particular, demonstrates (lecture 3). The technology
which underlies this mode is the newly emergent electronic culture of the early decades of the
twentieth century:
"We have said that the written word [mot crit] tends to replace in our mind the spoken word [mot
parl]; this is true for both systems of writing, but this tendency is stronger in the first". (CLG: 48)
The following remarks on pronunciation, which occur at a parallel point in Engler's Critical Edition,
further develop this argument as follows:
"The best indication of this erroneous conception is the meaning which unconsciously we give to the
word pronunciation ( = execution by the voice of a written sign as in music a note by an instrument).
In fact, it is impossible to take the written word as the basis of linguistics; that would amount to
restricting the object too much. The aim of the alphabet is to fix by conventional signs that which
exists in parole".(Saussure/Engler 1967: 75)
There are two points to make here. First, Saussure's criticism of the notion of pronunciation as the
vocal execution of a written sign. It is commonly assumed that pronunciation refers to the way the
letters of the alphabet are spoken or are pronounced (section 2). That is, the alphabet is taken as the
basis for acts of parole and, hence, for the study of langue. In actual fact, as Saussure points out, the
alphabet is a means of writing down or transcoding through the resources of criture the sounds which
are heard in acts of parole. It is in this sense that the alphabet 'fixes' by conventional signs the words in
parole. It uses the meaning-making potential of one system of values to selectively recontextualize the
other system in the process of transcoding from one to the other. It is a mistake to see it as a guide to
pronunciation. The 'substitution' of the written word for the spoken word obscures the nature of
langue, which is necessarily accessed through parole. Written language is not simply spoken language
in visual form. Indeed, most instances of writing, rather than being transcriptions of speech, have an
independent existence. Nevertheless, an important point is missed as well. Instances of writing may be
read aloud. That is, one aspect of the meaning potential of the graphemes of the written language
system is to index one or more phonemes in the spoken language. This is by no means the only work
that graphemes do, but it is an important and irrefutable dimension of their overall meaning potential.
However, the relationship between grapheme and phoneme is not one-way in its effects. Just as
graphemes may 'represent' phonemes, so, too, may phonemes 'represent' graphemes. This will be taken
up and further developed below.
Secondly, Saussure claims that the purpose of the alphabet is to "fix by means of conventional signs
that which exists in parole". In other words, graphemes do not index langue. Rather, they have the
potential to index the phonological dimension of the spoken chain in acts of parole.
Saussure then proceeds to posit a relationship of "correspondence" between the systems of langue and
criture:

28

"However, it must not be forgotten that the spoken language system [la langue parle] alone is the
object of linguistics: we notice nothing abnormal in the history of unwritten language systems; on the
contrary, a language system which has never been written constitutes the norm. But the influences of
the written language on the spoken language are multiple (one is lead to certain choices), one only
conserves the words which are often written, pronunciation is contaminated: sept ['seven'], cent
['hundred'], Lefubure for Lefvre. They may be envisaged as a pathological side of the language
system, but cannot be ignored. The written language and the spoken language: here again one of the
correspondences of language, one of its double aspects: there is a duality of sign systems in the
correspondence. This correspondence has had deplorable effects and still does. One can never
disengage altogether from the written word". (Saussure/Engler 1967: 76)
The 'duality' Saussure speaks of refers to the fact that within a given language langue and criture
stand in complex relations of partial and overlapping complmentarity to each other. The 'pathological'
and 'contaminatory' effects of writing which Saussure denounces have to do with the ways in which
purely visual distinctions in the written system are taken as normative prescriptions for the
pronunciation of the spoken language. Graphological distinctions which have value and hence a
contextualizing relevance in writing are illegitimately transposed to speech on the mistaken assumption
that speech sounds should conform to writing. The real point, on the other hand, is that graphological
distinctions do not always or necessarily line up with phonological ones. The two systems have
different contextualizing functions to perform in the different domains in which they are deployed.
This brings us to the question of the 'correspondence' between the two.
Now, correspondence does not mean identity. The relationship between langue and criture is not an
externally derived one of analogy. The correspondence goes deeper. Saussure's discussion remains
limited by his concern with objective similarities and dissimilarities between the two systems. Indeed,
and given his privileging of langue, he places the emphasis on the dissimilarities. Consequently,
Saussure tends to put to one side the deeper relationship of homology which unites langue and
criture "all along the range of work regarding them", to borrow Rossi Landi's (1977: 74) expression.
Afterall, and in spite of the differences of signifying substance, langue and criture are manifestations
of the same overall language system. This is so in the sense that both the phonic and graphic orders of
difference may be cross-coupled with all of the conceptual differences that are recognized in a given
language system. This is not to deny the important lexicogrammatical and discourse-level differences
between the two systems (Halliday 1985).
The best way to pinpoint the Saussurean problematic of criture is to examine the specific examples
which Saussure considers. Characteristically, Saussure provides an abundance of examples which he
analyses. I shall consider a very small number of these in order to draw out a number of salient points.
Saussure complains about "the multiplicity of signs for the same sound" (CLG: 50). More precisely,
this means that the same phoneme may index different graphemes. Examples in English include:
be, bee
by, buy, bye
in, inn
night, knight
see, sea
to, too, two
site, sight, cite
bite, byte
29

Table 1: Examples of words illustrating principle 'same phoneme, different grapheme'.


Each of the sets of examples in Table 1 has an identical phonemic structure in the phonological system
of English. In the graphological system of written English, the additional grapheme "e" in the written
form of the word bee does not index a corresponding phonemic distinction in the spoken language.
Examples such as these show that graphemes have distinctive values in the written system irrespective
of whether it indexes a phonemic distinction or not in the spoken system (see McKintosh 1967: 101).
Saussure gives parallel examples from French, e.g.tant and temps (CLG: 57), - see also tend, tan - all
of which have the same phonological shape, yet have differing graphological shapes. However,
Saussure's preoccupation with the 'inadequacies' of the written language for representing the spoken
language distracts him from exploring more fully the distinctive values of the graphological system
and their specific functions. Distinctive values in graphology are established by visual differences
(McKintosh 1967: 101; Uldall 1944). The graphological distinction between, say, be and bee in
English does not reflect a corresponding phonological distinction. However, the visual basis of the
distinction between these two written words serves particular contextualizing functions in the written
medium. A purely phonetic writing system would not always permit salient distinctions to be made in
the written language (Halliday 1985: 27-8), as the above examples show. The very different
phonological shapes of, for example, photograph/photography/photographic, along with many other
examples in English, would, if represented in a purely phonetic writing system, obscure the close
grammatical and semantic links between these items. That is, it is the visual-graphic likenesses of their
respective written forms, rather than their phonological shape, which foregrounds their semantic
relatedness. If the reader had to rely on phonetic information alone in order to interpret the
grammatical-semantic significance of forms like these, then, and in the absence of important
contextualizing cues supplied by the visual-graphic similarities among such forms, his or her task will
be correspondingly harder. This shows the ways in which graphology is motivated by grammaticalsemantic criteria.
Saussure took graphology to be secondary with respect to phonology in order to draw attention to the
methodological confusion that arises from 'seeing' langue as if graphemes simply correspond to
phonemes. In this Saussure is surely correct. However, this was at the cost of a full appreciation of
graphology as a system of values in its own right. He fails to appreciate that the question of the
'correspondence' of a given grapheme to a given phoneme, while not irrelevant, is secondary with
respect to the specifically visual dimension of linguistic semiosis in the written system. Phonemically,
the examples adduced in Table 1 above illustrate a kind of phonological parallel to homonyms.
Identical phonological structures have distinctive graphological values, depending on the context.
Saussure also refers to the contrary tendency. That is, the same grapheme may have a multiplicity of
phonemic values. Some English examples are:
Grapheme Phoneme Sample Token
/s/

cite

"c"

/k/

cat

"c"

/g/

get

"g"

/z/

gesture

"g"

Table 2: Examples of graphemes with a multiplicity of phonemic values.

30

The examples shown in Table 2, on the other hand, illustrate a different perspective on the same overall
problem. In this case, the same grapheme indexes different phonemes. Angus McKintosh (1967: 103)
provides an elegant and convincing solution to this problem. Just as a word like cat has a referent
outside language, so, too, does the grapheme "c" have a referent outside the written language system.
McKintosh shows how the grapheme "c" has a "potential phonic meaning" (1967: 105). The principle
of value ensures that the grapheme "c" cannot substitute for the graphemes "f" or "g", each of which
also have potential phonic meanings. Outside of some context we cannot know which phonic meaning
"c" will have.
The point is not so much that graphemes are in disaccord with the phonemes of a given language
system. Given the fact that two distinct systems of signs are involved, the relevant question is one of
the contexts in which, for example, grapheme "c" occurs. Thus, in some contexts "c" indexes the
phoneme /s/, as in the word cite; in other contexts it indexes the phoneme /k/, as in cat. The phonic
meaning which a given grapheme indexes depends on the particular contexts in which it occurs. A
further step, as McKintosh (1967: 107-8) points out, is to specify the particular exponent of the
phoneme which is appropriate to that context. But that is a level of delicacy which will not be explored
here.
It is also possible to talk about the graphological analog of synonyms such as "realisation" and
"realization", or "program" and "programme". To say, for example, that "realisation" and
"realization" 'mean the same' means no more than that the graphemic distinction between "s" and
"z" has been neutralised in this particular graphological context. This precisely parallels the notion of
neutralisation in phonological theory. A graphemic or phonemic distinction in the language is not
necessarily significant in all localized contexts. The fact that the distinction exists in a given
phonological or graphological system means that it is part of the value-producing potential of the
spoken or written language system in question. However, this does not mean that the distinction is
always significant, as the above examples show. For a useful discussion of this point see Mowatt and
Dembowski (1965: 47-8).
Interestingly, the whole point of Derrida's homophonous pun diffrance (c.f. diffrence) depends on
the view that graphology makes distinctions that phonology does not make. The pun is graphic, rather
than phonic, so to speak. That is, it depends on the contrast between the graphemes "a" and "e" in
French. Derrida's pun may be said to illustrate the principle of 'different writing, same sounding'.
Now, a careful consideration of Saussure's examples and related discussion, as well as those I have
provided above, shows that this principle is reversible. The examples in Table 1 illustrate the principle
of 'same sounding different writing'; those in Table 2 the principle of 'same writing different sounding'.
The examples of graphemic neutralisation also illustrate a third principle, viz. 'same sounding different
writing'. There are also forms which have identical phonemic and graphemic structures, but which
have different meanings, according to the context in which the signifier occurs. Examples include: (1)
the two potential meanings of, variously, bank, pen, tank, and so on. The fact that the graphic signifier
"bank", for example, has two potential signifieds - i.e., the place where money is deposited and the
side of a river - or that "pen" can signify either the implement used for writing or the enclosure used
for confining animals simply refers to the fact that the same sequence of phonemes or graphemes
occurs in different contexts. The difference in signified is no more than a question of the different
typical distributions of these graphemic or phonemic sequences. That is, their metaredundancy
relations with which signifieds in which contexts (Thibault 1996: 213). Examples such as these
illustrate the further principle of 'same sounding same writing different meaning'.
To complete the picture, so to speak, I have not so far mentioned the possibility of 'same writing
different sounding'. Here we have the reverse of the principle of 'different writing same sounding'
31

referred to above. Again, it is not difficult to find examples in English. These include: hegegomy /
hegemony; economics / economics; ecology / ecology; neither / neither; kilometer / kilometer;
ideology / ideology, and so on. What we have here is a kind of phonemic synonym. Thus, to say that
the phonemic opposition between /g/ and /z/, as evidenced in the two alternative pronunciations in
English of the word hegemony, means no more than that the phonemic distinction between /g/ and /z/
in this particular phonological context is neutralised. Again, I refer the reader to Mowatt and
Dembowski (1965) for an illuminating discussion of this principle.
The principle of 'different writing same meaning' also holds. This is the standard case of synonymy,
e.g., child/infant. Once again, global contextual factors may overide local differences to produce a
local equivalence of signified.
The full range of possibilities which I have adduced above may be set out as follows:
1. same writing different sounding different meaning
2. same sounding different writing different meaning
3. different writing same sounding same meaning
4. different sounding same writing same meaning
5. same writing same sounding different meaning
6. different writing different sounding same meaning
Difference is not, then, an all-or-nothing category. It is not an ontological absolute for Saussure.
Saussure's is a relational-contextual theory of how meanings are made. Neither signifier nor signified
are pregiven entities. The semiological principle of value means that local relations of similarity and
difference may or may not be significant in any given instance. These relations of similarity and
difference constitute part of the global meaning potential of the system of pure values. Whether these
are salient or significant on any given occasion of meaning-making depends on how they are locally
contextualized in the making of a given sign.
4. The Relationship Between criture as Visual Semiotic and Langue as a Semiotic Based on
Sound
An important function of all alphabetic writing systems is to 'represent' spoken language. Saussure
claims that this is their sole function (CLG: 65). Doubtless, this is an overstatement, and must be seen
in the context of the specific problems which Saussure sought to resolve. Specifically, Saussure draws
attention to the widespread and mistaken assumption that speech sounds should conform to the writing
system. In actual fact, as Saussure shows, alphabetic writing systems, which have the potential to
'represent' speech sounds in parole, do not, however, match up with the sounds of the language in any
simple or direct way.
Nevertheless, there are two important aspects of writing which need to be accounted for. First, all
alphabetic writing systems stand in some kind of relationship to the spoken language system. Secondly,
all writing systems are systems of visual images. I shall shortly consider these two points in more
detail. But first I should like to reflect briefly on the probable reasons why Saussure claims that the
sole function of writing is to represent speech. In my view, there are two factors which underline this
claim. The first is the implicit assumption that the visual signifiers of the written language system are a
'natural' means of representation of speech sounds. That is, the visual signifiers of writing are taken as
standing in an unproblematic and transparent relationship to the sounds they are taken to represent.
32

This view, which Saussure does NOT hold, assumes that written signifiers have no meaning-making
potential in their own right.
The second factor concerns the specifically visual dimension of semiosis that a writing system
necessarily entails. Clearly, this second factor contradicts the first. However, Saussure, as I have argued
above, both comes up against the problems posed by the semiotic power of the visual image at the
same time that he does not venture to theorize this. This leads to the paradoxical situation of a writing
system that exists solely to 'represent' speech at the same time that the visual image is seen as
'distorting' the true nature of speech sounds and their study. How can this paradox be overcome? In my
view, the solution to this lies in the recognition that: (1) just one of the functions of alphabetic writing
systems is to transcode speech sounds; and (2) visual-graphic signifiers are an independent semiotic
modality whose meaning-making potential can be theorized on the basis of criteria that pertain to
visual semiosis. The myth of the transparency of the visual signifiers of writing is easily exploded
when one considers the many ways in which the visual organization of the written page, for example,
directly participates in the contextualization of the meanings which are made.
Saussure's phonological theory, I have shown, is based on parole. A writing system is a system of
visual signifiers that are cross-coupled with the signifieds of a given language system. Like the
acoustic image in langue, the visual image in criture is a schematic category, rather than a specific
instance of writing. Both the hand-joint-muscle-skin kinaesthesis and the visual kinaesthesis which are
involved in any physical act of tracing a handwritten image onto a treated surface such as paper are
secondary from the system point of view of criture. These belong to the domain of the "perceptible
image", which is the written analogue of parole, or what Saussure calls the mot crit. This does not
mean they are secondary from the perspective of any given act of writing. Graphology is the interface
between the system of criture and the bodily processes of hand-muscle-joint-skin kinaesthesis and
visual kinaesthesis in the act of tracing handwritten images onto a treated surface. Both langue and
criture cross-couple specific phenomenal-material processes and semiotic resources in acts of parole
and acts of writing, respectively. These possibilities are schematized in Table 3 (available February 7).
Table 3 shows the essential complementarity of the systems of langue and criture. Each is crosscoupled with its respective semiotic modality, bodily process, and perceptual system. The parallelism
between the acoustic and the visual modalities of linguistic semiosis represents an extrapolation from
the specific relationship which Saussure proposes between the five levels of parole in his discussion of
the speech circuit. The analogy between the five levels of parole and what I shall propose as the five
levels of the mot crit will be further explored in lecture x. At this point, I shall now return to the
specific problematic of the representation of langue by criture.
In Derrida's reading, Saussure's term 'representation' is taken to refer to the interstratal relationship of
signification which is characteristic of the semiological or symbolic relation between signifier and
signified (Thibault 1996: chap. 10). Thus, for Derrida, criture is the signified of a signifier, langue,
as shown in Figure 2:
---------------Signified
'criture'
-------------------------------Signifier
'langue'
-------------------------------Figure 2: Presumed interstratal relationship between speech and writing, according to Derrida.
33

This means that writing would be a second-order semiotic system in relation to speech. Now, if Derrida
were right, then criture would be a second-order semiotic which takes the first order semiotic of
langue as its signifier, or its expression stratum, in the Hjelmslevian terminology (Hjelmslev 1969
[1943]). It would be a kind of connotative (second-order) semiotic which does not have its own
expression stratum, but uses that of some other first-order system. Yet, Saussure says that criture is a
distinct system of signs which has its own expression stratum, i.e., its visual-graphic signifiers. There
are two problems with Derrida's interpretation. First, Saussure criticises in no uncertain terms the
logical absurdity of confusing speech and writing in the one object of study (see section 2). Secondly,
Saussure does not at any stage use the term signification, or any other comparable term, to suggest that
the relationship between langue and criture is of this type. In my view, Saussure's use of the term
'represent' to refer to this relationship must be interpreted in quite a different sense. I shall now turn my
attention to this problem.
The first point to make is that Saussure is talking about a relationship between two distinct, though
related, systems of signs, rather than between two distinct strata in the same system. A system - system
relationship is not, therefore, of the same kind as the interstratal relationship between signifier and
signified in the sign. Secondly, the relationship which Saussure postulates between langue and
criture is a one-way one on the same level of abstraction. The two strata of signifier and signified, on
the other hand, represent two different levels of symbolic abstraction in a two-way or reciprocal
relation which constitues the sign (CLG: 98-9). Thus, criture represents langue, whereas Saussure
does not suggest that the reverse might also be true. In any case, the essential point is that langue may
be selectively instantiated by acts of writing. Thirdly, Saussure uses a variety of terms in addition to
'represent' to describe the relationship between the two systems. Aside from the term reprsenter
(CLG: 45), these include terms such as figure (CLG: 32) and dsigne (CLG: 165), which means 'to
point out', 'indicate', 'mark out', 'designate', and 'refer to'. In my view, Saussure does not use these terms
casually. Further, I do not believe that Saussure intends these terms to designate the semiological
relationship of signification as referred to above. In spite of the profusion of terms, I suggest that these
are all rough synonyms in Saussure's discourse of some still fairly inchoate notion of instantiation. This
is so in the specific sense that the graphemes of the written language system have the potential to index
quantifiable occurrences (instances) in parole of given classes of phonemes in langue.
Saussure is both exceedingly scrupulous and forever self-reflexive in his admittedly fluid and
constantly developing metasemiological terminology (Thibault: 1996: chap. 2). That is in the nature of
the semiological beast, as things stood when Saussure delivered his pioneering lectures in Geneva.
Quite simply, if Saussure had meant the relationship between langue and criture to be an interstratal
one, then he would have said so. But he does not. In any case, it is a logical absurdity, as Saussure
himself points out, to confuse the two systems of signs in the one object of study or to think that
signifiers from one system could signify signifieds from the other system in the same sign. Different
criteria are required for the study of both. From the monomodal system perspective, langue and
criture do not mix. However, this does not in anyway preclude the fact that speech and writing may
be co-deployed in specific multimodal semiotic performances.
A written language system is a system of visual signifiers. This is a distinct system of signs precisely
because it has meaning-making resources which are at least partially independent of the spoken
language system. Saussure does not, then, hold to the Aristotelian view of the relationship between
speech and writing, as expressed in On Interpretation:
"Words spoken are symbols or signs of affection or impressions of the soul; written words are the signs
of words spoken". (Aristotle 1983: 115)

34

Saussure's recognition that langue and criture are distinct systems of signs implicitly recognizes that
the former cannot simply be derivative of or dependent upon the former. Saussure shows his awareness
of the specifically visual dimension of semiosis in a number of ways, as shown in his discussion of
reading (section 3).
Observations such as this point to the significance of specifically visual meanings in the written
language. Such meanings are independent of the semiotic potential of the spoken language system.
Nevertheless, Saussure's observations on the specifically visual dimension of semiosis remain sporadic
and undeveloped. The point is that a grapheme has a distinctive value in the written language system
irrespective of whether it indexes a particular class of phoneme or not in the spoken system. That is,
the question of the relationship of criture to langue while important, is not necessarily primary. This
leads to an important question, viz. How may the graphology of the written language system be studied
along Saussurean lines?
The answer to this question may be divided into two parts. First, the graphemes of an alphabetic
writing system such as English or French are visual images which are analogous in function to the
phonemes of the spoken language system (Sefton 1988). Graphemes are the smallest scale units which
exist on the stratum of the signifier in the written language (McKintosh 1967: 100). As such, they
comprise a closed set of units which cannot be further subdividied into still smaller units. They are
equivalent to what Hjelmslev (1969 [1943]: 71) has referred to as figurae on the stratum of the
signifier. Figurae do not form signs. Instead, they are the smallest scale units out of which signs are
formed. Figurae (phonemes or graphemes) should not be confused with the phonic or graphic terms
which combine to produce specific parameters of articulation or its analogue in the hand-arm-eye-tool
movements in the implementation of the act of (hand)writing. To illustrate this, consider the difference
between the grapheme "s" in the word cats and then compare this with the contrast between the
graphemes "s" and "c" in the words sell and cell. In the word cats, the grapheme "s" realizes the
plural morpheme on the stratum of the signified. For this reason, it has a full-fledged status as a sign.
That is, it realizes a minimal unit of grammatical meaning. Now, consider the role of the graphemes
"s" and "c" in sell and cell. These two words have the same phonemic structure in the spoken
language. However, the graphemic contrast between "s" and "c" indicates that these are two distinct
words. Nevertheless, "s" and "c" do not, in this case, have morphemic status on the stratum of the
signified. They do not signify some minimal unit of grammatical meaning in the way "s" does in the
word cats. For this reason, they have what McKintosh (1967: 98) calls submorphemic status: they do
not have grammatical meaning, but they have distinctive value in the system of English graphology.
I would go further than does McKintosh. I take my cue for doing so from two sources. First, Hjelmslev
points out that the analysis of figurae on the stratum of the signifier (Hjelmslev's expression plane)
corresponds to the analysis of figurae on the stratum of the signified (Hjelmslev's content plane). In
other words, minimal units on the stratum of the signifier (phonemes and graphemes) correspond to
minimal units on the stratum of the signified. A grapheme is a visual signifier which has a distinctive
value in the graphological system of a given written language system. What, then, is the signified of a
grapheme? This brings me to my second source.
Petie Sefton (1988) has pointed out that graphic figurae (graphemes) realize or signify the letters of the
alphabet in a given written language system. Thus, the letter 'A' is signified by the visual image (the
grapheme) that corresponds to it. This is revealed by the way in which the graphemes of the written
system are assigned names which correspond to the letters of the alphabet. For example, the grapheme
"a" signifies the letter 'lower case aay'; the grapheme "A" the letter 'upper case aay'. That is, the
visual image, or grapheme, "a" signifies the letter we refer to as 'lower case aay' in the English
alphabet. The name so given to the visual image is, in other words, the signified of the grapheme in
35

question. This means that the letters of the alphabet refer to the minimal units of value that are
associated with the visual images of the writing system. Sefton also points out that there is a binary
contrast between 'large' and 'small' which allows for the distinction between upper and lower case. A
letter is, then, the name given to a submorphemic unit in the sense identified by McKintosh. The
relationship between a grapheme and the letter it signifies is, therefore, one of interstratal signification.
This relationship is stratified in exactly the same one as that between signifier and signified in a fullfledged sign. A grapheme is a minimal signifier whose signified is a given letter in the alphabet, as
shown in Figure 3.
'lower case aay' 'upper case aay'
----------------

----------------

"a"

"A"

Figure 3: Interstratal relationship between grapheme and letter of the alphabet which is signifies;
lower and upper case variants.
A grapheme may best be seen as a sort of sub-signifying unit. In some environments, it may signify a
particular grammatical category, as in the example of the plural morpheme referred to above. It may
also signify a single grapheme word, as in the case of the grapheme "a" in the nominal group a
mouse.
If graphemes are minimal signifying units, what, then, is their relationship to the spoken language
system? McKintosh has argued that "just as the word cat (written or spoken) has some sort of referent
outside language, so has the grapheme "t" some sort of referent outside written language" (1967:
103; emphasis in original). McKintosh refers to this second type of reference as the phonic reference of
a grapheme. In my view, this relationship is not one of signification, in the Saussurean sense, but of
indexicality. A grapheme has the potential to index one or more phonemes in the spoken language.
Indexicality is a type of intrastratal instantiation. More precisely, a grapheme indexes, or has the
potential to index, a quantifiable occurrence of a particular type-class of phoneme in the spoken
language. It construes a quantifiable occurrence, in some specific context, of a more general type-class
of phoneme. This means that we have here a species of instance - instance instantiation. For example,
the grapheme "c" in the words cite and cat indexes, in these two graphological contexts, a quantifable
occurrence of, respectively, the phonemes /s/ and /k/ whenever these two written words are, for
example, read aloud. In each case, the grapheme "c" conforms to an arbitrary instance of the phonemic
category in question. It is an 'arbitrary' instance in the sense that the grapheme "c" does not exhaust
the phonemic type-categories in question. There are other instances of the grapheme "c" which
instantiate these phonemic categories.
The discussion in the previous paragraph shows that both interstratal signification and intrastratal
instantiation are involved in the making of graphic signs in the written language. A given occurrence of
a grapheme is always an instantiation of a more schematic category. In this case, there is an intrastratal
Schema-Instance instantiation relationship between the two. In this way, the degree of conformity of
the instance to the criteria established by the schema is established.
In the case of phonic reference to a phoneme category in the spoken language, it is more appropriate to
say that the grapheme instantiates a quantifiable occurrence in parole of a given type-category of
phoneme. This presupposes an instance - instance relationship, i.e, from mot crit to parole. This is so
because indexicality is always context-specific. This accords with the fact that the 'translation' from
grapheme to phoneme can only take place in relation to specific instances. By the same token, these
36

necessarily presuppose the systems of graphological and phonological values of a given language
system in order that grapheme and phoneme may be compared in the first place.
In both kinds of instantiation relations, the relationship between either graphological Schema and
Instance or between graphemic instance and the phonemic category it instantiates is one-way, rather
than two-way. That is, both the categorizing and the instantiation dimensions of this relationship go in
the same direction. Let us illustrate this with a concrete example. I have selected the following three
words: connect, communication, and can. In particular, the four occurrences of the graphemic typecategory "c" instantiate the schematic criteria that are embodied in this Schema in spite of individual
differences in case size, font type, degree of boldness, and so on. The schematic criteria embodied in
"c" categorize these as more specific and detailed instances of the schematic category. Each of these
concrete occurrences is a specific instantiation of the Schema. However, these two dimensions of
categorization and instantiation embody a one-way judgement as to the degree of conformity of the
instance to the schema. The reverse does not hold: the schema is not judged in relation to the instance.
This process is presented in Figure 4.
Intrastratal Instantiation ------------------->
SCHEMA

INSTANCE

"c"

grapheme
graphemic
type-category instance (allograph)
Figure 4: Schema-Instance relation of grapheme to allograph.
If, on the other hand, I read the word connect aloud, then the grapheme "c" in this word construes a
quantifiable occurrence of the phoneme class /k/ in the phonemic structure of the spoken word in
question. That is, the grapheme construes an actual occurrence of the phonemic type-category in the
act of parole when I articulate the phoneme /k/. In this case, the instantiation relation may be
schematized as in Figure 5:
Intrastratal Instantiation ------------->
SCHEMA
OF PHONEME IN PAROLE
c"

INSTANCE
OF PHONEME IN PAROLE
c

QUANTIFIABLE OCCURRENCE
OF PHONEME IN PAROLE
/k/

Figure 5:Phonemic instantiation of grapheme.


A given grapheme may also index a phonemic category in some other language. This occurs when the
graphemes of a given language are used to provide approximations of the phonemic structure of words,
etc. in another language. Tourist phrase books and bilingual dictionaries may use this technique.
Analogously, the graphemes of one language may be used to index the graphemes of some other
language. The familiar case is that of transliteration. For example, the Devanaguri alphabet of Sanskrit
may be transliterated into standard Latin characters, along with the addition of appropriate diacritical
markings. Thus, (I speak, I say) is transliterated as vadami. In this way, a given grapheme may index a
quantifiable occurrence of a graphemic category in some other language which uses a different writing
system.

37

Finally, a given occurrence of a grapheme is an instantiation of a more schematic type-category. This is


so irrespective of font type, case size, and so on. The type-category is schematic to the instance
according to exactly the same principles that apply to the relations between phonemes and allophones.
However, there is no absolute standard which specifies what the characteristics of the graphemic
schema are. It is difficult to specify an unmarked "t", for example, which is schematic to all instances,
irrespective of whether these are in handwriting, typescript, and so on. Nevertheless, we have some
sense of a more schematic category of 't'ness to which any given instance conforms to varying degrees.
This in no way disallows the importance of contextual factors for deciding whether a given visualgraphic shape is a 't' or not.
Now, McKintosh's notion of phonic reference presupposes the transcoding of writing into speech, as
shown in Figure 5. However, it must not be forgotten that the reverse can also apply. This was
Saussure's particular starting point: writing 'represents' speech. That is, the graphological resources of a
language may be used to transcode its phonological resources. In this case, the starting point for the
Schema-Instance relation is the opposite of the above. The movement is from a phonological type
category to a quantifiable occurrence of a graphemic type-category, as shown in Figure 6.
SCHEMA
OF GRAPHEME
MOT ECRIT
/k/

IN

INSTANCE
QUANTIFIABLE
OF GRAPHEME IN MOT OCCURRENCE
ECRIT
OF GRAPHEME IN MOT ECRIT
/k/

c, as in connection

Figure 6: Transcoding from phoneme to grapheme.


To sum up:
(1) a given instance of a grapheme is an instantiation of some more schematic type-category. The
schema is the superordinate type-category and the particular instance indicates either a certain quality
or else degree of typicality of the schema. This allows for the wide variety of font types, handwriting
styles, and other variables, whereby the schema is instantiated. Instantiations of grapheme categories,
like their phonemic counterparts, embody notions of gradability and typicality. Judgements concerning
the 'quality' of someone's handwriting embody schematic thinking of this kind. This means that
particular instances are taken as 'resembling' the type-category to varying degrees. They are, in other
words, iconic to the schema;
(2) The realization of some submorphemic unit on the stratum of the signified. In alphabetic writing
systems such as English, this corresponds to the letters of the alphabet. The letter is the signified of a
grapheme. There is an interstratal relationship of signification between the two;
(3) the signifying unit which results from this relationship has the potential to index quantifiable
occurrences of: (i) particular phoneme categories in either the same language, or in some other
language; (ii) grapheme categories in other languages.
These indexical relations are a form of intrastratal instantiation. Type (i) illustrates the principle that
graphemes may be compared to phonemes in either the same or some other language system; type (ii)
shows that graphemes in one language system can be compared with those in some other language
system.
Conclusion
Most instances of writing are not representations of some prior speech event. Instead, they have a
semiotically independent existence. The resources of visual semiosis which are embodied in the
38

graphological system mean that writing is less tied to the here-and-now of speech (Halliday, 1985: ).
Increasingly, the visual semiotic resources of graphology are being exploited in relation to other
aspects of visual semiosis.
Writing does, however, have resources for selectively transcoding speech as a textual record of some
prior spoken event. These have been somewhat neglected in the research and include the grapheme,
punctuation, and so on.
Writing can also be reenacted or performed as a speech event. In this case, the resources of the spoken
language system transcode the written text. Thus, transcoding may go from writing to speech and from
speech to writing.
The issue is not whether writing, incorrectly taken as a norm for pronunciation, adequately represents
or corresponds to speech. The systems of graphology and phonology do not simply correspond to each
other in any simple or direct way. Rather, their respective semiotic modalities function in relation to
different contextual demands, in the process shaping the ways in which lexicogrammatical form is
itself differentially deployed in these two modalities. But that is a question to be taken up elsewhere.
References
Aristotle. 1983 [1938]. "On interpretation". In Aristotle in Twenty Three Volumes, Vol. 1. Trans. H.P.
Cooke and H. Tredennick. London: Heinemann.
Cattel, J. M. 1886. "The inertia of the eye and brain". Brain 8: 295-312.
Derrida, Jacques. 1976 [1967]. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and
London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Halliday, M.A.K. 1985. Spoken and Written Language. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press.
Hjelmslev, Louis. 1969 [1943]. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Revised English edition. Trans.
Francis J. Whitfield. Madison, Milwaukee and London: Wisconsin University Press.
Kress, Gunther. 1995. "Making signs and making subjects: the English curriculum and social futures".
An inaugural lecture. University of London: Institute of Education.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vol. 1: Theoretical prerequisites.
Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.
Lowe, Donald M. 1982. History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McIntosh, Angus. 1967. "'Graphology' and meaning". In Angus McIntosh and M.A.K. Halliday,
Patterns of Language. Papers in general, descriptive and applied linguistics, 98-110. London:
Longmans.
Mowatt, David G. and Dembowski, Peter F. 1965. "Literary study and linguistics". Canadian Journal
of Linguistics 11: 40-62.
Rossi-Landi, Ferruccio. 1977. Linguistics and Economics. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1971 [1915]. Cours de Linguistique Gnrale. Paris: Payot.
--- 1967. Cours de Linguistique Gnrale. Critical edition in three volumes, ed. Rudolf Engler,
Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Sefton, Peter. 1988. "Graphology and meaning on record sleeves". Department of Linguistics,
University of Sydney: Mimeo.
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Thibault, Paul J. 1996. Re-reading Saussure. The dynamics of signs in social life. London and New
York: Routledge.
Uldall, H.J. 1944. "Speech and writing". Acta Linguistica IV: 11-6.
Lecture Three
The Phoneme: Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Dimensions of Contextualization
1. The Phoneme in Relation to the Linguistic Sign: Preliminary Observations.
In Saussure's account, langue, or the language system, comprises the two orders of difference - phonic
and conceptual - which have the potential to combine in the making of signs. The combination of terms
from these two orders "produces a form, not a substance" (CLG: 157; emphasis in original). The
phonic and conceptual orders of difference semiotically construe the analog domains which Saussure
designates as "sound' and "thought" (CLG: 155-7), respectively. The system of phonic terms comprise
values such as, for example, [+ nasality]. This system constitutes a "network of preferences" (Bateson
1987 [1951]: 176) in which certain differences are recognized as semiotically salient in a given
language system and others are not. In this way, the system of phonic terms in a given language system
helps to determine the speaker-listener's perception of concrete speech sounds. These values have no
phenomenal-material status or substantive properties. Instead, they are schematic attributes which
specify the parameter values for both the articulation and the perception of a given sound sequence.
According to one widely held view, however, the signifier is a form which merely conveys a meaning
which is external to it. Form, so defined, has no shaping influence on meaning. Rather, symbolic form
represents a world which is pre-given and external to it.The arguments which I shall develop in this
lecture reject this view.
In Saussure's conception, the separability of the two orders of differences means that there is no fixed,
univocal relation between signifier and signified in any given sign relation. The sign, rather than
representing reality, produces it. "Reality" in this view is not a pre-defined world unto itself, but a field
of emergent possibilities which are produced by the value-producing distinctions internal to our
systems of interpretation of the world. Thus, pre-semiotic, amorphous "sound" and "thought" constitute
a potential in relation to which our experience and knowledge of the world are constructed through the
interaction of our systems of interpretance with these two dimensions. For Saussure, the combining of
terms from the two orders of difference is a semiotic activity. The sign is neither predetermined nor an
isolable elementary unit. Rather, it is an emergent property of the global system of reticular
connections which constitute a given network of values. The terms - phonic and conceptual - in the two
orders are elementary parameter values which operate in specific local environments, or associative
groups. These associative groups are not the product of a single, centralized principle of organization
in the mind-brain of the individual. Instead, the global nature of the system of values is comprised of a
heterogeneous mosaic of subsystems, or associative groups, comprised of multilevelled hierarchies of
terms which are not related as a whole system by any single unifying principle. What matters are the
connections which are built up over time by the processes of selective contextualization: if a given
number of terms are, typically, activated together, then the global connections among them are
reinforced. In this way, typical syntagmatic relations - typical patterns of combination - can be
identified on both the phonological stratum of teh signifier and the lexicogrammatical stratum of the
signified.
Both components of the sign in Saussure's theory are constitutive of and internal to language form.
They are both meaning-making. A further consequence of this point is that neither signifier and
40

signified nor form and substance are simply opposed to each other. The relation between signifier and
signified and between form and substance is not dichotomous. On the other hand, Saussure's theory is a
relativistic and contextual one of the relations between these two pairs of theoretical constructs. I shall
now explain what this means.
The combination of terms from the two orders of difference is an act of meaning-making. It is the
construing of a term or set terms from one order of difference in relation to a term or set of term terms
from the other order. This is how signs are made. This process of combination is one of selective
contextualization. A term combines with some, but not all, of the terms from the other order. In so
doing, it enters into some meaningful relations but not others. Meanings and, hence, signs are only
possible when not all possible combinations of terms from the two orders are equally likely. The
combinations that give rise to forms in the language are, therefore, selective. The forms which result
from these combinations entail principles of order, information, regularity, context, and meaning. Here
is an early formulation of Saussure's which pre-dates CLG:
Le signifi seul n'est rien: il se confond dans une masse informe. De mme le signifiant. Mais le
signifiant et le signifi contractent un lieu en vertu des valeurs dtermines, qui sont nes de la
combinaison de tant et tant de signes acoustiques avec tant et tant de dcoupures qu'on peut faire dans
la masse del la pense.
(Saussure 1969 [1894-5]: 49)
Now, the notion that the signifier is merely the bearer of a meaning which is external to it has tended to
skew the definition of meaning in terms of a purely conceptual one. However, Saussure's definition of
phonological form (the signifier) requires that this view be adjusted. The sign interfaces with materialphenomenal processes along both dimensions of its internal structure in acts of social semiosis. That is,
the signifier has meaningful relationships with phonic substance in ways that exactly parallel the
relationships between the signified and thought-substance on the conceptual side of the sign-relation.
The sign is a complex layering of both phonological and conceptual meanings. These are analytically,
but not constitutively, separable in the overall sign-relation.
In this lecture, I will focus on the meaningful relationships between phonological form - the spoken
signifier - and phonic substance. Phonological form, I shall argue, is the interface between the
language system and the acoustico-articulatory domain of the vocal tract and the speech sounds this
produces. In this way, phonological form selectively contextualizes this domain as semiotically formed
phonic substance. This is no less an act of meaning-making in the overall sign-relation than are the
'conceptual' relationships which are construed by the interface between signified and thought-substance
on the other side of the sign-relation.
Thought-substance is the interface between the information about the world which is picked up by our
perceptual systems (hearing, sight, touch, and so on) or simple imagined and its reconstrual as
instantiations of the conceptual categories which are internal to the signified. In exactly parallel
fashion, phonic substance is the interface between the acoustico-articulatory information which is
encoded by the bodily processes of articulation and its reconstrual as instantiations of the phonological
categories which are internal to the signifier.
The linguistic sign, in Saussure's basic account of this concept, is comprised of the two-way and
reciprocal relationship between a signifier and a signified. Signifier and signified are the two strata of
the sign-relation. The relationship between these two strata is an interstratal, or semiological one.
Saussure used the term signification to refer to this relationship.
The two strata in the sign-relation each involve a different kind of minimal unit. The minimal unit of
the signified is the lexicogrammatical unit called the morpheme. The minimal unit of the signifier is
41

the phoneme in the spoken language system and the grapheme in the written language system. The
minimal units on the two strata combine to form still larger units of, respectively, lexicogrammatical
and phonological or graphological organization. Morphemes combine to form words, groups, clauses,
and so on. Phonemes combine to form syllables, stress groups, and so on. Each stratum has its own
units with their own principles of combination. There is no isomorphism between the units and the
structural relations they enter into on any one stratum and those on the other. In early notes on
morphology which have been collected and edited by Robert Godel, Saussure makes the following
pertinent observations:
It is obvious that phonetics, while concerned entirely with sounds and in order to do so, is obliged in
the first place to concern itself with forms. Sounds are not transmitted from one generation to another
in an isolated state; sounds exist, live and change only through the bosom of words. (Saussure 1969
[1894-5]: 26)
Morphology is the science which treats units of sound corresponding to a part of an idea, and of
groupings of these units. Phonetics is the science which treats these units of sound to be established
according to physiological and acoustic characteristics. (Saussure 1969 [1894-5]: 28)
In this lecture, the focus will be on Saussure's definition of the phoneme. The phoneme is the smallest
unit on the stratum of the signifier which can enter into constituent structures in the phonology of a
given language system. Phonemes are comprised of simultaneous configurations of what Saussure
called phonic terms. Phonic terms derive from the phonic order of difference in langue. Saussure's
analysis of the phonic terms which combine to form particular categories of phonemes is based on
paradigmatic principles. Later linguists variously referred to these same principles of analysis as
componential or feature analysis.
Phonic terms such as the 'presence' or 'absence' of, say, nasality do not have a constituency structure of
their own in the phonology. Only phonemes and the still higher-order units (syllables, etc.) that are
built up from these have a constituency structure of their own. Phonic terms, in Saussure's analysis, are
linguistic glosses on specific acoustico-articulatory parameters. As we shall see in section 6, these are
topologically, rather than typologically, defined.
Phonic terms do not stand in a one-to-one relationship with phonemes. The analysis of a given
phoneme into the phonic terms, or features, that comprise it specifies the minimal criteria that
differentiate one phoneme from another in some paradigmatic set. This is the basis for the categorical
description of the phoneme (see section 5). There is no phoneme [nasality] in English phonology. The
'presence' or 'absence' of nasality is a phonic term. The phoneme 'p', for example, is a realization of the
configuration of phonic terms [complete closure, - laryngeal vibration, - nasal vibration] in Saussure's
analysis. There is, then, a one-to-many relationship between a given phoneme and the phonic terms
that constitute it. A given set of such terms specifies what Saussure calls the "factors at play in the
production of the sound" (CLG: 69). Saussure bases his analysis on the act of phonation: " ... all
phoneme types will be determined in identifying all acts of phonation" (CLG: 69). This means that a
given set of phonic terms correlates with a given state of the organs of articulation. The phoneme
category which is established in this type of analysis thus defines the state of the organs of articulation
that is required for the production of a sound of a given type. Saussure's analysis thus anticipates the
hypothesis of the categorical and quantal based nature of the relationship between state of the
articulators and sound produced (e.g., Stevens 1972).
Phonic terms do not occur separately or independently of one another. That is, phonic terms are
interdependent on both the articulatory and perceptual (acoustic) levels. It is this interdependence of
phonic terms which organizes the organs of articulation in a particular way for the production of a
sound of a given type. This means that a given act of phonation rarely, if ever, corresponds to a single
42

phonic term. More generally, it is a set of such terms which determines the structure of the articulatory
act. For example, a given sound may require the movement of tongue, lips, and larynx, and in ways in
which all these factors reciprocally determine each other.
Saussure's definition of the phoneme is an integral part of his overall conception of the sign. The place
of the phoneme in this conception remains fundamental for understanding the role of the phonological
pole of the sign-relation in social semiosis. The present lecture will endeavour to locate Saussure's
definition of the phoneme in this broader conceptual framework.
In order to achieve this goal, I shall begin by discussing the significant differences between Saussure's
definition and the pre-structuralist or substance-based approaches that Saussure reacted against, as well
as the structuralist or form-based approaches that succeeded Saussure's own endeavours.
2. Saussure's Phonological Theory and the Modern Distinction between Phonetics and
Phonology.
In his phonological theory, Saussure proposes a more abstract level of analysis than that which had
hitherto characterized the study of speech sounds. Saussure (CLG: 77) cites the "English phoneticians"
as an example of those studies which concentrated on the minute description of the individual sounds
of language. Such descriptions are founded on an ontology of the autonomy of phonic substance. They
are concerned, Saussure points out, "almost exclusively with the act of phonation, that is, with the
production of sounds by the organs (larynx, mouth, etc.), and neglect the acoustic side" (CLG: 63).
Saussure's analysis of speech sounds also differs from that of the later, structuralist analysis of
phonemic oppositions (Trubetzkoy, Jakobson, Chomsky, Halle) in a number of fundamental ones. Most
commentators either overlook the significant divergences between Saussure and his structuralist
successors, or they simply elide the Saussurean analysis with these. The chief difference is that the
structuralist phonology of Trubetzkoy and Jakobson, in contrast to the first approach, is based on the
ontological priority (and autonomy) of phonological form with respect to phonic substance. In this
view, phonemes are based on logico-combinatorial permutations of purely abstract distinctive features.
The problem, then, is how to overcome this dichotomy without at the same time simply reducing the
logical and purely relational categories of the second, structuralist view to a set of naturalistically
defined and purely immanent properties of the physical-material act of articulation (see also PetitotCocorda 1985: 96). In my view, Saussure's phonological theory represents a major attempt to
overcome the antinomy of phonic substance and phonological form. Hodge and Kress (1988: 28) point
out that Saussure's analysis of the sounds of language seemingly goes against one of his own
foundational principles. This is the principle that language is a form, not a substance. In so doing,
Saussure admits a material basis into his theory of speech sounds. But what is the significance of this
orientation ?
In this lecture, I shall argue that Saussure's phonological theory cuts across the distinction between
phonetics and phonology which is current in modern linguistics. The crucial question for Saussure is
not the ontological priority and/or autonomy of either phonic substance or phonological form. Rather,
the central question is concerned with how the categories of phonological form enable a semiotically
formed phonic substance to emerge from the acoustico-articulatory continuum. Thus, Saussure points
out that: "The delimitation of the sounds in the spoken chain cannot then rest on the acoustic
impression alone ; but for their description one must go further. It can only be done on the basis of the
articulatory act for the acoustic units taken in their own chain are unanalysable" (CLG: 65). In making
this claim, Saussure shows why his theory of phonology belongs to parole, rather than langue.
Articulatory movements do not constitute the language system : " ... when one has explained all the
43

movements of the vocal apparatus necessary for producing each acoustic impression, one has
explained nothing of the problem of the language system. This is a system based on the psychic
opposition of these acoustic impressions, ... " (CLG: 56). The fact that phonology in Saussure's
definition makes reference to the materiality of the articulatory act is the reason why it is said to be an
"auxiliary discipline" belonging to parole. It is in parole that the semiotic and the material cross-couple
with each other to produce a semiotically formed phonic and conceptual substance. Langue is pure
form rather than substance. For this reason, Saussure's definition of phonology does not belong to
langue. A number of important consequences derive from this distinction. First, Saussure provides a
bodily basis for the acoustic signifiers of speech. These cannot be defined as acoustic impressions
alone. Rather, there is a reciprocal contextualizing relation between acoustic impression and
articulatory act. The one construes or mutually defines the other. Secondly, the classification of all the
various types of articulatory act does not in itself explain the workings of the language system, which
is based on the "psychic opposition" of the acoustic impressions these give rise to. Saussure's point is
that the "psychic oppositions" are the basis of the combining of particular signifiers with their
signifieds in the making of signs. This can only happen through the workings of a higher order socialsemiological system which specifies which particular combinations of signifiers and signified regularly
occur in a given speech community. Thirdly, and consequent upon points (1) and (2), the psychic
nature of the oppositions in langue is only established on the basis of the meanings which are
embodied in the brain of the language user. These have no physical-material existence. From the point
of view of the individual in possession of a langue interieure, the combining of signifiers and
signifieds in the making of signs is a psychic, rather than a material, activity per se which takes place
in the consciousness of the individual. The individual's langue interieure exists solely as neural
activity. It constitutes his or her potential for combining signifiers with their signifieds in contextually
relevant ways. It is on the basis of a shared langue interieure that speaker and listener are able to
reconstruct in their brains the meanings of the acoustic impressions perceived. The individual's langue
interieure is not, however, a simple repository or storehouse of fixed, predetermined signs comprising
the individual's past experiences of the language and which are then recalled when needed. It is, above
all, a memory which enables the language user to predict future users of the language on the basis of
past uses. The langue interieure which is stored in the individual's brain simulates and predicts future
courses of (linguistic) action in contextually appropriate ways. (see CLG: 179).
Saussure makes it clear that individual "choice" and intention are not in themselves central organizing
principles which govern the speech activity of the speaker. Instead, the various associative groups in
memory constitute a set of not necessarily harmonious potentialities from which specific linguistic
choices emerge. Rather than hypothesising a conscious "ego" as the central organizing principle for
language activity, Saussure suggests that the former is itself organized by the continual forming and
reforming of the reticular connections among the associative relations that exist unconsciously in the
speaking subject'ss memory. The associative relations in memory constitute a virtual system of
oppositions which is continually rearticulated as the brain simulates and predicts specific courses of
linguistic action in response to ever changing contextual requirements along the historical-biographical
trajectory of the individual.
What, then, of the status of the reciprocal contextualizing relation between articulatory act and acoustic
impression that I referred to above? How is this important for Saussure's theory of the signifier? In my
view, the fact that meanings are constructed or made in dyadic interaction rather than "transmitted" lies
at the core of Saussure's conception. I shall explain this as follows. From the perspective of the
individual, meanings arise through the psychic activity of associating a signifier with a signified in the
individual's brain. Yet, this does not mean that meaning-making is the province of the individual per
se. For a start, the language system which exists globally in the brain of the individual is a socially
based system which serves to link the individual with others who share the same system. However,
44

there must also be physical-material means of coordinating the interactions between individuals so that
shared acts of meaning making can take place. In my view, this is the best explanation of the place of
the speech circuit in Saussure's overall theory (see Thibault 1997: chap. 6). Thus, the acoustic
information which the act of articulation projects into the ecosocial environment of speaker and
listener does not "transmit" a message or a "thought" from A to B. Rather, it affords social semiotic
interaction with suitably equipped others in the same ecosocial environment, where "suitably
equipped" means, above all, to be in possession of the same language system stored in their brains. In
Gibson's (1979) terms, the speaker's vocal tract gestures are an environmental event and the sounds
produced constitute the energy medium which, in stimulating the listener's perceptual organs, provides
the listener with information about that environmental event.
There are two important aspects to this point. First, the reciprocal relationship between articulatory act
and acoustic impression means that acoustic impressions construe socially relevant information about
the body of the speaker. That is, the vocal gestures produced by the speaker project information into
the environment concerning the presence of an embodied and interacting subjectivity. Secondly, the
projecting of this information into the ecosocial space-time of the speech circuit is other-oriented or
dialogic. It provides a matter-energy and information base whereby the interactants are mutually
coordinated for the purposes of dialogic exchange. Saussure's emphasis on the psychic, or intentional,
character of the acoustic impressions perceived by the listener shows that speakers and listeners
actively orient to each other as well as to the environmental information which speech sounds provide
interactants. The articulatory acts of the speaker are vocal tract gestures (and postures ?) which
function to bring about the mutual coordination and orientation of interactants in ecosocial space-time.
There are at least three dimensions to this space-time, all of which contribute to the mutual orientation
of the interactants. These are: (1) the visual information which the visible (facial) dimension of the
articulatory act presents to the listener in the form of visible lip movements, and so on; (2) the acoustic
information which the speaker projects into the environment; and (3) the somatic information which
our body provides as it physically orients to the visual and acoustic information projected by the
speaker. This cannot occur on the basis of processes which take place in the brains of the individuals
per se. The vocal gestures which the speaker produces and the sounds these project into the
environment have both a corporeal and an extra-corporeal dimension. In the first case, they are
perceived by the internal senses of the individual and felt as localized in the speaker's body
(proprioception); in the second, the vocal gestures and the sounds produced are a phonologically
motivated extension of the speaker's body into an extra-corporeal space-time of potential interaction
with the other. From the speaker's perspective, they are perceived as going beyond his or her body. If
the first perspective is concerned with the intra-personal space defined by the speaker's body, the
second is directed towards and constitutes the inter-personal space-time of social interaction.
The phonological information which the listener extracts from the chain of heard speech is based on a
system of phonic differences deriving from the phonic order of difference in langue. Further, the
indissoluble and two-way nature of the link between "sound" and "sense" in Saussure's theory means
that from the perspective of a given language system the psychic oppositions of the acoustic
impressions which are perceived in the speech chain provide speaker and listener with a systemic basis
for the associating of these impressions with their signifieds in contextually appropriate ways. Within a
given language system, the selective nature of the possibilities for cross-coupling the two orders of
difference means, in effect, that speaker and listener are constrained to assign only some concepts
(signifieds) to the particular combinations of acoustic impressions that the phonological system of a
given language allows. They are not free to assign any concept to any given sequence of phonemes.
Rather, the possible cross-couplings of phonic and conceptual terms in a given language are
systemically constrained. This is an important dimension of Saussure's concept of arbitrariness.
Phonologically patterned combinations of acoustic impressions in the linear stream of heard speech
45

thus constitute a first-order contextualizing relation on the basis of which second and higher-order
relations of signifieds may be built up. The descriptive variables on this first level - the acoustic
impressions - do not "cause" their signifieds to come about. The point is that they provide a system of
constraints whereby signifieds are associated with them in language specific ways.
In terms of a revised theory of Aristotelian complex causality (Salthe 1993: 10-13), we may revisit
Saussure's phonological theory to show how the modern distinction between phonetics and phonology
represents a dichotomous pairing of material and formal causes at the expense of efficient and final
causes. Thus, modern phonology constitutes principles of organization (formal causes) which enable
speech activity to take place, whereas phonetics may be seen to refer to the physical-material means
whereby a given speech event occurs (material causes). In Saussure's account, all four causal factors in
Aristotle's account come into play, viz. material, formal, efficient, and final causes. Efficient causes
refer to the articulatory acts - the vocal tract gestures - which result in the production of a given speech
sound (CLG: xx). Material causes are the patterns of acoustic impressions which are allowed and
recognized by a given language system. Material causes may also include the energy media - the air which enable the information about the environmental event (the speaker's vocal tract gestures) to
reach the sensory systems of the listener. Thus, material causes include the sound waves and energy
media which function as ecosocial affordances for dialogic interaction. Formal causes are the psychic
(intentional) activities in and through speakers and listeners organize the production and perception of
speech sounds as constituting semiotically salient differences on the basis of which meaning is made.
Final causes are the socially shared meanings which are the ends or purposes of social interaction.
Various commentators such as Culler (1976: 31) and Harris (1983: xiv) have failed to understand the
very different notion of phonology that Saussure proposes with respect to modern theory. Both of these
scholars have read Saussure's phonological theory in terms of the latter day distinction between
'phonology' and 'phonetics'. To be sure, both Culler and Harris recognize that Saussure does not use
these terms in their modern sense. But what they both fail to grasp is the important theoretical issue
which is at stake in Saussure's quite different understanding of speech sounds. This has profound
implications for our understanding of the concept of 'binary relation' in Saussure's phonological theory.
I shall discuss this notion in section 3 below. But first, a few words on the quite different use of this
notion in the phonological theory of Trubetzkoy and Jakobson.
3. The Structuralist Re-contextualization of Saussure's Phonological Theory: Trubetzkoy and
Jakobson.
In his pioneering study, the Principles of Phonology (1969 [1939]), Trubetzkoy explicitly formulates
the distinction between phonology and phonetics in the modern sense. In so doing, Trubetzkoy (1969
[1939]: 4) quite explicitly distances himself from the Saussurean position. According to Trubetzkoy,
Saussure attached little importance to "the distinction between the study of sound pertaining to parole
and the study of sound pertaining to langue" (1969: 4). On the basis of this distinction Trubetzkoy,
Jakobson and Karcevskij, were the first to distinguish between phonetics and phonology in the modern
sense at the First International Congress of Linguists in the Hague in 1928 (Trubetzkoy, 1969: 5). In so
distancing himself from Saussure's position, Trubetzkoy based his own theoretical position on the
concept of the phonological opposition.
There are, then, important differences between Saussure's definition of the phoneme and the
structuralist phonology of Trubetzkoy et al. In Trubetzkoy's definition, the phoneme is a distinctive
opposition in sound which distinguishes the lexical meaning of two words. For example, the difference
between the English words pin and bin is explainable in these terms. As I shall show in the course of
this lecture, Saussure's distinction between a science of phonological types and a 'combinatory
46

phonology' which is concerned with how phonemes are combined in the spoken chain cuts across the
distinction between phonetics and phonology as it is now generally established in the study of speech
sounds.
In this section, I shall examine the structuralists' definition of the phoneme so that Saussure's quite
different conception may be made clearer in the sections that follow the present one.
While there is no single universally agreed upon way of defining the distinction between phonetics and
phonology, it is generally accepted that the phonetic study of speech sounds is naturalistically based
and independent of questions of meaning, function, and value. Phonetics, in this definition, is
concerned, above all, with "typical articulatory positions and sounds [ ... ] taken from the articulatory
and sound continuum" (Trubetzkoy 1969: 13).
Phonology takes these as "data", but is concerned with the "systemic study [of distinctive sound
oppositions] and the study of combinations". These are, Trubetzkoy concludes, "quite independent of
phonetics" (1969: 14). Phonology, according to this view, is concerned with the functions of distinctive
sound oppositions from the point of view of the language system (Trubetzkoy 1969: 2-3).
Trubetzkoy transforms the crucial Saussurean concept of binary relation into one of opposition. This is
a significant change. In so doing, he also abstracts this from the phonic substance in relation to which
phonological forms are categorically construed. Phonologically distinctive oppositions are those
oppositions of sound which distinguish the meaning of one word from some other word in the same
language. Trubetzkoy (1969: 31) calls these meaning-differentiating functions of sound. Not all
oppositions of sound are distinctive in this way. Those which are not are said to be phonologically
nondistinctive.
In English, for example, the opposition between the phonemes / n / and / n' /, as in the words sin and
sing, is phonologically distinctive. A further example is the phonological opposition between the
singular and the plural morphemes / U / and / i: / in the words foot and feet. On the other hand, the
phonological oppositions among the phonemes / z /, / iz /, and / s /, which realize the plural morpheme
in words such as bananas, horses, and cats, are phonologically nondistinctive. Each of these occurs in
phonologically distinct groups, but they all realize the same morpheme of 'plurality' on the stratum of
the signified. For this reason, they are not meaning-differentiating in the Trubetzkoy analysis. Thus, / iz
/ occurs after sibilant and affricate consonants; / s / after voiceless consonants; and / z / occurs in all
other possible phonological environments, i.e., after voiced sounds.
Each member of an opposition is what Trubetzkoy defines as a "phonological (or distinctive) unit"
(1969: 33-4; emphasis in original). The smallest phonological unit is the phoneme. However,
Trubetzkoy's definition of this term is different in a number of important respects from Saussure's. The
phoneme cannot be further analysed into still smaller distinctive units. Trubetzkoy (1969: 35) points
out that phonemes are not the "building blocks out of which individual words are assembled". Rather, a
word, which is a phonic entity, is a Gestalt. It is a functionally defined configuration in which
phonemes are the distinctive marks.
Trubetzkoy's framework is a structural-functional one. The concern is with the distribution of phonetic
forms in phonemic (structural-functional) configurations. The distributions of these phonemes in
particular configurations are a function of the phonological system of that language. Trubetzkoy's
concept of the phoneme means that this is a kind of phonological category. Thus, regularities in the
phonetic organization of the language differentially realize phonological categories.
Following Saussure, a phonological category is defined along two dimensions. These are the
paradigmatic and the syntagmatic axes. Phonologists use the first of these to specify the nature of the
phonetic regularities which realize a given phoneme. This is where the concept of binary opposition is
47

important. Structural phonologists say that a given phoneme either has or does not have a given
feature. They specify the presence or the absence of a feature by using the '+' and '-' signs. For
example, the notation [+ consonantal] means that a given phoneme is consonantal; the notation [+
tense] means it is tense, as opposed to lax. Vowels are non-consonantal. The feature [+ tense] means,
acoustically speaking, that the "steady-state portion of the sound" is lengthened, as opposed to reduced
[+ lax] (see Jakobson and Halle 1956).
Phonologists in the structuralist tradition use the concept of the binary opposition in this type of feature
specification. There is, for example, a binary opposition between the presence and the absence of the
feature [consonantal]. In other words, this is the contrast between the features [+ consonantal] and [+
vocalic]. Phonologists developed a matrix form of representation in order to represent the interaction
of the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic dimensions. The paradigmatic dimension is represented by a
series of vertical rows.
The syntagmatic dimension is represented horizontally. This dimension specifies the actual sequence of
phonemes as they occur in a word. These are the the functionally related parts which make up the
whole Gestalt, i.e., the word.
Chomsky and Halle (1968: 165) use the matrix representation to analyse the English words inn and
algebra in this way. Chomsky and Halle indicate degree of stress with a number. In their analysis, this
expresses the stress contour of a word. The first vertical row shows the binary specification of features
for the initial phoneme / i / in the word inn. The phoneme comprises the configuration of features
which is specified. Phonologists specify these features as a binary opposition between the presence or
absence of that feature (see above). Thus, the phoneme / i /: (1) is non-consonantal; (2) is vocalic; (3)
has second degree nasality; (4) is non-tense; (5) has first degree stress; (6) is voiced; (7) is continuant.
The Chomsky-Halle analysis, which follows in the tradition first proposed by Trubetzkoy and
Jakobson, does, on the other hand, have a theoretical basis in the material reality of phonic substance.
That is, Chomsky and Halle also refer to articulation in their description of phonological features,
although they also recognize perceptual and acoustic correlates of these. It is a purely abstract
representation which is based on the perceptual reality of the (idealized) speaker-hearer. In the same
tradition of transformational-generative phonology, Postal argues that the phonetic features are mental
instructions which specify how the articulatory act is to be executed (1968: 273). In the ChomskyHalle analysis, phonetic features such as "nasal", "voiced", and so on specify various aspects of the
articulatory act according to a physical scale of values which has, in my view, its roots in a realist
conception of phonetic features as existing independently of the categorical salience these have in
some system of phonological values.
Jakobson and Halle (1956) make a clearcut distinction between the semantic level of language, and
what they call its "feature level". The first involves meaningful units of varying degrees of complexity.
These range from morpheme through to discourse. The feature level, on the other hand, is the
phonological level. On this level, the units and their combinations serve merely to differentiate and to
'cement' or 'partition' or otherwise highlight the meaningful units on the semantic level. They have no
meaning of their own. A number of observations are in order.
First, Jakobson and Halle follow the structuralists' separation of the phonology from the materiality of
phonic substance (cf. phonetics). Secondly, they make a clearcut distinction between the semantic level
and the feature, or phonological, level. They do not see this level as also contributing a layer of
specifically phonological meaning to the overall sign-relation. Thirdly, they suggest that distinctive
features on both of these levels - the phonological and the semantic - entail a choice between the two
terms of some binary opposition.
48

The Jakobson-Halle account presents us with a number of significant departures from Saussure's
position. Saussure did not project the binary principles of organization which he discovered in the
signifier on to the stratum of the signified. Further, Saussure considers both signifier and signified to be
meaning-making (value-producing) in relation to each other. Thus, the structuralists' account of binary
oppositions, as witnessed in the work of some of its key exponents, involves a radical
recontextualization of Saussure's conception.
In the structuralists' account, this entailed: (1) a clearcut distinction between form (phonology) and
meaning (semantics). This is not the same as Saussure's conception of the relationship between
signifier and signified, which Saussure envisaged as a single meaning-making complex; and (2) the
projection of the principle of binary oppositions from the phonology on to the semantics. This move
has important consequences for the subsequent development of this principle.
Unlike the structuralists, Saussure does not privilege the ontological autonomy of form over substance.
For this reason, structuralist phonology obscures the way in which the material-phenomenal domain of
phonic substance is itself semiotically organized in relation to phonological form. According to the
structuralist phonologists, the phoneme is an abstract distinction in phonological form. It has a purely
relational (phonological) value. It has no basis in the material-phenomenal domain of the acousticoarticulatory processes involved in speech production and perception. Instead, phonological form is
treated as if it has an independent ontological status of its own. It is the allophones of this, with their
acoustic, perceptual, and physiological properties, which instantiate the phoneme in phonic substance.
Allophones, accordingly, belong to parole in this view.
Saussure's conception, on the other hand, does not bracket out the material. However, in order to
understand how phonic substance and phonological form relate to each other, Saussure proposes quite
a different model. This is the semiological, categorical and topological one which I shall now explore
in sections 4, 5 and 6 below.
4. The Semiological Basis of the Phoneme.
Roy Harris argues that it is possible to read Saussure's concept of the phoneme "as allowing that a
human facult de langage which presides over the culturally determined patterns of bi-planar
correlation between sounds and concepts will 'naturally' (that is, biologically) choose certain modes of
physiological articulation, irrespective of the circumstances of cultural history" (1987: 50). I do not
think that it is a simple matter of biology presiding over culture. Nor do I think that Saussure's account
of the 'interface' between the cultural and the biological is the "fairly naive version" that Harris (1987:
51) suggests. To clarify why I think this is so, it is important to bear in mind that, in Saussure's theory,
phonological units are established on the basis of acoustic impressions:
The acoustic given already exists unconsciously when one tackles phonological units; it is by means of
the ear that we know what a b, a t, etc. is. If one could reproduce by cinematographic means all the
movements of the mouth and larynx when executing a chain of sounds, it would be impossible to
discover the subdivisions in this sequence of articulatory movements; one would not know where a
sound begins, where the other ends. How can it be affirmed, without the acoustic impression, that in fal
[with an accent "-" over the a], for example, there are three units, and not two or four? It is in the chain
of heard speech [la chaine de la parole entendue] that one can immediately perceive whether a sound
remains the same or not; as long as one has the impression of homogeneity, the sound is the same.
What matters is not so much its duration in quavers or semiquavers (cf. fal [with an accent "-" over the
a] and fal [with an accent "u" over the a]), but the quality of the impression [la qualit de
l'impression]. The acoustic chain is not divided in equal temporal units, but in homogeneous ones,
49

characterized by the unity of the impression, and that is the natural point of departure for phonological
study. (CLG: 63-4)
Phonological units are established on the basis of acoustic impressions. However, acoustic impressions
are not the same as raw acoustic stimuli in the objectified and physicalist sense. Rather, they refer to
the qualitative information which the ear extracts from the acoustico-articulatory flux. There is no oneto-one correspondence between phonemic categories and the information in the acoustico-articulatory
flux. The 'impossibility of discovering the subdivisions in the sequence of articulatory movements'
refers, on the other hand, to the analog continuum of the acoustico-articulatory flux. The 'impossibility'
that Saussure refers to has to do with the fact that phonemes are not simply and directly encoded in the
sound sequence. The sound sequence is not a cipher or a spoken alphabet whereby each sound encodes
a phoneme on a one-to-one and strictly linear basis. Instead, the sequence of articulatory movements
encodes complex configurations of phonic terms in the acoustic flux.
In Saussure's definition, the phoneme is based on the sum of "acoustic impressions and articulatory
movements" (CLG: 65; see below for discussion). The phonic terms which are encoded in a given
phoneme may be interwoven and distributed in the chain of speech across more than one segment of
speech sound. Indeed, a given phonic term may participate in the contextualizing of more than one
phoneme in the spoken sequence. From 'below', phonic terms index features of the sequence of
articulatory movements. From 'above', they are reconstrued as instances of phonemes. That is, phonic
terms necessarily face two ways. They are an interface between the lower stratum of the acousticoarticulatory continuum and the higher one of the phonological categories in relation to which a
semiotically formed phonic substance emerges. The "impression of homogeneity" is qualitative: the
layering of phonic terms in the spoken chain gives rise to acoustic impressions which the ear
selectively reconstrues as the complex unity of principles (articulatory and acoustic) which Saussure
defines as the phoneme (see section 5).
The "homogeneity of impression" whereby phonemes are identified is not based on the principle of
"equal temporal units" because there is, as I pointed out above, no one-to-one relationship between
articulation and phoneme. The "homogeneity" Saussure refers to is both qualitative and semiological.
If there really were a simple, one-to-one correlation between sound and phoneme, then the relationship
would be unilinear and causal, rather than semiological. This is one reason why the phonology does
not function like an alphabet. The phonology cannot, for this reason, be treated in the same way as the
written language system.
Phonic substance (the phonetics, in the modern sense) of a given language emerges from the analog
continuum of what Hjelmslev called expression-purport. Phonic substance is reconstrued as instances
of specific phonological categories by the system of phonological forms. The phonological system of a
given language is the system of interpretance in and through which a phonic substance is motivated
both from the articulatory and perceptual points of view. This occurs on basis of the acoustic
impressions that the ear perceives. The acoustic images which are stored in the brain constitute a
repertoire of sensori-motor schemas which organize both the execution (articulation) and perception of
speech sounds even before any sensory experience has occurred. In this way, semiological values are
assigned to the unity that arises from the complementary relationship between oral articulation and
acoustic impression. This is shown in Figure 1:

50

The general semiological principle which relates the various levels, or strata, of this relation (i.e.,
phonic substance and phonological form) is analogous to the stratal relationship between signifier and
signified in the overall sign-relation. From the point of view of the phonological pole of the signrelation, this principle may be stated as follows: The movements of articulation a, b, c redound with
phonic terms p, q, r, which are perceived as semiotically salient informational values in the acousticoarticulatory flux. In turn, configurations of these categorically construe some phoneme x. It is not the
case, however, that there are two separate causal series: the synergy of articulatory movements [a, b, c]
does not 'cause' the configuration of phonic terms [p, q, r]. Nor does this, in turn, 'cause' phoneme x.
Rather, there is a semiotic, or interstratal, relation of metaredundancy between these various levels.
Thus, phoneme x redounds not with the phonic terms [p, q, r], but with the redundancy of the
configuration of phonic terms [p, q, r] with the complex of articulatory movements [a, b, c]. A given
configuration of phonic terms does not stand, realist fashion, in direct correspondence with the
mechanical movements of articulation in the vocal tract. Rather, the latter are interpreted as values, or
configurations of salient information that have a categorical significance. On this basis, the brain is
equipped with the means of both evaluating and anticipating the motor and perceptual activities of
speaking and listening.
This explains why sounds in the spoken sequence do not stand in a direct relationship with phonemes.
Phonemes are realized by configurations of phonic terms. But the phonic terms are reconstrued for
realization as the articulatory movements [a, b, c]. In other words, a given phoneme x is realized by the
realization of the phonic terms by the sequence of articulatory movements. In other words, ((phoneme
x \ (phonic terms [p, q, r] \ articulatory movements [a, b, c])). It is in this sense that instances of
phonemes, or phonological types, emerge from the 'lower' level acoustico-articulatory continuum. In
this way, the continuum of analogic differences is selectively digitalized as phonological values in
relation to the psychic orientations of speaker and hearer in the speech circuit.
Saussure's understanding of the categorical basis of the perception of speech sounds also explains why
his definition of the phoneme is dually based on both articulatory movements and acoustic
impressions. In incorporating both of these dimensions, Saussure's definition, as I pointed out in
sections 2 and 3, cuts across the standard distinction between phonetics and phonology: the
phonological categories in the language system control and contextualize material occurrences of
speech sounds as instances of these categories in phonic substance. Unlike de Courtenay, who was the
51

first linguist to theorize the notion of the phoneme, Saussure does not intend by this term an a priori
mental idealization of the sound in question, i.e., one which is separate from the phenomenon - speech
sounds - that it controls and regulates. Instead, Saussure's notion is dually grounded in the act of
articulation and in the acoustic impressions perceived by the ear The phoneme is an emergent property
of the dynamical behaviour of the system as a whole. Rather than claiming that some idealized a priori
mental construct causes or programs speech sounds, Saussure's analysis emphasises that speaking is an
embodied activity or movement that takes place in a wider ecosocial context. In such a view, the
emphasis is on the reciprocal and mutually determining nature of the relations among all of the
variables that are involved. The acoustic images that are stored in the brain do not function as a priori
programs that control articulation. Similarly, phonic terms, or features, do not cause discrete
articulatorily movements that unfold in a linear sequence in the uttering of a given speech sound. The
acoustic image is an equifinal characteristic which is determined by the dynamic parameters - the
emergent phonic detail, specifiable as configurations of phonic terms in a topological space - that
define the organization of the articulatory act in relation to its ecosocial environment. In such a view,
the phoneme does not have a structure which is independent of the space-time of the ecosocial
environments in which it is spoken and heard. Rather, it is an emergent property of the ways in which
the organs of articulation are entrained and coordinated for the accomplishing of particular acts.
In this respect, the ear has a vital contextualizing role to play. The ear introduces a digital and
intentional (psychic) orientation to the analog continuum of differences (the information) in the
acoustico-articulatory flux. This provides the information to which the ear selectively orients. The ear
functions as the interface or the boundary between the analog continuum of this acoustico-articulatory
information and the digital distinctions made in phonological form. These digital distinctions are the
phonological categories of a given language system. Hearers do not perceive speech sounds in a direct
or unmediated way. They do not perceive 'raw' acoustic stimuli in the physicalist sense. Instead,
Saussure emphasises the active and contextualizing role of the ear, which discriminates on the basis of
salient patterns of difference. That is, the ear selectively contextualizes the chain of heard speech on
the basis of semiological criteria which assign phonological values to the perceived patterns of
sameness and difference in the spoken chain. This is what Saussure means by the "quality of the
impression": the ear selectively contextualizes on the basis of semiotically salient, rather than
naturalistically defined, patterns of difference.
5. Saussure's Categorical Theory of the Phoneme.
Saussure's explanation of the perception of speech sounds is a categorical one. The categorical basis of
specifically phonetic perception was investigated in the pioneering research of phoneticians such as
Studdert-Kennedy, Liberman, Harris, and Cooper, 1970) and Repp and Liberman (198?). Phonetic
categories are defined as follows:
Other things being equal, stimuli belonging to the same phonetic category are more difficult to
discriminate than stimuli on opposite sides of a phonetic boundary. This phenomenon has long been
known as "categorical perception". (Repp and Liberman 198?: 89)
In the same paper, Repp and Liberman argue that the categorical perception of speech sounds is not
absolute, but graded or "flexible". This represents a correction of the earlier stance of these same
researchers that categorical perception can only occur "in absolute terms" (1970). The important point
is that phonological types (phonemes) constitute the means whereby discontinuities or digital
distinctions in the analog continuum of phonetic stimuli are construed. Thus, the "impression of
homogeneity" that Saussure refers to in the above citation represents a categorizing judgement
52

concerning the way in which sounds in the phonetic continuum are perceived as belonging to distinct
classes of phonological categories (phonemes).
In the first instance, Saussure bases his analysis on what he calls the "articulatory act" [l'acte
articulatoire] (CLG: 65). What is at stake for Saussure is an important descriptive principle - acoustic
units per se cannot be the basis of phonological description. These must be linked to what Saussure
refers to as the "chain of movements in phonation" (CLG: 65). At this point, Saussure makes a decisive
claim:
The delimitation of the sounds in the spoken chain can only rest, then, on the acoustic impression; but
for their description, one must go further. It can only be done on the basis of the articulatory act, for the
acoustic units taken in their own chain are unanalysable. One must have recourse to the chain of
movements in phonation; one notices therefore that to the same sound corresponds the same act: b
(acoustic moment) = b' (articulatory moment). The first units which one obtains on segmenting the
spoken chain are composed of b and b'; they are called phonemes [phonmes]; the phoneme is the sum
of the acoustic impressions and of the articulatory movements, of the unit which is heard and that
which is spoken, the one conditions the other: thus it is already a complex unit, which has a foot in
each chain. (CLG: 65)
With the term "phoneme", Saussure intends, therefore, quite a different descriptive unit from that
which modern phonology recognizes. For Saussure, the complex unit which he establishes is, as I
argued in section 4, based on an interstratal relation between articulatory moment and acoustic moment
in phonic substance and phonological form. This important principle will be further developed below.
Saussure proposes that the description of "the spoken chain" be conducted on the basis of a complex
unity of principles. It is a unity which the separate subdisciplines of phonology and phonetics, in the
modern sense, subsequently kept apart.
The point of this unity is to show that both oral articulation and acoustic impression are necessary for
the description of the phoneme. There is a reciprocal or two-way relationship between the two in
Saussure's account. In other words, they are part of the one overall phenomenon. The complementarity
of oral articulation and acoustic impression means the information which is present in one makes it
possible to predict the information in the other. The complementarity of the two makes the variability
of the whole which Saussure designates as comprising b and b' less than the variability of the two
components, taken separately. That is, b and b' are contexts for each other's interpretation. The one
constrains the possibilities of interpretation of the other. In the language of metaredundancy which I
introduced in section 4, b is redundant with b' (see Lemke 1984: 35-6).
The relationship between b and b' is a first order redundancy relation, rather than a contextualizing
relation in the proper sense. This relationship is represented in the formalism of metaredundancy as
(b/b'), where the single slash indicates the first-order redundancy of b with b'. Saussure's solution to
this problem is to propose the phoneme as the unit which derives from the "sum" of b and b'. On
segmenting the spoken chain, the question has to be asked as to why the linguist obtains b and b',
rather than, say, b and x. The relationship between b and x may be a sound pattern which is not
recognized by the phonological system of a given language. The recognition of b and b' requires a
context for its correct interpretation. That is, it requires a second-order redundancy relation which
specifies the context for the interpretation of b and b'. It tells us the context in which b and b' are
related to one another. It is the phoneme which fulfills this function for Saussure. The context in
question is the system of phonological forms of a given language. The phoneme is a second-, and,
hence, higher-order contextualizing relation which contextualizes the relationship between b and b'.
This is so in the sense that the phoneme is a schematic (systemic) category belonging to phonological
form. The full contextualizing relationship is formalized as ((b/b') // c), where the phoneme is the
53

second-order metaredundancy relation represented by c. This says that c is redundant with the
redundancy of b and b' (Lemke 1984: 36). There is, as I pointed out in section 4, an interstratal and
semiological relationship between phonic substance and phonological form. Oral articulation and
acoustic impression belong to the material-phenomenal domain of phonic substance. The phoneme is
the higher-order contextualizing relation which construes meaningful relationships between the events
b and b' as a phonologically motivated phonic substance.
Saussure's theory of phonological types is concerned with specifying the contextualizing relations that
relate phonological form to phonic substance. That is not the same, as we shall see in section 9, as
specifying the ways in which these contextualizing relations are used in the spoken chain.
How do speakers and hearers construe phonological order in the flux of the acoustico-articulatory
continuum? To answer this question, it is necessary to pose two prior questions: (1) how is a particular
phonic event recognized as an instance of a phoneme of a given type or a sequence of such phonemes
by the users of the language?; and (2) what are the structurally stable phonological forms (phonemes)
of the language system? In actual fact, these two questions are no more than two different perspectives
on the same overall problem. The difference between the two perspectives is one of delicacy, or degree
of specificity, of description.
The first question is concerned with the very many slightly different material manifestations of a sound
of a given type. For example, individual differecens of pronunication, and so on. The second
perspective is that of the general category of sound to which specific, material instances are assignable.
The first perspective refers to the allophones; the second to the more schematic phonemic categories,
or phonemes. The difference between the two perspectives is not just one of levels of abstraction, but
also of degree of delicacy, or specificity. In other words, the relation between the two perspectives is
one of variable degrees of delicacy whereby specific instances may be related to the type along a
graded continuum. The American linguist, Ronald Langacker, in his theory of 'cognitive grammar',
refers to this relationship as one of "schematicity":
In a relationship of full schematicity, the participating structures are fully compatible in their
specifications; hence they must occupy the same general region of semantic space. The schema and its
instantiation represent the same entity at contrasting levels of specificity: the schema is a coarsegrained representation showing only gross organizational features, whereas its instantiation delineates
the entity in precise, fine-grained detail.
A schematic relationship reflects a categorizing judgment based on comparison. The overall
comparison between a schema and its instantiation summarises over an indefinite number of local
comparisons between corresponding substructures." (Langacker 1987: 91)
The phoneme, as a categorical type of phonological form, determines what speech sounds will be
construed as corresponding to the categorical judgments embodied in the more schematic category.
Such a judgment is always an act of comparison. A given instance in phonic substance is always
compared to the more schematic representation - the phoneme - which the schema entails. The schema
is criterial. A given instance can be said to instantiate the schema up to some specifiable level of
delicacy, or specificity. Beyond this, a given instance may display differences which are non-criterial,
sub-distinctive, or not salient.
Every material occurrence, or instance, of a given phoneme category is unique at some level of
delicacy, or specificity. From this point of view, no two instances are ever exactly identical. This is so
for a variety of reasons. These may range from the physiological characteristics of the individual
speaker, to the physical channel (face-to-face, electronic, and so on), and to other material factors in
the context. In so far as a given occurrence can be said to instantiate some categorical schema, it is
possible to say that it has a relationship to a specifiable phonological SYSTEM of relations. That is, a
54

material instance of a phoneme can be placed in a SYSTEM-INSTANCE relationship to the schematic


category. This is one of the dimensions along which semiosis occurs in the making of signs. In this
sense, phonological types, as Saussure defines them, are categorical.
6. The Topological Basis of the Sounds of Language.
Saussure's overriding concern is to establish general principles of analysis. He is not concerned with
the phonological description of specific language systems. The general principles that he seeks leave
aside those acoustic "nuances" which do not make a categorical difference (CLG: 66), so as to discover
the underlying mechanisms of the sound system. On this basis, Saussure proceeds to subdivide the
vocal apparatus into a number of different regions. Initially, these are the nasal cavity, the oral cavity,
and the laryrnx (CLG: 66-7). Saussure then further subdivides these into a number of subregions. But,
Saussure observes, it is not enough to enumerate the "factors of sound production" in order to
determine the "differential elements of the phonemes" (CLG: 68-9). Saussure is less interested in what
these phonemes consist of, positively speaking. Instead, he is more interested in those "negative
factors" which have a "differentiating value" (CLG: 69).
Initially, Saussure proposes four principles for specifying the differentiating values of phonemes. These
are: expiration, oral articulation, vibration of the larynx, and nasal resonance (CLG: 69). Saussure then
excludes expiration on the grounds that it is a "positive factor", which is present in all acts of
phonation. Consequently, it has no "differentiating value". This means that the remaining terms all
have differentiating value. Initially, Saussure puts aside the category of oral articulation and proposes
the schema of the possible variations which is shown in Figure 1.

Thus, the symbols in Saussure's notation serves to indicate whether the sound is larygneal (~), or not
( [] ); whether there is nasal resonance ( ..... ) or not ( []) (CLG: 69). Thus, the four vertical columns
indicate whether the four types of sound, as classified by the four columns, are differentiated by the
features [+ laryngeal vibration] or [- laryngeal vibration] and [+ nasal vibration] or [- nasal vibration].
Each of these pairs of phonic terms constitutes what Saussure calls a 'binary group' (CLG: 78).
A binary group is a relation between two differentially defined phonic terms. The two terms in a given
group constitute the two extremes of a graded continuum between, say, 'presence of nasal vibration'
and 'absence of nasal vibration'. A binary relation of this kind is not an all-or-nothing distinction.
Rather, there are degrees of, say, nasality. The relation between the two extremes of the binary relation
is a continuous and graded one, rather than an absolute and categorical one. The binary difference
between, say, 'presence of nasality' and 'absence of nasality' belongs to the continuum of analog
differences in articulation, rather than to categorical, or digital, distinctions between phonemes in
55

phonological form. As I said above, each term is a semiotically salient value in some language system.
A great deal more information impinges upon the speaker-listener's receptor cells than is necessary for
the recognition or prediction of a given phonological "figure." As Bateson points out, the information
which is coded in, say, a given term is always multiplicative (1987 [1951] : 175). The binary character
of phonic terms, which are the elementary informational values, simultaneously asserts the presence of
some articulatory feature at the same time that they deny its opposite, or assert its absence, in the
relevant acoustic-articulatory environment. Thus, the term [+ nasality], in asserting the presence of this
feature, also denies or excludes some other feature(s), as suggested by the term [- nasality]. Instead of
just one we have two "bits" of information. And it follows, as Bateson explains, that "when we have
two such "bits" of information the gamut of possible external events to which the information may
refer is reduced not to half, but to a quarter of the original range" (1987 [1951]: 175), and so on.
Saussure (CLG: 70) notes that sounds were generally classified according to the "place of their
articulation" [lieu de leur articulation] in the vocal apparatus. This is the substance-based approach
that I referred to above. According to the physical realism of this approach, articulation 'causes' speech
sounds.
Saussure proposes a different and far more general schema. He bases this, in the first instance, on the
principle of oral articulation. First, Saussure notes that all speech sounds are classifiable in terms of the
binary relation between "complete closure and maximal openness" [l'occlusion complte et l'ouverture
maximale] (CLG: 70 ; see also Fowler 1986: 4). The binary relation between these two terms
constitutes the two extremes of a topological region in relation to which Saussure posits seven very
general classes of sounds. Thus, "it is only within each category", Saussure claims, "that we distribute
the phonemes into diverse types according to their own place of articulation" (CLG: 70).
The basis which Saussure proposes for the categorization of phonetic stimuli as discrete types of
phonemes is inter-, rather than intra-, categorical (see Petitot-Cocorda 1985: 21-2). Two phonetic
stimuli which occur on either side of a given digital boundary are necessarily categorized as belonging
to phonemes of two distinct types. At this level of abstraction, Saussure's analysis seeks to affirm the
close relationship between universal principles of phonetic perception and categorization and the
principles of phonological classification specific to a given language system (Petitot-Cocorda 1985:
253).
How do the categories of phonological form 'analyze', as Hjelmslev would put it, the acousticoarticulatory continuum? The seven categories which Saussure proposes do not amount to a simple
taxonomic classification of already existing and autonomous 'entities'. These are not founded on
objectified and substance-based criteria, seen as being independent of phonological form. Saussure is
very clear on this point. In the following passage, he quite explicitly rejects those classifying practices
which take as their starting point some predefined and already identified 'entity' - in this case, what
Saussure calls the 'place of articulation' of sounds:
Generally sounds are classified according to their place of articulation. Our point of departure will be
different. Whatever the place of articulation is, it always presents a certain openess, that is to say, a
certain degree of openess between two extreme limits which are: complete closure and maximal
openess. On this basis, and on going from minimal openess to maximal openess, sounds will be
classified into seven categories designated by the figures 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. It is only within each of
these that phonemes are divided into different types according to their own place of articulation.
(CLG: 70)
Thus, the two extremes of 'complete closure' and 'maximal openess' do not correspond to predefined
and autonomous 'entities'. Saussure clearly rejects the realist approach in adopting this view (see
above). Rather, they are domains in a topological space whose 'outermost' parameters are defined by
56

the two extremes of "complete closure" and "maximal openness". Saussure, in the paragraph which
follows the one just quoted, is quite explicit about the topological basis which underpins his criteria of
classification. To be sure, he does not use the mathematical term 'topological'. Nevertheless, it is clear
in the above quotation that the seven categorical distinctions which he makes are paradigmatically
organized value-producing distinctions. These do not, as I said, classify an already given phonic
substance. Saussure's proposal is far more radical: the paradigmatic basis of the seven categories
enables these to emerge from the material-phenomenal domain of the acoustico-articulatory
continuum.
In departing from taxonomic principles of classification, tied as these were to a predefined and
autonomous 'place of articulation', Saussure undertakes a truly radical step. In dividing the palate into
"a certain number of areas" [un certain nombre d"aires], Saussure no longer focusses on a set of
discrete and objectified 'places of articulation'. He no longer privileges criteria such as the specificity
or uniqueness of phonological categories. Instead, he transforms these into a topological region.
Saussure defines this according to the relations among the various subregions in the palate.
Each category is defined in relation to a standard or idealized subregion within the overall topological
region. A given category is defined by the local intersection in a particular subregion of a number of
value-producing phonic terms. In this way, each local category is defined by multiple criteria. These
criteria may be more or less independent of each other. Two phonemes may be closer to each other in
one dimension and further apart in some other. The phonic terms specify the criteria - the acousticoarticulatory parameters - that define similarity and difference along each dimension.
A given local domain is a schematic category in relation to which particular instances may be
positioned. Those instances which most closely resemble the type-criteria, i.e., the prototypical
instantiations, as established by the categorical judgments entailed by the schema, are placed closer
together. Those which are in some way less criterial are placed further away from the schema.
The topological basis whereby the acoustico-articulatory continuum is 'analyzed' is systemic, or
paradigmatic. This point will now be developed in the next section.
7. The Paradigmatic Basis of Phonological Types.
Saussure's topological analysis is based on paradigmatic principles. Consider the phoneme 'p'. This
phoneme belongs to Saussure's first class of phoneme, which Saussure designates as class A phonemes.
Phonemes in this class are classified as 'zero aperture: stops' (CLG: 71). The phonemes which belong
to this general class are obtained by "complete closure, the hermetic but momentary obstruction of the
vocal cavity" (CLG: 71). Saussure further distinguishes three main subtypes of stop: labials (p, b, m),
dentals (t, d, n), and gutturals (k, g, n). In particular, the phoneme /p/ is a labial because it is articulated
with the two lips. Figure 2 reproduces Saussure's own diagram representing the class A phonemes:

Figure 2: Saussure's class A phonemes (borrowed from CLG: 72).


57

Figure 2 shows that Saussure's first class of sounds is a specific subregion in the palate. Class A
phonemes (zero aperture: stops) are produced in the subregion which Saussure identifies as the oral
cavity. This is the region labelled A in Saussure's diagram of the vocal apparatus (CLG: 67). The oral
cavity is a global topological region. Saussure subdivides this into the three subregions of labials,
dentals, and gutturals. These are the three main subtypes of stop, which, Saussure argues, are defined
according to their point of articulation:
The first [labials, PJT] is articulated with the two lips; in the second [dentals, PJT] the extremity of the
tongue is applied to the front of the palate; in the third [gutturals, PJT] the back of the tongue is in
contact with the rear of the palate. (CLG: 71-2)
Each of these subregions is then further subcategorized as a local category on the basis of a particular
configuration of phonic terms. The local categories are the phonological types (phonemes).
Phonological types are schematic with respect to their instantiations in phonic substance (see section
7).
The notation in Figure 2 tells us that class A phonemes are produced by specific groupings of phonic
terms. In the case of the phoneme /p/, the phonic terms in question are: complete closure (O), by
pressing the bottom lip () and the top lip (a) together; absence of both layrngeal vibration and nasal
vibration. The phonic terms listed here are selected from the following binary groups: [open] or
[closed], [presence of layrngeal vibration] or [absence of layrngeal vibration], and [presence of nasal
vibration] or [absence of nasal vibration].
Saussure's description of the phoneme is, perhaps, the first explicit formulation of the item and
paradigm approach in linguistic description. His description of the seven classes of phonemes is a
componential analysis of the paradigmatic features - the phonic terms - that constitute the various
phoneme classes. The analysis in Figure 4 classifies the phonemes according to the following criteria:
[aperture], [laryngeal vibration], and [nasal vibration]. The phonemes Saussure analyses are either
[open] or [closed], [+ layrngeal vibration] or [-layrngeal vibration], [+nasal vibration] or [-nasal
vibration]. In Figure 4, the three phonemes belonging to the subregion 'labial' are specified as having
the following configurations of phonic terms:
[complete closure, -laryngeal vibration, - nasal vibration] / p /
[complete closure, +laryngeal vibration, - nasal vibration] / b /
[complete closure, +laryngeal vibration, + nasal vibration] / m /
Saussure's paradigmatic analysis shows how phonemes may be specified in terms of distribution
classes of phonic terms. In showing how the presence or absence of, for example, the phonic term
[laryngeal vibration] distinguises the phoneme /p/ from the phoneme /b/, Saussure shows how the
phonological meaning of these terms is motivated by criteria pertaining to phonological form. The
difference between the phonological values designated by the forms /p/ and /b/ is motivated by the
'presence' or 'absence' of [laryngeal vibration]. This means that the paradigmatic system of phonic
terms which constitutes one of Saussure's two 'orders of difference' has consequences for the
specification of particular phonological patternings. The relationship between particular configurations
of phonic terms and the phoneme is a semiological, or interstratal, one. That is, configurations of
phonic terms on the 'lower' stratum are semiologically reconstrued as categories of phonemes on the
'higher' stratum of phonological form, as shown in section 4.
The synergy of the movements of articulation "complete if momentary close of the vocal tract",
"absence of laryngeal vibration" and "absence of nasal vibration" thus correspond to the configuration
of phonic terms [+ closure, - laryngeal vibration, - nasal vibration], seen as informational variants and
invariants in the acoustico-articulatory flux. In turn, this configuration of phonic terms is a sensori58

motor schema stored in the brain which, in assigning values to the sensorial context, anticipates the
production and perception of the phoneme /p/. Phoneme /p/ redounds not with the phonic terms
[+closure, -laryngeal vibration, - nasal vibration but with the redundancy of this configuration of
phonic terms with their corresponding articulatory movements and/or acoustic impressions.
This interstratal relationship may be specified as follows: Phoneme 'p' is realized by the realization of
the phonic terms [+closure, -laryngeal vibration, - nasal vibration] by the sequence of the articulatory
movements these correspond to. That is, ((phoneme /p/ \ (phonic terms [complete closure, - laryngeal
vibration, - nasal vibration] \ corresponding articulatory movements)). The phonic terms are not
substantive properties of the particular articulatory act which produces the sound in question. Rather,
they are a set of parametric values - a schema - which constrain the particular ways in which a given
coordinated movement of the muscles involved in articulation is produced. The particular cluster of
phonic terms I have placed between square brackets thus constitute a frame or a schema whereby the
movements which occur in the given act of speaking are interpreted. Phonic terms, or features, such as,
for example, [- nasal vibration] are not, then, substantive properties of these muscular movements.
Instead, they are values which are assigned to particular aspects of the articulatory act. Further, these
values are not defined individually as "things" on their own. Rather, they derive from a system of
topologically defined relations. A particular clustering of phonic terms, as shown in the square brackets
in the above example, represents an equivalence class of articulatory act. It defines the parameters in
terms of which any given instance of this act may conform to or differ from the schematic criteria
specified by the phonic terms and yet remain an instance of a particular equivalence class rather than
some other. The phonic terms are then functional values which are assigned to a given articulatory act.
The fact that a given coordinated act of articulation may conform to a greater of lesser degree to these
values means that the muscular movements involved in articulation are able to be modulated to some
extent by intentional factors.
A local domain is the paradigmatic set of phonic terms which define the articulatory parameters of a
particular phonological type. A given phonic term is a stable informational variant which specifies a
particular articulatory parameter. The phonic terms define the boundary conditions of the local
articulatory domain corresponding to a given phoneme. For example, the phonic terms shown in Figure
4 classify /p/ as a consonant of the superordinate class 'stop'. The phoneme /p/ is a schematic category
in relation to which specific material instances (allophones) are categorized. A given binary group
specifies which phonic terms from the phonic order of differences configure in order to produce a
specific category of sound, or phoneme. They refer to the specific combinations of acousticoarticulatory features which are salient for the articulation of a given phonological type. A particular
group of phonic terms specifies the parameters of a given phoneme. This means that a particular
phonological value is assigned to a given configuration of phonic terms. In other words, a given
configuration of phonic terms signifies a given phoneme.
Each subdomain - for example, the phoneme /p/ - is distinguished from the others by the fact that it
digitalizes the analog continuum of the palate as a subdomain which is bounded (digitalized) in
relation to the other subdomains. Thus, the phoneme /b/, in comparision with /p/, digitalizes the analog
continuum of the palate differently in so far as 'b' has laryngeal vibration (~), whereas /p/ does not.
That is, the presence of the phonic term [+ laryngeal vibration] in the phoneme /b/ digitalizes the
analog continuum differently with respect to the absence of this term in /p/. This difference between
the phonemes /p/ and /b/ means that two discrete localized subdomains of the oral category are
digitalized in the two cases. The difference between presence or absence of laryngeal vibration means
that the subregion [LABIAL] is subcategorized into the three local domains represented by the
phonemes /p/, /b/ and /m/.

59

The phonemes /p/ and /b/ differ along just the one parameter of 'presence' or 'absence' of the phonic
term [laryngeal vibration]. The difference between 'presence' or 'absence' of [laryngeal vibration] in the
phonemes 'p' and 'b' designate stable informational invariants at the level of the articulatory act. The
transition from 'absence' to 'presence' of this feature indexes a transition from one stable region of
articulation to another in the oral cavity. A given region is not reducible to purely quantitative criteria
in the abstract physical sense. Rather, it refers to a qualitative difference in the informational invariants
which correspond to stable articulatory regions. The transition from the stable informational invariant
'absence' to 'presence' of [laryngeal vibration] entails a categorical transition from one phonological
category to another.
This explains why Saussure assigns a central role to the process of audition. Such information is
actively oriented to the ear of the hearer. The ear is not a passive receptor of physical stimuli. Instead,
the ear is actively oriented to the informational variants and invariants which distinguish one stable
region of articulation from another. The ear 'amplifies' an informationally significant difference in the
analog continuum of the acoustico-articulatory flux as a categorical distinction in phonological form.
In this way, the phoneme is grounded in phonic substance.
8. The Topological Region is an Analog Continuum.
Saussure, as I pointed out above, observes that, phoneme categories are intra-categorical (CLG: 70). I
should like to make two observations here. First, the topological region is an analog continuum
defined, in the first instance, in relation to the two categorical extremes of complete closure and
maximum openess. There are no discrete boundaries in this analog continuum. However, the
introduction of discrete boundaries in the process of the categorical reconstrual of specific regions of
the overall space as instances of the phonological types in a given language system digitalizes the
analog continuum of articulatory (bodily) processes (Wilden 1980 [1972]: 122).
The analog continuum of the bodily processes involved in articulation is replete with a rich and
indeterminate continuum of (phonetic) meaning potential. The digitalization of this continuum means
that the richness and indeterminacy of the material-phenomenal domain is 'simplified' in terms of a
small number of digital categories. Phonological categories introduce digital distinctions into the
analog continuum of acoustico-articulatory processes. These type-categories are necessarily discrete
and well-defined with respect to each other. The differences between phonological types are digital
distinctions. This does not mean, however, that the analog continuum of the oral cavity is
undifferentiated. Rather, it is based on analog differences between, say, the presence or absence of
openness or closure.
Analog differences are based on degrees of organization, intensity, and so on, rather than on discrete
categorical distinctions. The binary groups which Saussure postulates on the basis of the articulatory
act are binary relations which specify parameter values in a continuum of analogue differences rather
than digital (categorical) distinctions. The point is that the articulatory processes produce a continuous
flux of acoustic-articulatory information which is not reducible to the digital distinctions between the
higher-order phonological categories in langue. The macroscopic information - the analogue percepts so produced is potentially meaningful to an observer who is equipped to interpret it through the digital
categories of some higher-order system of interpretance. Saussure's discussion of the oral cavity is a
good illustration of this point:
As for the oral cavity, it offers a very varied play of possibilities: one can increase the length of the
[oral] canal by means of the lips, swell or relax the cheeks, contract and even close the cavity by means
of the infinitely diverse movements of the lips and tongue.
60

The role of these same organs as producers of sound is in direct proportion to their mobility: the same
uniformity in the functioning of the larynx and the nasal cavity, same diversity in that of the vocal
tract.
The air expelled by the lungs first passes over the glottis, where the production of a laryngeal sound by
proximity to the vocal cords is possible. But it is not this play of the larynx which can produce the
phonological types thereby allowing the sounds of the language to be distinguished and classified; in
this connection, the laryngeal sound is uniform. Directly perceived, that which is emitted by the glottis
appears to us more or less invariable in quality ... [ ... ]
But to enumerate these factors of sound production is still not to determine the differential elements of
the phonemes. In order to classify the latter, it is much less important to know what they consist of than
what distinguishes one from the other. Thus a negative factor may be more important for classification
that a positive factor. For example, expiration, a positive element, but which is found in all acts of
phonation, has no differentiating value; whereas the absence of nasal resonance, a negative factor, will
serve, just as much as its presence, to characterize phonemes. (CLG: 68-9)
The play - the synergy - of the speech organs in the production of speech sounds is not equivalent to
the categorical distinctions between phonological types. This "play" refers to physical-material
processes in an analog continuum. Thus, the "very varied" possibilities for increasing the length of the
vocal canal by means of lip protrusion, the "infinitely diverse movements of the lips", and so on refer
to a graded continuum of binary relations, rather than to discrete categorical distinctions. This has its
basis in the continuous and emergent nature of the self-organizing processes involved in the production
of speech sounds. The vocal tract gestures that result from this synergy of factors constitute a material
event in the ecosocial environment of the speaker and a potential listener who are suitably linked by
informational media (e.g. air) which are the source of information about this event to a suitably
equipped perceiver. The information in this perceptual array are macroscopic or morphological forms
which have substantive properties. It is these which selectively cross-couple with the perceptual
systems of the organism and guide its perception and action. On the other hand, the negative and
differentiating values of the phoneme have no substantive properties. Phonemes and the configurations
of phonic terms these are comprised up are nonsubstantive parameter values which provide an
organizational frame for both the play of the organs in the vocal tract and their perception (Fowler et al
1980: 386). Importantly, there is no direct relation between the substantive properties of the speaker's
vocal tract gestures and the information in the perceptual array, on the one hand, and the parameter
values of the phonic terms, on the other. Saussure's semiological conception of the Ear as the
contextualizing organ - the Third - which actively orients to and interprets the array tells another story.
That is, the Ear, in imposing digital categories on an analogue world enters into a semiological relation
with the infiormation in the acoutic-articulatory flux. It is NOT a question of a direct, causal
relationship between nonsubstantive values (phonic terms) and the substantial properties of the array.
Articulation involves the continuous, if episodic, entraining of matter, energy, and information flows in
the acoustico-articulatory flux. This occurs relative to the ecosocial environment of the speaker and
listener in which semiological values are assigned to differences in this analog continuum. The
assigning of a semiological value entails, in other words, a categorizing judgement as to the conformity
or otherwise of some difference to a given phonological type. In this way, a digital distinction is made
in the analog continuum. That is, the act of assigning a given instance to a digital category represents a
categorizing judgement as to its potential significance in the speech chain.
The system of value-producing distinctions (langue) does not, then, refer to a predefined set of
intrinsic factors, positively defined. Instead, it provides the systemic resources for construing this space
as a series of regions which correspond to structurally stable and perceptible phonological forms or
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categories. The latter, as I have already remarked, emerge in and through these processes of construal.
They do not preexist it. Secondly, the value-producing categorical distinctions construe differences
negatively. The basis for this is the initial distinction which Saussure made between the two extremes
of "complete closure" and "maximum openess". Thus, differences are always inter-categorical. It is
only "within each category", as Saussure puts it, that positive, or intra-categorical, factors such as
'point of articulation' are admitted (Petitot-Cocorda 1985: 43).
9. Saussure's Combinatory Phonology: Functional Values in the Spoken Chain.
In the chapter which follows the above analysis, Saussure resumes his discussion of the general
theoretical principles which are at stake. The main thrust of Saussures' proposals is directed against a
phonological science which takes single, isolable sounds as its point of departure (CLG: 77). Saussure
observes that his theory is concerned, on the other hand, with "relations of internal dependency" (CLG:
78) between sounds in a given sequence. But when two sounds are combined, these relations of
internal dependency entail reciprocal constraints whereby "there is a limit to the variations in one with
respect to the other". This implicates more general "relations and rules", which it is the business of the
linguist to discover. There is, then, as Saussure argues, a place for "a science which takes as its point of
departure the binary groups and sequences of phonemes" (CLG: 78).
Such a science, Saussure continues, will consider such binary groups to be "like algebraic equations; a
binary group implicates a certain number of mechanical and acoustical elements which reciprocally
condition one another". Saussure's analysis of the sounds of language is concerned to establish the
categorical and the contextual principles which anchor these both to the materiality of the phonic
substance from which they emerge, as well as to the principles of their articulation and perception. This
is quite a different structuralist enterprise in some important respects from the one which was
subsequently launched by Trubetzkoy and Jakobson.
In the chapter of CLG entitled 'The phoneme in the spoken chain', Saussure moves beyond the study of
phonological types, which was the focus in the chapter on 'Phonological types' [Les Espces
Phonologiques]. The study of the phoneme in the spoken chain entails the analysis of the syntagmatic
relations among the phonemes in some spoken sequence. At the beginning of this chapter, Saussure
makes the following observations on the 'phonology of types' which was the focus in the previous
chapter:
On one point the method of this phonology [of types, PJT] is particularly faulty; it too easily forgets
that in the language system [la langue] there are not only sounds, but stretches of spoken sounds; it
does not pay enough attention to their reciprocal relations. In fact, it is not this which is given to us in
the first place; the syllable presents itself more directly than the sounds of which it is composed. It has
been seen that certain primitive writing systems have marked syllabic units: it is only later that one
arrived at the alphabetic system. (CLG: 77)
It is important to note here that Saussure's perspective is that of the language system [langue]. The
problem which concerns Saussure here is the way in which phonological types are related to typical
syntagmatic patterns in the language system:
Along side the phonology of types, there is then a place for a science which takes as its point of
departure binary groups and the sequencing of phonemes [la conscutions de phonmes], and that is a
completely different matter. In the study of isolated sounds, it is sufficient to note the position of the
organs; the acoustic quality of the phoneme is not in question; it is fixed by the ear; as for articulation,
one is completely free to produce it as one likes. But from the moment that it is a question of
pronouncing two sounds in combination, the matter is less simple; one is obliged to take account of the
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possible discordance between the effect sought and the effect produced; it is not always in our power to
pronounce what we wanted. The freedom to connect phonological types is limited by the possibility of
connecting the articulatory movements. In order to take account of what happens in the groups, a
phonology needs to be established in which this would be considered like algebraic equations; a binary
group implicates a certain number of acoustic and mechanical elements which reciprocally condition
each other; when one varies, this variation has on the others a necessary repercussion which can be
calculated. (CLG: 78-9)
In contrast to the science of phonological types, Saussure proposes a science of the ways in which
phonemes combine in the spoken chain. The description of phonological types relates configurations of
phonic terms to the phonemes that realize these. Saussure's 'combinatory phonology', on the other
hand, is concerned with relating phonological form to function in the spoken chain. In order to do so, it
is necessary to specify: (1) how functions are inserted into phonological structures; and (2) how
elements of phonological structure are sequenced.
Phonological types, as Saussure defines them, are analogous to formal class items such as noun, verb,
adverb, and so in the grammar, i.e., on the stratum of the signified. That is, a given phoneme specifies
the phonological analogue of a grammatical class item. A phoneme, in other words, is a phonological
class item. A phonological type such as /p/ does not, therefore, specify the function which the phoneme
has in the spoken chain. Saussure distinguishes phonological form from function in his discussion of
syllabic boundaries and vocalic peaks:
"The terms vowel [voyelle] and consonant [consonnes] designate, as we have seen on p. 75, different
types; sonants [sonantes] and adsonants [consonantes] designate on the contrary functions in the
syllable. This dual terminology allows us to avoid a confusion which has reigned for a long time. Thus,
the sound type I is the same in fidle ('faithful') and in pied ('foot'); but it is a sonant in fidle and an
adsonant in pied. The analysis shows that sonants are always adductive and adsonants are sometimes
adductive (for example i in the English boi, written "boy"), and sometimes abductive (for example y in
the French pye, written "pied"). This only confirms the distinctions established between the two orders.
It is true that in fact e o and a are regularly sonants; but this is a mere coincidence: having a greater
aperture than all the other sounds, they are always at the beginning of an adductive chain. Inversely for
stops, which have minimal aperture, and are always adsonants. In practice, it is phonemes of aperture
2, 3, and 4 (nasals, liquids, and semi-vowels) that play one or the other role according to their
surroundings and the nature of their articulation". (CLG: 87-8)
Vowels and consonants are phonological types. Sonants and adsonants, on the other hand, are
phonological functions. They designate the phonological value which a particular phoneme has
according to its place in relation to other phonemes with which it co-occurs in the spoken chain.
The term adsonant has been traced back to Herbert D. Darbishire's Relliguine Philologicae (1895), as
documented by Abercrombie (1967: 170 n 15). As Saussure's analyses of fidle and pied show, the
different syllabic environments in which the sound type I occurs result in its having different functions
according to its relations to the other units which surround it in the syllable in which it occurs. In these
two examples, the sound type I has a different phonological function in these two words.
Saussure's analysis suggests, then, that the signifier is internally stratified. Saussure does not spell this
out at any stage in CLG. However, this seems to be a logical consequence of the distinction which
Saussure draws between "the two orders" mentioned in the above passage. The two orders in question
are: (1) the phoneme as a formal class, or phonological type, defined independently of the spoken
chain in which it occurs; and (2) the function the phoneme performs, or the semiological value it has,
in relation to the other phonemes in the spoken chain. The point is that the phoneme as a phonological
type has a certain potential to enter into certain kinds of functional relationships, i.e., phonotactic
63

relationships in modern terminology. This depends on the phonological context in which it occurs. This
phonological context is defined, as Saussure's discussion shows, both 'from below' by "the nature of
their articulation" and 'on their own level' by "their surroundings".
The relationship between phoneme and the configuration of phonic terms that signify it is an
interstratal one. In this case, the stratum of phonic substance is related to that of phonological form.
The "surroundings" of a phoneme, on the other hand, refer to the relationships among phonemes on the
same stratum. Such relationships are intrastratal. The phonological stratum (the signifier) is composed
of units and structures that are specific to that stratum. This stratum is not comprised of phonemes, or
phonological types, per se. Instead, the phonological stratum is comprised of phonological structures,
their constituent functions, and the distribution classes of phonological forms that fulfill these
functions in structure. The syllable, for instance, is a phonological structure which has phonemes as its
constituent parts. In the structure of the syllable, these constituent parts have specific phonological
values or functions.
In making the distinction between the study of phonological types and the study of how phonemes
combine in the spoken chain, Saussure distinguishes between the formal (systemic) and the contextual
meaning of phonemes. The formal meaning of the phoneme refers to the paradigmatic systems of
phonic terms that relate phonological form to phonic substance. The first-order contextual meaning of
the phoneme is the phonological function (value) it has in its syntagmatic context on the stratum of the
signifier.
On the phonological level, these observations suggest an analogy with Saussure's critique of the view
of language as a nomenclature. Saussure's critique shows that the signified does not simply 'label' or
'refer to' natural categories in the 'real-world' in a direct and unmediated way. The same argument also
applies to speech sounds. There is no direct, unmediated relationship between an objective world of
physical sounds and the speaker-hearer's perception of these. Rather, phonological form entails
categorizing judgements concerning the semiological values which phonological units have both in the
language system to which they belong and in the spoken sequence in which they occur. The psychic
basis of the acoustic images stored in the brain means that these function as a repertory of sensorimotor schemas whereby speakers and listeners organize both articulation and audition even in the
absence of sensory information. That is, these schemas which are stored in long-term memory are a
virtual resource which enables speakers to predict and simulate speech activity according to specific
contextual requirements rather than to recall a stock of static and context-free sounds which must then
be translated into articulatory activity.
References
Abercrombie, David. 1967. Elements of General Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press.
Bateson, Gregory. 1987 [1951]. "Information and codification." In Communication: The social matrix
of psychiatry, Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson, 168-211. New York and London: Norton.
Chomsky, N. and M. Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.
Culler, Jonathan. 1976. Saussure. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.
Fowler, C. A., P. Rubin, R. E. Remez, and M. T. Turvey. 1980. "Implications for speech production of a
general theory of action." In Language Production. Vol. 1: Speech and talk, B. Butterworth (ed.),
373-420. London and New York: Academic Press.
Fowler, Carol A. 1986. "An event approach to the study of speech perception from a direct-realist
perspective." Journal of Phonetics 14, 3-28.
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Harris, Roy. 1983. "Introduction." In Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure. Trans.
Roy Harris. London: Duckworth.
- 1987. Reading Saussure. A critical commentary on the Cours de linguistique gnrale. London:
Duckworth.
Hodge, R.I.V. and G. Kress. 1988. Social Semiotics. Cambridge: Polity.
Jakobson, R. and M. Halle. 1956. "Phonology in relation to phonetics." In Manual of Phonetics, B.
Malmberg (ed.). Amsterdam: North Holland.
Langacker, Ronald. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. 1. Theoretical prerequisites.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Lemke, Jay L. 1984. "The formal analysis of instruction." In Semiotics and Education (Monograph),
23-62. Victoria University, Toronto: Toronto Semiotic Circle Monographs, Working Papers and
Prepublications.
Petitot-Cocorda, Jean. 1985. Les Catastrophes de la Parole: De Roman Jakobson Ren Thom. Paris:
Maloine Editeur.
Postal, P. M. 1968. Aspects of Phonological Theory. New York : Harper & Row.
Repp and Liberman 198 ?
Salthe, Stanley N. 1993. Development and Evolution. Complexity and change in biology. Cambridge,
Mass. and London: The MIT Press.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1969 [1894-5]. "Morphologie." In A Geneva School Reader in Linguistics,
Robert Godel (ed.). Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.
Studdert-Kennedy, Liberman, Harris and Cooper. 1970.
Thibault, Paul J. 1997. Re-reading Saussure. The dynamics of signs in social life. London and New
York: Routledge.
Trubetzkoy, N. S. 1971 [1939]. Principles of Phonology. Trans. Christiane A.M. Baltaxe. Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Wilden, Anthony. 1980 [1972]. System and Structure. Essays in communication and exchange. 2nd
edition. London: Tavistock.
Lecture Four
The Sounds of Language
1. Phonological Form in Relation to Phonic Substance
In some respects, Saussure's phonological theory stands at an important crossroads. Much of latter day
phonology and phonetics has focussed on the auditory modality. This has lead to what Repp (1987: 4)
has characterized as a preoccupation with psychophysical approaches to the study of speech sounds in
relation to auditory perception. The focus on auditory processes in such studies, very often in taskspecific experimental settings in the acoustic laboratory, have been shaped by the technology of the
spectrographic and formant-based methods of acoustic analysis that were made possible by the
technological innovations of xxx and others in the Second World War. Saussurean phonology did not,
of course, have the benefit of these developments. Indeed, Saussure points to the impracticability of
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cinematographic techniques for reproducing all the movements of the mouth and the larynx while
executing a chain of sounds" (CLG: 64). In doing so, Saussure draws attention to two fundamental
aspects of the production of speech sounds: (1) their basis in the articulatory kinematics of the speaker;
and (2) the cross-modal basis of both their production and reception. That is, the ways in which both
auditory and visual information is integrated in the perception and categorization of speech sounds
(Fowler 1986: 8; Repp 1987: 4-5). The articulatory movements of the mouth, lips, and so on are
gestures which are, in part, visible to the listener. This concurs with the findings of researchers such as
Gibson (1986 [1979]) and Berthoz (1997: 86-92) that there is a high degree of synergistic collaboration
between, say, seeing and hearing, which function as part of a more global perceptual system whereby
the brain-body complex is cross-coupled to its environment. Further, this provides the basis for a
theory of speech sounds which have their basis in vocal tract gestures rather than in abstract
phonological patterns per se. In adopting this view, we may better see that all modalities of linguistic
semiosis - speech, sign language, writing, braille - are, or derive from, forms of bodily or gestural
activity and their technological transformations whose primary function is to coordinate dialogic
interaction between individuals (see also Armstrong et al 1996: 80-82).
Let us consider the following passage in which Saussure reflects on the apparent discrepancy between
the production of the coordinated movements of the articulators in the vocal tract and the speakerlistener's perception of these as a sequence of acoustic impressions in "the chain of heard speech"
The acoustic given already exists unconsciously when one approaches phonological units; it is by
means of the ear that we know what a b, a t , etc. is. If one could reproduce by cinematographic means
all of the movements of the mouth and larynx in the execution of a chain of sounds, it would be
impossible to discover any subdivisions in this sequence of articulatory movements; one would not
know where one sound starts, or where the other finishes. How can it be affirmed, without the acoustic
impression, that in l, for example, there are three units, and not two or four? (CLG : 63-4)
In this passage, Saussure acknowledges the spatio-temporal overlap of articulatory units - "it would be
impossible to discover any subdivisions in this sequence of articulatory movements; one would not
know where one sound starts, or where the other finishes" - at the same time that he distinguishes this
from the way this is heard in "the chain of speech" by the listener. Saussure approaches the problem of
the apparent variability of articulation by appealing to the "acoustic impression" that this makes on the
ear of the listener. This entails a qualitative judgement on the part of the listener as to the 'homogeneity'
of the acoustic impression. That is, a given sound may manifest considerable acoustico-articulatory
variation depending on the specific context of its articulation. However, two sounds may nevertheless
be co-classified as belonging to the same phonological type on the basis of the 'homogeneity' of the
acoustic impression that the listener perceives. This entails a categorizing judgement by the listener as
to the conformity of the two sounds to the more schematic criteria which define the phonological typecategory in question. Furthermore, Saussure relates this process to the "chain of heard speech", rather
than to individual phonemes considered in isolation. The "chain of heard speech" is of course the
stratum of the signifier. The acoustic signifier is defined by Saussure as a chain of elements phonemes, syllables, and so on - whose distinctive character is "succession in time" (CLG: 103). This
is the principle of the linearity of the signifier. In the case of the acoustic signifiers of the spoken
language system, this principle is concerned with the way the phonemes of a given language system
are combined into groups - syllables, etc. - in language specific ways. Saussure shows in the following
passage that it is the syllable, rather than the local differences between isolated phonemes, which is
central to this process. Speaking of the way in which "binary groups" of phonemes "implicate a certain
number of mechanical and acoustic elements which reciprocally condition each other" (CLG: 79),
Saussure observes:

66

If in the phenomenon of phonation there is something of a universal character which announces itself
as superior to all local differences among phonemes, it is without doubt this rule-governed mechanism
of which we have just spoken. One sees thereby the importance that the phonology of groups must
have for general linguistics. Whereas one is generally satisfied with giving rules for the articulation of
all sounds, [which are] variable and accidental elements in all languages, this combinatory phonology
circumscribes these possibilities and fixes the constant relations among interdependant phonemes.
(CLG: 79)
This principle shows that from the perspective of the spoken chain, the phonological units of a given
language are neither context-free nor static. Rather, they are linearly ordered in time and distinguished
on the basis of the qualitative impressions they make on the ear of the listener. Phonological units phonemes, and so on - do not have a direct, empirical correspondence with a given physical sound
uttered and heard in a given time and place. Phonemes do not then represent in a univocal way any
particular physical manifestion (instantiation) of the phonological categories of the language.
Saussure's insistence on the qualitative nature of the impressions received by the ear shows, instead,
that the phoneme is a meta-level schema or 'rule' which specifies the possible parameters for the
production and perception of a given speech sound.
Saussure also emphasises the role that the syllable plays in the perception and interpretation of the
temporal succession of units that occur in the spoken chain of the acoustic signifier. Phonological
types, he points out (CLG: 82), are abstractions which cannot form a moment in time." For this reason,
the syllable is the more natural unit on which to base this temporal succession of units. In making this
claim, Saussure is very much at one with more recent thinking, according to which the syllable "is the
basic unit of speech processing because it is used, both to access the lexicon and to analyse the signal
into component segments and features" (Mehler and Segui 1987: 406). Further, as Saussure's analyses
of the various combinations of explosion and implosion suggest, there are acoustic correlates to
syllabic co-articulation (CLG: 83-6). This highlights the meaning-making potential of the phonic
signifier. Rather than being a form which simply carries a meaning which is extrinsic to it, the listener's
perception and construal of the temporal succession of units in the spoken chain is not exclusively
influenced by top-down lexicogrammatical factors that pertain to the signifier. Rather, there is a
constant interaction, to varying degrees, of factors that derive from both strata in the making and
interpreting of a given sign. Saussure spells out the role of the acoustic signifier and the importance of
studying the phonological principles of its organization as follows:
In the act of phonation that we are about to analyse, we shall only account for differential elements,
salient for the ear and capable of serving as a delimitation of acoustic units in the spoken chain. Only
these acoustico-motor units must be considered; ... (CLG: 83)
Saussure points out here how the ear selectively attends to what is semiotically salient in the concrete
succession of units in the spoken chain. Only those units, dually acoustic and articulatory, that make a
meaningful difference need be taken into consideration. This passage is interesting for the emphasis
which it places on the reciprocal contextualizing relations between the articulatory activities of the
vocal tract and the acoustic chain which is perceived by the listener. This shows that, for Saussure, the
acoustic signifier is not simply a form which carries a meaning. Instead, the acoustic signifier
construes in semiotically salient ways the speaker's articulatory gestures as a delimination of units in
the spoken chain. By the same token, the vocal tract activity of the speaker in the act of phonation is
similarly motivated in relation to the semiotically salient differences that are perceived by the ear of
the listener in the particular phonological groups, rather than abstract types per se, that constitute the
signifiers of the spoken language system. In the above passage, Saussure shows, in other words, that
one dimension of the overall meaning-making process, i.e., that which is constituted by the signifier,
interfaces with and construes in semiotically salient ways the bodily processes of articulation of the
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speaker. Importantly, Saussure's emphasis on the dually acoustic and motor aspects of the units so
construed shows that, semiotically speaking, the theory of the signifier 'faces two ways', viz. to both
the speaker and the listener perspectives on this process.
It is only when phonemes are considered as schematic types that they can be said to be static and
context-independent. In this way, the articulatory movements of the speaker and the sounds uttered and
heard are functionally correlated with the categorizing judgements - the "acoustic impressions" of the
speaker-listener. The latter's perception of acoustic homogeneity is a way of tuning the dynamical
behaviour of the articulatory movements and their associated acoustic effects to the requirements of a
particular system of phonological categories. Again, this is so from both the speaker's and the listener's
perspective. Small changes in the articulatory and acoustic parameters due to coarticulation and other
factors typically do not lead to bifurcation, viz. a jump to another, distinct category, but only to small
changes in the behaviour of related dynamical systems that are, nevertheless, intra-, rather than inter-,
categorical (Kauffman 1993: 231). In this way, minor fluctuations in the behaviour of the system do
not violate the structural stability of the parameters involved (Thom 1975 [1972]).
It is important to note here the temporal character of the acoustic signifier in relation to the movement
of the organs of articulation. These represent two hierarchically distinct scalar levels of organization
and behaviour operating at different time scales in the one overall system of relations. Thus, the rapid
movement of the organs of articulation is not directly translated into the different time scale which
operates on the level of the "chain of heard speech", or the acoustic signifier. System variables due to
the spatio-temporal overlap of articulatory gestures change on a comparatively fast time scale which
exhibits only its averages to the qualitatively different variables which operate on the slower time scale
of the 'homogeneity' of the acoustic impressions that are perceived by the ear. Saussure's criterion of
the 'homogeneity of the acoustic impression' is a means of tuning the dynamical behaviour of the lower
scalar level of articulation to the functional requirements of the particular phonological system that
speaker and listener share. In this way, the criterion of the homogeneity of impression decomposes the
spatio-temporal complexity of the lower level into functionally related units and structures, or
configurations of phonological values, at the same time that phonologically non-salient fluctuations are
not necessarily attended to or even noticed by the listener. The system of phonological units and
structures is the third level in this scalar hierarchy. It is the meta-level, or the system's description of its
own behavioural possibilities.
The 'homogeneity' of the acoustic impression preserves the separateness and the serial ordering of the
percepts in the "chain of heard speech" without, however, suggesting that these are discrete and
context-free (Fowler et al 1980: 409-10). The fact that vowels and consonants are different kinds of
articulatory and acoustic events serves to maintain the separateness of segments in the chain of speech
without, however, implying that their articulatory and acoustic properties are discrete or nonoverlapping. Saussure takes the chain of heard speech - the acoustic signifier - to be the focal level in
his analysis. Each separate acoustic impression in this chain is a part which is functionally related to
the whole to which it belongs. In Saussure's discussion, there is no translation from abstract, contextfree phonological units, or pre-motor cognitive plans that serve as "the outputs of perceptual
processing and as inputs to the articulatory mechanism" (Fowler et al 1980: 376). That is, he does not
postulate an internal and a priori cognitive plan or model which controls or governs the translation
from the degraded acoustic stimulus to the listener's perception of this as a global percept. Saussure
presents an alternative to this cognitivist view. It is one which recognizes that the relationship between
the mechanical source - the vocal tract - of the vibratory event whereby sound waves are propagated
through the medium of the air and the listener's perception of this requires no translation. Rather, the
speech sounds which stimulate the ear of the listener are lawfully structured such that they specify to

68

the listener properties that are specific to the articulatory act which produced them. Here is how
Saussure expresses this important point:
The freedom to link the phonological types is limited by the possibility of linking the articulatory
movements. To account for that which occurs in groups [of phonemes], a phonology is to be
established in which these will be considered as algebraic equations; a binary group implicates a
certain number of mechanical and acoustic elements which reciprocally condition one another; when
one varies, this variation has a necessary repercussion on the others which can be calculated. (CLG:
78-9)
In this non-translational view of the relationship between environmental source (articulatory act) and
the perception of the acoustic elements that provide the listener with information about the former,
there is no need to translate the descriptive variables operating at one level into those operating at some
other level. Instead, relations at the various levels in the overall hierarchy of relations constitute a
single system of mutual constraints. This means that the dynamics of the variables at any given level
are specific to that level. For example, the descriptive variables that apply at the level of the vocal tract
and those at the level of the chain of heard speech are nontransitive in their relations to each other.
Rather than translate from one level to another, the nesting of levels in a scalar hierarchy implies a
system of mutual constraints whereby the homogeneity of the acoustic impressions in the former is
derived from or emerges from the former. Each level has its ontological specificity in the sense that is
has units and relations that are particular to that level. Further, the different time-scales that operate on
the different levels means that larger-scale entities have a more macroscopic time-scale. Thus, the
cogent moments - the acoustic impressions on the ear - in the chain of heard speech last longer that the
articulatory movements that produce them (Salthe 1993: 46).
Speaker and listener must share the same meta-system of possibilities both in order to interact
linguistically with each other as well as to internally represent what the other knows about the
language system both share. Rather than a set of static and context-free types, a given phonological
system has its own system-internal criteria of the way in whicb its units and structures are linearly
combined in time. However, this time is not the same as extrinsic, mechanical, clock time. Rather, it is
a system-internal time whereby speakers and listeners can make qualitiative judgements as to the
acoustic impressions they perceive in heard speech.That is, speaker and listener have internal systemic
models of how sounds are combined and classified and how these models are deployed in actual
occasions of speaking and listening. In the passage cited above, Saussure draws attention to the criteria
of perceptual invariance or homogeneity whereby speech sounds, in spite of variation in their
articulatory and acoustic properties depending on context, may be heard as perceptually the same.
In a number of important respects, Saussure's way of posing the problem foreshadows the latter day
debate between speech production and speech perception theorists. According to the former, the
production of speech sounds involves the spatio-temporal overlap, or coarticulation, of vocal tract
gestures in context-dependent ways. According to the latter perspective of linguistic phonologists, the
units of speech are described in terms of a set of context-free, static, discrete (non overlapping) and
invariant features such as phonemes, syllables, and so on which are serially ordered as sequences of
segments (see Lindblom 1982 for discussion). Thus, the sequence of phonemes in the sequence /ki :/ key - constitutes a functionally organized relation of parts to whole in the word in question. The
functional basis of this relationship is further evidenced by psycholinguistic studies of spoonerisms and
other speech errors which show that these functional values have psychological reality for users of the
language. The paradox arises in the attempt to reconcile, or to understand the relationship between
these two levels of description. In other words, it is the problem as to how the acoustico-articulatory
variants of speech sounds as they are produced and heard may be reconciled with the invariant units
proposed by phonologists. Lindblom cites experimental evidence using spectographic analysis of the
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acoustic properties of speech sounds and X-ray tracings of articulatory movements to illustrate the very
considerable context-dependent variation and spatio-temporal overlap which may characterize the
articulation of the same vowel or consonant in different articulatory environments. With reference to
the acoustic properties of the initial phoneme /k/ in the words /ki :/ - key - and /ku :/ - coo - , Lindblom
shows that an acoustic definition of the /k/-phoneme "must depend on context". Spectographically,
they have different bursts and different aspirated segments, depending on the vowel with which they
co-occur in the two words. Further, there is no discrete segmentation of consonant and vowel. It is not
easy to determine where one ends and the other begins. Instead, features of the one merge with those of
the other. Thus, the vowel "influences the spectral shape of the burst and the consonant modifies the
beginning of the vowels as the presence of the formant frequency variations (transitions) shows"
(Lindblom 1982: 5). These observations pertain to the acoustic record or trace of the sound. This is a
trace of the motor movements in articulatory space-time that produced the sound. These, too, are not
discrete and context-free, but involve considerable spatio-temporal overlap.
Saussure does not have the advantage of spectographic analysis of the acoustic properties of speech
sounds or X-ray tracings of articulatory movements. However, this seeming disadvantage is also in my
view an important advantage in trying to rethink the relationship between the two seemingly
incommensurate levels of analysis - the acoustico-articulatory and the phonological - discussed above.
How might we rethink this problem? How can Saussure's apparently outdated phonological theory help
us?
The observations made here mean that the sign is the means whereby order, pattern, and meaning are
construed in the phenomena that we experience through our sensory systems. This is so along both
dimensions of the sign's internal design. In the section that now follows, I shall outline the basic
principles of Saussurean structuralism with these questions in mind.
2. Saussure's Dynamic Structuralism, Contextualizing Relations, and Phonological Form.
In a number of important ways, Saussure's phonological theory is an important precursor of the
dynamic structuralism which has developed in the physical, life, and social sciences in the past few
decades. It is important to distinguish this dynamic structuralism from the formalistic tendencies of
'classical' structuralism in the mid-twentieth century. In my view, Saussure's theory, which has
generally been regarded as the founder of the latter, is, in fact, much more centrally concerned with the
former. Petitot-Cocorda (1990 [1985]: 54) points out that classical structuralism, in its preoccupation
with a "generalized reification of structures, a reification which allowed them to be algebraized" failed
to show how the properties of these structures emerged from their physical-material substrate. In other
words, it failed to address the central concern of a truly dynamic structuralism, viz. the cross-coupling
of the semiotic and the material-phenomenal in the making of meaning. Saussure's phonology, which I
take to be a species of dynamic structralism, is exemplary in this regard. One of the central questions
of this dynamic structuralism is the following: how do we recognize structure in the phenomena of our
experience? The structuralist answer to this question can be formulated as follows. In our transactions
with our environment(s), we assign representations to some abstracted features of these transactions.
We construe these as having some unity or structurally stable "form" (Thom 1975 [1972]).
These material-phenomenal features, which are governed by precise laws, afford their pick up by our
sensory and neuroanatomical apparatus and for this reason are potentially meaningful for us. The
ability to recognize such a pattern of experience is the first level of conscious meaningfulness. The
pattern which is so recognized does not so much have an explanatory function as a constitutive one: it
constitutes the basis for our recognition of the phenomena of experience. The resulting pattern
constitutes a structure.
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Such a structure is connected to still higher levels of contextualizing relations through the social
semiotic processes and activities which are enacted in a given culture. The ability to recognize such
patterns in experience is the ground of all semiosis. Semiosis (cf. parole) is always both a material and
a semiotic process, simultaneously. Any given semiotic act is always a cross-coupling of both semioticdiscursive and material-phenomenal relations and processes. It has consequences in both domains in so
far as the contextualizing relations which such cross-couplings entail enact and coordinate flows of
matter, energy, information and meaning in socially and culturally relevant ways.
The phonological forms of a given language system have no phenomenal existence. They are not
immediately given to our senses. The question arises as to how such non-phenomenal forms organize
the matter, energy, and information exchanges in and through which we transact with our social and
material environments? What is the nature of structure? I shall try to answer this question as follows.
Structuralist analysis is concerned with second- (and higher-) order contextualizing relations. It is
interested, above all, in the patterns that are construable among the 'entities' in a given phenomenon. It
does not, for this reason, consider the physical-material substrate of the interaction to be a 'truer' or
'superior' reality, i.e., one in which, following positivism, the only significant relations are those
between observable entities available to our sense perception. These are what western culture defines
as zero-order realities, i.e., the observable 'things' of positivism.
Structuralist analysis does not seek to represent structure as such, but the relationships that define what
the structure of something is. Relationships between what? Not between 'things' or 'entities' for, in the
final analysis, these are themselves always relationships. The decision to call something an 'entity' in a
given instance is always a result of the theoretical and practical contingencies of that particular
analysis. However, a given structuralist analysis always postulates a level of first focus (Lemke 1984:
35). This is the level of the 'entities' which are taken to be the ground for the analysis of a particular
pattered relationship. For the above reasons, one of the fundamental a priori of structuralism is that
structures are relational. In the very earliest stages of infant proto-semiosis, the infant's vocal tract
gestures are restricted to holistic opening and closing gestures of the vocal tract. The vague and very
general possibilities of this early stage give way to the increasing determinability of a full-fledged
language system. As Fowler (1986: 4) points out: "Were each word to consist of an holistic articulatory
gesture rather than a phonotactically organized sequence, our lexicons would be severely limited in
size." In Saussure's analysis of speech sounds, the chain of heard speech is the focal level. This is the
level of the qualitiative impressions perceived by the listener. However, these focal level dynamics are
made possible by the lower-level dynamics of both the vocal tract gestures of the speaker (efficient
cause) and the resulting propagation of sound energy through an information medium such as air
(material causes). Further, the focal level dymanics are interpreted and regulated by the higher-level
dynamics - the boundary conditions- of a phonological system which constrains and entrains the lower
level dynamics in determinate ways. The imposition of boundary conditions means that the
microscopic physical-material processes of the lower levels are always interpreted from the
macroscopic (cf. morphological) perspective of an observer and his or her system of interpretance.
This follows from the fact that the observer imposes form and structure on the material-phenomenal
world by means of the categories provided by some semiotic system. Such form and structure cannot
inhere in the source - the neurophysiological processes of articulation - of the microlevel dynamics
involved because these microlevel dynamics cannot be said to have a viewpoint which is comparable
to the macroscopic scale of the observers's (phonological) categories.
Saussure's phonology demonstrates the centrality of contextualizing relations to Saussure's dynamic
structuralism. Neither the lower level phonic terms nor higher level phonemes are substantive 'entities'.
Saussure is concerned to analyse the contextualizing relationships that define what a particular
phoneme is. The phoneme is always a relationship between some contextually constrained
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configuration of phonic terms. In Lecture 3, I was concerned to examine how these considerations
relate to the phoneme in Saussure's phonology. In the present discussion, I am more interested in
establishing the basic principles which are at stake in the way phonological form contextualizes and
entrains the acoustico-articulatory domain in determinate ways as a given phonic substance.
Phonic terms such as [+nasality], [-nasality], [+laryngeal vibration], [-laryngeal vibration], and so on
refer to an emergent level of phenomenal experience in the acoustico-articulatory flux. They are the
level of first focus of Saussure's phonology (see above). Phonic terms are not, however, 'entities' which
have some irreducible substantial unity. As the level of first focus in Saussure's phonological theory,
they are the perceptible phenomena, or the first level of contextualizing relations, which are required
for the explanation of higher level phonological categories and relations. More precisely, they refer to
the informational variants and invariants which our psycho-perceptual apparatus enables us to extract
from the acoustico-articulatory flux. The acoustico-articulatory phenomenon to which the linguistic
gloss [+nasality], for example, refers does not correspond to any phoneme category in the phonological
system of any language. The phonic term, or feature, is a difference that potentially makes a difference
to the participants in some ecosocial system.
However, participants do not 'directly' perceive this informational invariant as such. Instead, bundles of
phonic terms, rather than individual ones, are selectively contextualized as instances of the
phonological categories of a given language system (see Lecture 3). There are not, therefore, two
stages in which the perception of acoustic stimuli is primary and social semiosis is simply added on to
the original experience. The morphological properties of the phenomenal world do not make a
difference in any significant way independently of the higher order processes of social semiosis with
which they are cross-coupled.
3. Saussure's Phonology and the Form-Substance Dialectic.
Saussure's phonological theory represents a major attempt to work through the implications of this
point of view for his overall theory of the sign. This means that Saussure's phonological theory
constitutes an integral part of his overall theory of the language system in relation to social meaningmaking in parole. In particular, his phonological theory shows how the phonic stratum of the signrelation, or the signifier, parallels the conceptual stratum of the signified in its internal design and
functioning. Further, this parallelism of signifier and signified is also reflected in their relations with
phonic substance and what I shall henceforth designate as thought-substance, respectively.
Saussure's discussion of the relationship between "phonic substance" and the signifier illustrates this
principle very clearly:
Psychologically, abstracted from its expression in words, our thought is no more than an amorphous
and indistinct mass. Philosophers and linguists have always agreed in recognizing that, without the aid
of signs, we would be incapable of distinguishing two ideas in a clear and constant fashion. Taken on
its own, thought is like a nebula where nothing is necessarily delimited. There are no preestablished
ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of the language system.
In the face of this fluctuating realm, do sounds present themselves as entities circumscribed in
advance? Not at all. Phonic substance is neither more fixed nor more rigid; it is not a mould to which
thought must necessarily fit the forms, but a plastic material which divides in turn into distinct parts in
order to provide the signifiers which thought needs. We can therefore represent the overall linguistic
fact, that is, the language system, as a series of contiguous subdivisions simultaneously traced
[dessines] on the undefined plane of confused ideas (A) and on the no less indeterminate plane of
sounds (B); this may be represented very approximately by the schema:
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The characteristic role of the language system vis-a-vis thought is not to create a material phonic
means for the expression of ideas, but to serve as intermediary between thought and sound, in such a
way that their union necessarily brings about reciprocal delimitations of units. Thought, chaotic by
nature, is forced to become precise in being segmented. There is then neither the materialisation of
thoughts nor the spiritualisation of sounds, but it is a question of this in some ways mysterious fact that
"thought-sound" elaborates its units while constituting itself between two amorphous masses. (CLG:
155-6)
Phonic substance is not simply a material carrier or vehicle of language form. It is not acoustic medium
which "embodies" language (c.f. Abercrombie 1967: 1). Rather, it is selectively contextualized by the
language system [langue] so that some "divisions" rather than others are seen as meaningful in relation
to other "divisions", as well as in relation to the overall language system (see Lecture 3, Section 8 for
further discussion).
Phonic substance refers to the way in which the analog continuum of the acoustico-articulatory domain
is selectively contextualized so that not all possible relations and combinations of sounds are salient or
possible in a given language system. Phonic substance, in other words, refers to the way in which
phonologically salient distinctions emerge from the analog continuum of the acoustico-articulatory
information produced by the vocal apparatus. Phonological form (the signifier) categorizes this as
significant "divisions" in a given language system. In other words, phonological form construes the
analog continuum referred to above as a semiotically formed phonic substance, relative to a given
language system.
The vocal apparatus is an analog continuum in precisely this sense (see also Lecture 3, Section 2).
Saussure describes the vocal apparatus and its functioning as a topological space (CLG: 66-70) which
may be subdivided into a number of articulatory parameters. Saussure schematizes these parameters in
relation to the diagram which is reproduced in Figure 1, as follows:
INSERT FIGURE 1 HERE
"For the description of the apparatus, we shall confine ourselves to a schematic figure, in which A
designates the nasal cavity, B the oral cavity, and C the larynx, containing the glottis between the two
vocal cords.
"In the mouth it is essential to distinguish the lips and a, the tongue -- ( designating the tip and all
the rest), the upper teeth d, the palate, consisting of an anterior part f-h which is bony and inert, and a
posterior part i, which is soft and mobile , and finally the uvula .
"The Greek letters designate the organs which are active in articulation, the Latin letters the passive
parts". (CLG: 66-7)
In effect, the vocal apparatus is an analog continuum of acoustico-articulatory parameters defined by
the deformations and movements of the speech organs, respiratory tract rate and volume of inhalation
and rate of exhalation, as governed by factors such as speech loudness, phrasing, and articulation, and
so on.
Phonic substance, in Saussure's account, is not an objectified and meaningless physical reality in the
Newtonian sense. Instead, phonic substance designates the perceptual phenomena - the "object of
consciousness", as Merleau-Ponty (1983 [1942]: 145) would call it - that emerge through the
application of the phonological categories belonging to phonological form to the analog continuum of
the acoustico-articulatory flux. Phonological form only has meaning in so far as it categorizes the
emergent phenomena of experience in phonic substance. It does not have an 'autonomous' existence as
such.
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A precisely parallel situation also exists between the signified and what Saussure calls "thought".
"Thought" is the conceptual analogue of phonic substance in Saussure's account. It is for this reason
that I have elected to use the term 'thought-substance' in order to suggest this parallelism. The
distinction which Hjelmslev (1969 [1943]: 57-60) subsequently made between expression-substance
and content-substance made this parallelism clearer.
In Saussure, "thought" refers to the way in which significant conceptual differences emerge from the
analog continuum of the things, events, states, and so on that constitute the perceptual phenomena of
the world we live in. Thought-form (the signified) categorizes these as significant conceptual
"divisions" in a given language system. In other words, the signifier construes the analog continuum of
the perceived world as a semiotically formed 'thought-substance' relative to a given language system.
Saussure does not say that the extra-linguistic domain per se is formless, shapeless, or unstructured.
There has been a good deal of misunderstanding on this point. Saussure claims that it is "thought"
"without the aid of signs" which is "amorphous and indistinct". Saussure's use of the experiential
adverbial adjunct "psychologically" [psychologiquement] is most important in this connection.
'Psychological', as distinct from 'psychic', is a subjective and non-semiological principle in Saussure's
conception. On the other hand, the sign is a psychic phenomenon which enables speakers and hearers
to mutually orient to the meanings and values of events in the speech circuit by virtue of their crosscoupling with the higher-order social-semiological system of langue (Thibault 1997: chap. 6).
'Psychological' is, then, equivalent to 'pre-semiotic' in Saussure's theory. In this paragraph, Saussure
makes it clear that extra-linguistic reality is not seen as an unstructured heraclitean flux onto which
form is subsequently projected by an intentional consciousness, psychologically defined.
From Saussure's point of view, 'thought without the aid of signs' is the analog continuum of conceptual
differences which the signifieds of a given language system reconstrue and categorize as the emergent
phenomena of thought-substance. In this way, the emergence of a semiotically formed thoughtsubstance is tantamount to the imposition of informational closure on an analog world (Salthe 1993:
134). There are no digital distinctions in the domain calls 'thought without the aid of signs'. This
explains Saussure's choice of the epithet 'amorphous' to describe it. It is 'amorphous' in the sense that it
has not been semiotically formed as a thought-substance in relation to the conceptual categories of a
given language system. Thought-substance, in other words, may be referred to as 'thought with the aid
of signs'. Thought-substance refers to the cross-coupling of the material-phenomenal domain which we
perceive through our various sensory systems with the conceptual categories (the signifieds) of a given
language system. The analog continuum of the matter-energy processes of the former is cross-coupled
with the digital distinctions of the latter. For this reason, substance is both analog and digital.
Hjelmslev's notion of content-purport suggests this same line of reasoning (1969 [1943]: 50). Thus,
Saussure's 'thought without the aid of signs' refers to a phenomenal-material level of reality 'before' it
has been construed as a specific thought-substance, relative to a given language system. This 'before' is
a logical, rather than a temporal relation.
Saussure's point of view resonates very well with Gerald M. Edelman's argument that the world is an
unlabelled placed. A given language system integrates the vaguer possibilities of 'thought' and 'sound'
into a more determinate system of categories. The generalities, the relative disorderliness of 'thought'
and 'sound' become increasingly specified as a more ordered system of conceptual and phonological
categories. For example, experimental evidence suggests that the highly specified phonological
categories of a given language system derive, in ontogeny, from an initial distinction between a holistic
opening and closing gesture of the vocal tract (Fowler 1986: 4). Thus, these rather general initial
possibilities of the neonate become integrated, in the course of its further development, into an ever
more specified system of categorical possibilities. In this way, the developing individual achieves ever
more precise controls over the meaning-making potential of his or her own body. That is, the
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emergence in the individual of a full-fledged phonological system means that he or she has more stored
phonological information as a basis for constructing oneself as a signifying individual.
However, I disagree with Repp and others who argue that it is a question of the relationship "between
stimulus properties and precompiled knowledge structures" (Repp 1987: 11). However phonological
information might be stored in the brain, it seems necessary in my view to be able to account for
statistical fluctuations during development as well as information obtained from accidental or
contingent events in the developmental trajectory of the individual (Salthe 1993: 175). In my view,
Saussure's view of memory as associative, rather than hard-wired, is consistent with such a view. Thus,
the indeterminate and open ended character of associative relations (CLG: 174) does not rely on all-ornothing distinctions which are already fixed in memory. When Saussure says of associative relations,
"A given term is like the centre of a constellation, the point at which other coordinated terms converge,
the sum of which is indefinite" (CLG: 174), we may see the terms - phonic or conceptual - as attractors
in specific networks of relations. These attractors are memories and categories which are held by the
neural networks in the brain. An associative network in Saussure's sense is always 'content
addressable', irrespective of whether it is concerned with conceptual or phonic 'content'. This means
that a given network of associative relations constitutes a 'basin of attraction' (Kauffman 1993: 228) for
any specific memory or term, either conceptual or phonic. Therefore, the activation of any term in the
given associative series means that the entire system of relations has the potential to flow by virtue of
the dynamics of the entire network of associations to the particular term or category which acts as the
attractor - the 'centre of the constellation' - for the entire series. The attractor would be the schematic
category or categories which constitute the basis of co-classification for all of the terms that belong to
a given series. Saussure suggests that the associative series in memory naturally classify and
generalize, to paraphrase Kauffman (1993: 228). That is, all of the terms in the same series converge
on the same attractor - the same schematic category or term - and in this way are co-classified as
having some feature or features in common, or as being instantiations of the same schematic category.
Kauffman points out that for this to occur - i.e., for "similar things to be classified as the same", or for
neighbouring states to flow to the same attractor - it is necessary that the dynamical behaviour of the
associative network as a whole be ordered rather than chaotic (Kauffman 1993: 228). There is nothing
natural or inevitable about their flowing to the same attractor.
In Saussurean terms, it is important to point out here that associative relations or solidarities constitute
one of the two principles of order - syntagmatic relations being the other - which constitutes a "partial
correction of a naturally chaotic system" (CLG: 182-3), as Saussure, in a remarkable anticipation of the
way of thinking under discussion here, puts it. Following the work of Rummelhart and McClelland
(1986), Kauffman proposes that learning is the "general mechanism" which "converts chaotic attractors
to orderly ones" by affecting the weighted connections among the terms in the network.. However, the
parallel processing approach of Rummelhart and McClelland, which is based on the notion of learning
as information processing, does not show how observer-dependent criteria of interpretation are
responsible for the elaboration of the information in the network as meaning. That is, the individual
agent-observer, as Edelman (1989: 40) points out, adapts this information so as to selectively recontextualize an 'unlabelled world' as meaningful. Meaning is not hardwired in neural networks.
Rather, the associative networks proposed by Kauffman are coding devices for the specification of the
weighted valuesof the variables - cf. terms - in the network.. Saussure's notion of associative relations
is, of course, a linguistic, rather than a neural, construct: it posits no biological basis for explaining the
neural architecture and mechanisms which underlie these linguistic phenomena, as they are stored and
activated in the individual's brain Edelman (1989: 40) points out that no amount of description of these
mechanisms can in itself explain meaning. Saussure's associative networks allow for meaning-based
criteria of individual variability which are observer-dependent. Further, the associative networks of
Saussure derive from the system of langue, which is the historically changing product of the collective
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activities of some socio-cultural group. Meaning is implicit in these activities and in ways which are
not reducible to pre-wired neural mechanisms, or to a world which is already arranged into pre-existing
categories of objects, events, and so on. The flexible and open ended character of associative relations
provides a resource whereby speakers contextualize the analog world of 'thought' and 'sound' as
meaningful, and in ways which selectively act on "preexisiting variation at each level of neural
structure" (Edelman 1989: 41) in the individual's brain.
4. A Note on Associative Networks and Verbal Paraphrasia.
The arguments presented above in relation to associative networks may also help to shed light on the
problem of verbal paraphrasia, or choice of the wrong word, which occupied the thinking of early
neurologists such as Lichtheim and Wernicke in the tradition of the localization of brain functions, and
Hughlings Jackson, Freud, and Pick in the holistic tradition. Verbal paraphrasia is considered to be a
primary symptom of the various types of aphasia that were the focus of the pioneering neurological
studies the researchers named above. Here is Pick on the question of verbal paraphrasia :
In verbal paraphrasia [choice of the wrong word], the word determined by thought and by the
sentence pattern is inwardly present, or at least there is an intention in this direction, but this normally
rigid determination is loosened up. The coherence is not firm enough to maintain the normal
suppression of words evoked by association from the sphere of meaning, from parallel lines of thought,
or by other sorts of confusion, and thus it leads to the transmission of one of the inapposite words to
the speech mechanism ... the effect of the intact part of the speech process (especially the sentence
pattern) on the wrong word is sometimes evidenced as a grammatical modification derived from the
correct word. (Pick 1973 [1931]: 56)
Paraphasias frequently result in phonemic disortions of the target lexical item. They are caused by a
failure to select the correct sound structure, rather than a failure of the motor control apparatus
involved in articulation. Saussure emphasised the psychic, or intentional, nature of the speakerlistener's acts of meaning-making in the speech circuit (Thibault 1997: chap. 6). That is, the psychic
nature of this process constitues the organizing principle in terms of which 'thought' and 'sound' are
selectively re-contextualized in and through the signs of a given language system so as to express an
intended meaning. The associative networks in the individual's memory enable him or her to both
interpret the world and to interact with it in coherent and organized ways. This depends on the fact that
similar contexts are represented or classified as being the same by the networks. This means that the
individual has a stable yet flexible and adaptable resource for organizing his or her linguistic responses
to the world. A breakdown in the organization of these networks due to damage to the underlying
cortical areas in the neural substrate, as in the various types of aphasia, may mean that this stability
gives way to a chaotic, rather than an orderly, regime in which "arbitrarily nearby points in state space
of the associative networks, PJT] map to arbitrarily different attractors" (Kauffman 1993: 233). In the
stable regime, on the other hand, the "normal suppression of words" identified by Pick takes place
because the terms in the various associative networks which are involved in the selection of a
particular linguistic item flow to the same attractor, thereby allowing the network of choices to
converge, for example, on the correct phonemic pattern. In the pathological cases studied by Pick,
conceptual terms from, say, the same "sphere of meaning" may arbitrarily flow to the wrong attractors
in the sphere of the phonic terms, thus leading to the articulation of the wrong word. Consider the
following example, taken from an aphasic patients recount of the events surrounding his first stroke:
On the day it happened I got on the Friday morning and just collapsed on a belt at the uh hospital.
(borrowed from Armstrong 1996: 168)
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In this example, the lexical item belt is a paraphrasia for what clearly should have been bed in the
hospital context referred to by the speaker. The phonological similarity of the two items suggests that
the conceptual terms which constitute the signified of the word bed arbitrarily map onto the phonic
sequence which constitutes the signifier of belt, or, alternatively, that the "normal suppression" of the
conceptual terms associated with the signified of belt does not occur, leading to the mapping of two
different pathways through the networks of conceptual terms onto the same sound structure. Language
in the brain is meaning based (Peng 1997: 32 ; Harr and Gillett 1994: 80-97). As I argued in Lecture
3, Section 2, vocal and other semiotic modalities of gesturing are the means of coordinating the
paricipants for the purposes of dialogic interaction. Brain damaged speakers such as the individual
featured in the above example may well know what meaning they intend to express. However, their
inability to select the correct sequence of phonemes on the basis of which there is a systemic
association with a conceptual signified means that the listener's ability to reconstruct in his or her brain
the same or approximately the same association of signifier and signified is handicapped. That is, the
first-order contextual relations (signifiers) which the speaker provides the listener do not provide an
adequate basis for their reconstrual as the contextually appropriate second-order signifieds which may
be assigned to the phonological sequences permitted by a given language system.
The terminological distinctions I have made here are a further refinement of the sometimes latent
distinctions in Saussure's own use. Saussure does not actually use the term 'thought with the aid of
signs', or its corrollary 'thought-substance'. However, the distinctions I have drawn here follow from
the initial qualification that Saussure makes with respect to 'thought without the aid of signs'. It
follows, therefore, that there is also 'thought with the aid of signs', which I see as synonymous with
thought-substance.
The arguments I have made in the two preceding paragraphs are also pertinent to phonic substance.
What is the relation of phonic substance to 'sound with the aid of signs' ? Is this the same as phonic
substance ? In Saussure's view, 'sound without the aid of signs' refers to the the analog continuum of
phonic differences which the signifiers of a given language system reconstrue as the emergent
phenomena of phonic substance. In phonic substance there are both analog differences and digital
distinctions. Saussure's term 'amorphous' describes the analog continuum of differences in 'sound
without the use of signs'. This is what Hjelmslev referred to as expression-purport:
We can, for example, think of a phonetico-physiological sphere of movement, which can of course be
represented as spatialized in several dimensions, and which can be presented as an unanalyzed but
analyzable continuum -- for example on the basis of Jespersen's "antalphabetic" formulae. In such an
amorphous zone are arbitrarily included in different languages a different number of figurae
(phonemes) since the boundaries are laid down in different places within the continuum. An example is
the continuum made by the median profile of the roof of the mouth, from the pharynx to the lips. In
familiar languages this zone is usually divided into three areas, a back k-area, a middle t-area, and a
front p-area. If we consider only the stops, however, Eskimo and Lettish, among others, distinguish
two k-areas, whose lines of division do not coincide in the two languages. Eskimo places the boundary
between a uvular and a velar area, Lettish between a velar and a velo-palatal area. (Hjelmslev 1969
[1943]: 54-5)
Saussure's 'sound without the aid of signs', on the other hand, is not "amorphous" per se, but in the
sense that no specific language system has 'analyzed' it. This acoustico-articulatory space is what
Hjelmslev designated as expression-purport. That is, the phenomenal-material level of the acousticoarticulatory domain 'before' it has been construed as a specific phonic substance, relative to a given
language system. The topological basis of the phonological categorization of this space is discussed in
Lecture 3, Section 6.
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The domains Saussure calls "thought" and "sound" suggest, then, that the extra-linguistic world is
already qualitatively structured as potential phenomena of experience. These afford their reconstrual as
semiotic values relative to a given social-semiological system. That is, both "thought" and "sound" are
emergent phenomena of experience. They do not have form imposed on them by a subjective
(psychological) consciousness which remains disjoined from a meaningless and shapeless object
world. Instead, forms emerge from the self-organizing character of the matter, energy, and information
flows that move through the system and which maintain it.
Both 'sound without the aid of signs' and 'thought without the aid of signs' refer, then, to this
phenomenal-material level of reality, relative to the two strata of the sign-relation. They do not refer to
an objectified and meaningless physical reality in the classical sense. Both of these domains are
phenomenal-material in character. For example, both the continuous spectrum of qualitative, analog
differences "made by the median profile of the mouth" or by the vocalic continuum, as described by
Hjelmslev, are analog differences in the "amorphous" domain of 'sound without the aid of signs'. This
domain is in turn digitalized as a specific phonic substance by the phonological distinctions (categories
or phonemes) of a given language system.
Analogously, we perceive the material-phenomenal world through our various sensory systems by
means of a continuous spectrum of qualitative, analog (morphological and informational) differences
in the ambient energy (acoustic, optical, olfactory, haptic, and so on) that surrounds us. Once again, the
analog differences in the perceived world may be digitalized as a specific thought-substance, relative to
a given language system.
The original distinctions made by Saussure, Hjelmslev's refinements of these, and the more recent
insights provided by the morphology of forms may be summarised in Table 1:
Saussure

Hjelmslev

Morphology of Forms

thought
morphological organization and informational differences in material(without the aid content-purport phenomenal domain of perceived 'inner' and 'outer' experience; analog
of signs);
continuum of precepts
thoughtsubstance

contentsubstance

semiotically construed phenomena of experience; cross-coupling of


semiotic and material domains in parole ; analog-digital

signified

content-form

value-producing experiential categories intrinsic to language as pure


form; digital distinctions in langue

sound
expression(without the aid
purport
of signs)

morphological organization and informational differences in acousticoarticulatory flux; analog continuum

phonic
substance

expressionsubstance

semiotically construed speech sounds; cross-coupling of phonological


form with acoustico-articulatory flux; analog-digital

signifier

expressionform

value-producing phonological categories intrinsic to languageform;


digital distinctions in langue

Table 1: Form, substance, and the material-phenomenal; Saussure, Hjelmslev, and modern
theories of morphological organization compared.
The terms which belong to the two orders of difference are not, strictly speaking, linguistic to start
with. Both phonic and conceptual terms are emergent phenomena of experience. That is, they are
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phenomenal, rather than linguistic, in character. Phonic and conceptual terms are linguistic glosses on
emergent forms of experience in the domains of 'sound without the aid of signs' and 'thought without
the aid of signs', respectively. Saussure's description of these two domains as "two amorphous masses"
does not mean they are formless. Neither of these domains refer to the objectified physical domain
which physicists describe in the language of electrons, atoms, and molecules. This is the physical
substrate of the two domains under discussion here.
The two domains in question depend on the lower level physical substrate for their existence, but they
are not reducible to it. The physical substrate is a lower order of organization in a complex hierarchy of
levels. 'Sound without the aid of signs' and 'thought without the aid of signs' are emergent phenomenal
levels of organization: they have all the properties of the lower level substrate, but they also have
newly emergent ones that are not reducible to or explainable in terms of the lower level. The emergent
properties of this phenomenal level are the basic forms of experience. Rather than the language of
electrons, atoms, and molecules, this level is described in the language of morphological organization
and informational properties. It is this level with which the psycho-perceptual apparatus of the
individual cross-couples.
Petitot-Cocorda borrows the neologism 'pheno-physics' from Per Aage Brandt to describe this
emergent morphological level of organization. The 'pheno-physics', thus, emerges from the
fundamental 'geno-physics' which is the substrate of the former:
The concept of a qualitative macroscopic physics of forms, of a morphological physics, of a phenophysics, henceforth belongs, then, to the concept of objective reality. According to us, this fact has
indispensable consequences for cognitivism. In effect, the hypothesis can henceforth be made that the
morphological constitutes an intermediate term between the physical and the symbolic: it is physical
(emergent) in origin but without for all that being material; it is formal but without being for all that
symbolic (it is topologically and geometrically formal and not logically formal). This consideration
makes the following dual hypothesis legitimate:
(i) there exists morphological and qualitative information which is present in the external world and
which, while being entirely physical in origin, is nevertheless phenomenological in nature and, as such,
intrinsically meaningful [significative];
(ii) this morphological information is reconstituted after transduction and serves as the basis of
properly high-level symbolic, cognitive and semiotic processes.
(Petitot-Cocorda 1994: 23-4; emphasis in original; my translation)
The morphological and informational level of organization referred to by Petitot-Cocorda constitutes
the ground of human experience and human social meaning-making. Our sensory systems cannot
detect the lower level physical substrate of atoms, molecules, energy waves, and particle transmission.
The emergent properties of the morphological and informational level constitute a self-organizing
system. They constitute the first-order patterns of difference that make a difference to the human
organism in some ecosocial environment.
The emergent phenomena of articulation are not, therefore, the phenomenal appearance of a more 'real'
physical substrate which is the 'cause' of these phenomena Petitot-Cocorda, 1985: 102). This materialphenomenal level is not reducible to the lower level physical substrate. Saussure's phonological theory
is, instead, guided by the necessarily complementarity nature of the relations between form and
substance (see section 5).
This morphological level of organization, as Petitot-Cocorda (1994: 23) points out, emerges from the
physical substrate. It is a macroscopic domain which is phenomenologically dominant with respect to
the microscopic physical substrate. The point is that this level of organization specifies information
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about the environment to the observer (speaker-hearer). Such information concerns, most centrally, the
embodied nature of the meaning-making subject in relation to the material-phenomenal world.
Phonic terms such as those mentioned in section 3 contextually constrain this morphological level of
organization by introducing differences into the analog continuum. These are analog differences, rather
than digital distinctions. A given phonic term is not a categorial distinction. It does not correspond to a
given category of phoneme. Phonic terms provide information relative to the articulatory process. Each
term designates a specific parameter of articulation relative to a given acoustic cue. A given
configuration of phonic terms functions to control or constrain the global perception of the acoustic
impressions - the percept - which the ear receives. The acoustic image regulates the hearer's perception
of the acoustic impressions received by categorizing them as global percepts which correspond to the
phonological values which the phonemes in a given language system have.
Jean Petitot-Cocorda (1990 [1985]: 42-3) has discussed this problem in terms of "phonetic perception",
which Petitot-Cocorda claims is categorial. Petitot-Cocorda draws on the work of Didier Pisoni (1979;
see also Pisoni and Luce 1987). In particular, he uses Pisoni's notion of "acoustic cue" to explain how
phonetic sounds "depend on a small number of parameters, called acoustic cues" (1990 [1985]: 43; my
translation). Petitot-Cocorda points out that tests have shown that subjects subordinate the
discrimination of phonetic stimuli to their (categorial) identification. This proves, Petitot-Cocorda
argues, that it is identification which categorizes the audio-acoustic continuum as discrete and stable
sound percepts in relation to the phonological forms of a given language system. As such, they are
categories immediately given to perception and for this reason they possess a psychological reality.
It is worthwhile reflecting on Saussure's choice of the epithet "amorphous" [amorphes] to describe
these two domains. The French word amorphes has, potentially, the following two meanings: (1)
'passive', 'lifeless', 'spiritless', with reference to persons; and (2) 'amorphous', in the geological sense.
The two meanings are highly suggestive in the present context. Human beings do not live in the
objectified world of atoms and molecules. This level of physical reality is not self-organizing. Neither
atoms nor molecules have individual characteristics, or histories that matter to their behaviour (Lemke
In Press [1995]: 9). By definition, this level of reality is "passive", "lifeless", and "spiritless" from the
point of view of the ecosocial reality in which humans live. Human perception and activity are oriented
or intentional in the sense defined by phenomenologists such as Brentano, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty.
In Saussure's terms, perception and semiosis are psychic acts, as I pointed out above.
The combining of terms from the two orders of difference in the making of a sign is an instance of
some social-semiological practice in a given community. The resulting sign, seen as a pure form, is a
semiotic type in that community. But in parole actual instances of the type are enacted in and through
their cross-coupling with physical-material processes. The internally stratified nature of the sign is
functional in cross-coupling it with the neurophysiological processes of articulation and with the
phenomena of experience (events, states, objects, and so on) in the material-phenomenal world which
are perceived by our sensory systems. This means that every act of parole participates in two systems
of relations, simultaneously. As a semiotic act, it enters into meaningful relations with other socialsemiological relations and practices in the community. As a material event, it enters into relations of
matter, energy, and information exchange with events in the acoustico-articulatory and the materialphenomenal domains that Saussure calls 'sound without the aid of signs' and 'thought without the aid of
signs', respectively.
Saussure's discussion of the two interfaces that link the sign to these two material-phenomenal domains
is an attempt to theorize the unitary nature of the cross-coupling of the social-semiological with the
material-phenomenal. This is reflected in Saussure's terminological choices. Thus, phonic substance
and thought(-substance) are not described as if they were entirely separate and independent physical80

material domains in the objectified and physicalist sense of Newtonian physics. Rather, the very terms
Saussure uses indicate that these are defined in relation to the internally stratified nature of language
form. Phonic substance is defined in relation to the phonological categories internal to the signifier;
thought-substance in relation to the conceptual categories internal to the signified. Substance and form
are, therefore, reciprocally organized in relation to each other.
Substance and form are hierarchically organized levels of organization in a unitary ecosocial system.
This unity is a result of the cross-coupling of the two domains in social semiosis. The reciprocal effects
of these cross-couplings produce the emergent phenomena of experience. The two strata of language
form each have their internal regularities whereby the material-phenomenal world is reconstrued or
interpreted according to the phonological and conceptual categories of a given language system
'Sound without the aid of signs' and 'thought without the aid of signs' are "amorphous" only in so far as
they are not cross-coupled with the meaning-making practices of some community. What really
matters, as Saussure shows, is how form and substance are interdependent. It is the interdependency of
the two which generates order, pattern, and meaning. Saussure's term "amorphous" refers to a system
whose elements are only weakly coupled. Such a system is low in order, pattern, organization and
information. "Amorphous" suggests equilibrium, homogeneity, lack of diversity, and stability.
On the other hand, the semiological cross-coupling of form with both 'sound without the aid of signs'
and 'thought without the aid of signs' produces increased differentiation, complexity and ordered
heterogeneity. A social-semiological system such as langue is an open, rather than a closed and
autonomous, system. The cross-coupling of form with the material-phenomenal in social semiosis
means that social-semiological systems exchange matter, energy and information with their 'external'
environments, i.e., the two interfaces in question.
More precisely, this happens when users of the system deploy its resources in acts of parole to construe
informational and morphological variants and invariants in the phenomenal-material world of
experience. At the same time, the system generates cultural meanings and values whereby materialperceptual phenomena are entrained, organized and made meaningful in a given community. The selforganizing character of a social-semiological system is a result of the system's transactions with its
environments by virtue of the cross-coupling mechanisms that interface the two strata of language
form with the material-phenomenal world. In relation to the kinetic-bodily interface of articulation,
phonological form (cf. the signifier) entrains and coordinates these bodily processes according to the
structuring requirements of a given phonological system. In this way, the individual's vocal tract
gestures are motivated in relation to the symbolic requirements of a shared system of social meaningmaking.
Phonic substance and thought-substance are the two interfaces that cross-couple the individual to his or
her immediate ecosocial environment. They have no subjective psychological or mentalistic status in
Saussure's theory. Instead, they refer to principles of order, information, and pattern which are
generated by the cross-coupling of the individual to the environment. That is, they are generated by the
dynamics of the system as a whole. From the point of view of the individual, he or she is endowed with
specific neuroanatomical capabilities which allow vocal tract activity to take place (cf. firstness).
However, the individual's cross-coupling to the ecosocial environment generates semiotic and material
'friction' as the self comes up against and interacts with the non-self (cf. secondness). In turn, the
possibilities for such interaction to take place are mediated by a higher-order social semiotic system of
possibilies and constraints such as langue (cf. thirdess). Thus, the indexical necessities of secondness the interaction of self and non-self - are expanded by the symbolic possibilities afforded by thirdness
(see section 6 below).

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The immediate environment in which this occurs is the speech circuit. The speech circuit is a
microlevel ecosocial environment comprised of the two individuals in Saussure's diagram. It is, by
definition, concerned with parole, rather than langue. The microlevel environment of the speech circuit
is cross-coupled to a higher order social-semiological system which is implicit in the many different
acts of parolethat are enacted over time in a given community (Thibault 1997: chap. 6).langue is a
higher-order environment which regulates the transactions in the immediate ecosocial environment of
the speech circuit.
Phonic substance and thought-substance are the two boundaries or interfaces that cross-couple the
individual to the environment. They are the boundaries across which the individual exchanges energy
and information with the environment. Along the acoustic-articulatory interface, the individual speaker
projects acoustic-articulatory patterns into the contexts in which one interacts with one's fellows. Along
the phenomenal-perceptual interface, the individual picks up information about the environment
through his or her sensory systems.
However, the cross-linking of individual to environment is not an individual activity. There is also the
social-semiological dimension. The cross-coupling of the two strata of language form (the sign) with
phonic substance and thought-substance means that phenomenal-material patterns are, in turn, linked
to the higher-order social and cultural practices of the community in and through the social meanings
that are assigned to them. It is not the case that language form imposes order on an otherwise shapeless
reality. Saussure does not say that language imposes order in a univocal way.
Rather, the system of pure values is a system of contextualizing relations. It is not a purely formal
calculus which is based on logico-combinatorial principles. The language system provides criteria of
preferential salience (c.f. values) for construing and contextualizing the phenomenal-material patterns
of experience in ways that are relevant to the cultural practices of the community. In this way,
morphological and informational differences in the phenomena of experience are linked to and shaped
and entrained by the system of social-semiological relations and practices in some community.
We see how along both dimensions of the sign's internal design a psychic principle of form works to
operationalize 'sound without the aid of signs' and 'thought without the aid of signs', respectively.
These are emergent phenomena of experience rather than raw physical stimuli. The language system,
as pure form, is the principle whereby the emergent phenomena of our experience are defined and
categorized relative to an intentional consciousness. It is in this sense that the phenomena of our
experience are dually reconstituted as "thought-sound" [pense-son]. That is, as language form.
Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, that form, so defined, exists both "in" the physical world, and "in" the
living body" (1983 [1942]: 137). In synthesizing "thought" and "sound" in this way Saussure's notion
of language form overcomes the antinomy of form and substance.
Substance has no causal role in Saussure's phonological theory. Instead, there is a single "universe of
form", as Merleau-Ponty (1983 [1942]: 133) has put it. The emergent properties of the articulatory act,
in relation to the acoustic impression, is a question of material-phenomenal form. Form, in Saussure's
account, is the means of synthesizing 'matter' and 'idea' in a new higher-order unity (Merleau-Ponty,
1983 [1942]: 137; 143-4). Speech sounds are not, we have seen, reducible to the world of particles
with absolute properties which is described by Newtonian physics. Speech sounds have a structure and
a meaning within the ecosocial environment inhabited by speakers and hearers.
Saussure's conception of the relationship between phonic substance and phonological form does not
accept the premises of either an objectified physical world onto which meaning is projected by an
individual consciousness. Saussure's conception is much closer to recent developments in both the
ecological theory of perception propounded by Gibson (1986 [1979]) and the macroscopic physics of
forms developed by Petitot-Cocorda (1990) on the basis of the catastrophe theory of Ren Thom (1975
82

[1972]). Nor does Saussure say that the mind produces a representation of a given articulatory act and
that this representation, in turn, commands the muscles to carry out the required muscular movements.
Saussure does not posit the 'middle-man' of representation which mediates between the mind and the
external environment of the speaker-hearer. The complementarity of oral articulation and acoustic
impression entails quite a different set of principles.
These may be outlined as follows. First, in arguing against the reduction of speech sounds to either oral
articulation or acoustic impression per se, Saussure shows that what modern psychologists call action
and perception are inseparable. Secondly, the central role which Saussure assigns to the language
system means that instead of fixed mental representations or programs which control articulation the
language system provides procedural models which specify the functional value that a given sound has
in the spoken chain. Thirdly, the relationship between oral articulation and acoustic impression is
neither a linear nor a causal one. Saussure's discussion of the speech circuit shows that speech sounds
can only be adequately understood if one focusses on the whole system of relations which is involved.
Articulation emerges as a result of the system's capacity for self-organizing behaviour. The relevant
criterion is that of the complementarity between the two levels of oral articulation and acoustic
impression. It is to this issue that I shall now turn.
5. The Complementarity of Oral Articulation and Auditory Impression.
In chapter III of CLG, 'The Object of Study', Saussure refers to a number of complementarities which
he proposes as the basis of linguistic science. The first of these will be the focus of attention in this
lecture. The complementarity in question is that between the "acoustic impressions perceived by the
ear" and "oral articulation" (CLG: 23-4). The relationship between these "two faces" of a particular
articulatory event such as the syllable (CLG: 23) is, Saussure argues, a two-way and reciprocal one: the
one does not exist without the other:
The syllables which one articulates are acoustic impressions [impressions acoustiques] perceived by
the ear, but the sounds would not exist without the organs of speech; thus, an n only exists through the
correspondence of these two aspects. The language system [lalangue] cannot be reduced to the sound,
nor can the sound be detached from oral articulation; reciprocally the movements of the organs of
speech cannot be defined if one abstracts from the acoustic impression. (CLG: 23-4)
The acoustic impression is not a physical reality per se. That is, it does not refer to the sound waves
which are propagated through the air. Rather, it refers to the psychic representation of a specific
category of speech sound in a given language system. For this reason, it has no direct reference to any
particular acoustic event, in the physical sense. The phonological category referred to here belongs to
phonological form. This is what it means to say that it is a particular phoneme category in some
language system. Phonological form, as I pointed out above, is the stratum of organization which
Saussure calls the signifier in the sign-relation. How does a given phonological form relate to concrete
speech events?
I shall answer this question as follows. A given phonological form (e.g., syllable, phoneme) "faces two
ways": it is the interface between a given oral articulation in the act of phonation and the acoustic
impression which the hearer perceives in the act of audition. Phonological form is the means whereby
particular speech events are construed as patterned differences that are significant in that language
system. The fact that phonological form interfaces both oral articulation and acoustic impression
means that one continous circuit of differences links speaker to hearer. Thus, the speaker's bodily
processes of oral articulation produce patterned differences in sound that flow through the ecosocial
environment of the circuit. These act on the receptive faculties of the hearer and are changed into
acoustic impressions which in turn tell the hearer something about the bodily activities of the speaker.
83

It is not the case, then, that phonological form simply imposes an interpretative grid on the sound
waves that are propagated from speaker to hearer. Sound waves as such have no meaning for us. They
are the matter-energy substrate that carries the emergent acoustico-articulatory phenomena that I
discussed in section 2.
Nor is it the case that the hearer simply imposes a subjective act of perception on a neutral and
objective physical reality. Acoustic impressions are not subjective experiences of the hearer. Rather,
Saussure's complementarity means that oral articulation has properties with reference to the hearer
(Gibson 1986 [1979]: 137). The patterned differences which the speaker produces in oral articulation
are there to be perceived whether a given hearer attends to them or not. Oral articulation affords
possibilities of interaction in the ecosocial environment because of what it is. That is, it is a pattern of
differences that potentially makes a significant difference in that environment.
The physical world per se, as Gibson (1986 [1979]: 33) has shown, is not meaningful to us. We do not
live in the domain described by acoustic physics. Further, meanings are not imposed by us on an inert
physical world. Likewise, we do not impose meanings on an inert and objectified physical world.
Instead, we live in an ecosocial environment in which patterns of differences are there to be discovered
and interpreted. This brings me back to the complementarity which Saussure proposes between oral
articulation and acoustic impression.
Speech sounds belong to the ecosocial level of reality. They are an example of what Gibson (1986
[1979]: 127) calls an affordance. In Gibson's terms, speech sounds are an affordance because of what
they afford or offer to the members of some speech community. In particular, they afford possibilities
of meaning and interaction.
Saussure's notion of complementarity anticipates one of the central premises of the new science of selforganizing systems. Complementarity, as Saussure defines it, means that a material change in the
speaker (oral articulation) corresponds to a related change in the hearer (acoustic impression). Both
speaker and hearer are in some way changed by this process. The process is, by definition, ecosocial,
not individual.
The reciprocal contact between speaker and hearer which this complementarity entails is not
contingent. Rather, it takes place in a precise ecosocial context of material change and energy
exchange. The complementarity of oral articulation and acoustic impression refers, then, to the
reciprocal adaptation of, or orientation to each other, of these two poles of attention and awareness.
The relationship between oral articulation and acoustic impression is not a fact of the objectified
physical world described in the mathematical abstractions of the physicist. Gibson (1986 [1979]: 8) has
talked about the "mutuality" of animal and environment in this connection.
The two poles of awareness are subordinated to a higher-order principle of complementarity which
regulates the relationship between them. In other words, oral articulation and acoustic impression form
a metastable complex in which neither of the two terms is privileged. One does not 'cause' or
'command' the other. Rather, the complementarity of oral articulation and acoustic impression is
contextual. It is a result of the selective and adaptive orienting to and modification of the one in
relation to the other. The phoneme is the higher-order contextual principle which is the basis of this
complementarity.
A given acoustic impression A selectively contextualizes corresponding features B in articulation. The
result is a metastable complex which emerges from the interaction of A and B. Saussure refers to this
as "the acoustic given" [la donn acoustique]. Speech sounds, Saussure says just a few pages later, are
complex units which result from the combined effects of both "acoustic impressions" and "articulatory
movements" (CLG: 65).
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However, the complementarity between oral articulation and acoustic impression means more than that
the two are mutually defining. Speech sounds are neither objective physical properties nor subjective
mental ones (Gibson 1986 [1979]: 129). Saussure's complementarity provides, therefore, an alternative
to psychophysical dualism. That is, speech sounds cannot be reduced to external physical stimuli and
their corresponding mental sensations. Saussure manages to avoid the Cartesian psychophysical
dualism.
According to this doctrine, consciousness stands in a relation of correspondence - cf. indexical
necessity - with the outside physical world and the correspondence between the two is expressible as
psychophysical dualism.
6. Symbolic Possibility, Indexical Necessity, Lalangue Interieure, and the Internal Modelling of
the Ecosocial Environment.
The notion of the sign per se simply makes no sense: the internal design of the sign is functional in
symbolically cross-coupling it with physical-material processes in the 'outside' world. However,
Saussure's conception of the sign is neither a representational nor a 'standing for' one. Further,
Saussure's discussion of the signifier focusses on the specifically phonological (categorical) dimension.
He does not consider other facets of the phonic signifier which index the speaker's emotional and
bodily states, and so on. In other words, Saussure's interest in the phonological dimension of the
signifier rather than in indexes of the speaker's affective and bodily states highlights his symbolic
conception of the sign as a whole. Phonic indexes such as voice quality necessarily correspond to
specific aspects of the speaker's affective and other bodily states. The phonological categories that
Saussure is most interested in do not. Instead, phonological types and their patterns of combination in a
given language system stand in no such relationship of necessity to the bodily and affective states of a
given speaker. We have already seen that there is no direct translation from the physical activities of
the vocal tract and the acoustic impressions received the the listener. Rather, both vocal tract gestures
and the acoustic impressions perceived by the listener are symbolically transduced as phonological
categories and their combinations. This is so both from the production and perception points of view.
Phonological categories are stored in the individual's brain as acoustic images. Acoustic images are
neural impulses which are in turn 'linearized' as acoustic ouput in the process of sending these impulses
to the organs which produce the actual sounds (Peng 1997: 42). This means that the individual who has
such an internal model does not simply produce sounds which index individual affective and other
states. Rather, he or she is in possession of a phonological system whose symbolic properties enable
the individual speaker bodily to project by means of an appropriate energy medium such as air
information into the environment such that its potential for symbolic reconstrual as the conceptual
categories of the signified may occur. This is made possible by the fact that both speaker and listener
are in possession of an internal model -langue interieure - whose symbolic possibilities raise it above
the workings of indexical necessity. This is a consequence of the systemic constraints - cf. arbitrariness
- whereby only some phonological categories and their combinatons cross-couple with only some of
the conceptual signifieds in a given language system.
This does not mean that factors such as voice quality, prosody, rhythm, tempo, and so on, are any less
important to the overall meaning and organization of the spoken signifier in the chain of heard speech.
Saussure's concentration on the categorical nature of abstract phonemic type-categories is offset by his
discussion of what he calls a 'combinatory phonology' of the functional values that phonemes have in
the spoken chain (Lecture 3, Section 9). A given phonemic type-category, as we have seen, constitute a
set of context-free organizational parameters for the articulation and perception of speech sounds. In
Saussure's account, these are based on abstract principles concerning the "position of the organs"
85

(CLG: 78). In other words, there is a context-free equivalence relation between a given phoneme-type
and a given extra-phonological (i.e. articulatory) 'state of affairs' in the abstract topological space
which Saussure postulated as the best basis on which to describe speech sounds. In this perspective,
abstract phoneme classes correspond to such articulatory parameters independently of the constraints
imposed on them by the "possibility of linking the movements of articulation" (CLG: 79).
Phonological categories so defined are explicitly meaningful for the users of a given language, as
shown, for example, by the way in which these may transcribed according to the conventions of the
phonetic alphabet indepednetly of any specific context. Phonemes, so defined, are segmented into
discrete particles and are seen as predominantly typological-categorical in character. However, in the
speech chain, phonemes are always grounded by their relations to other phonemes and their
possibilities of co-articulation. Further, they are also grounded in and through their relations with a
range of other indexical (rather than symbolic) aspects of speech sounds - prosodies, voice quality,
volume, tempo, and so on - that are necessarily tied to the bodily, affective, and other states of the
speaker on the particular occasion of speaking. Such factors tend to be topological and continuous,
rather than discrete and digital, in character. They cannot be so readily segmented into discrete chunks
of phonological categories. Saussure's discussion of his 'combinatory phonology' suggests that
phonemes, too, when instantiated in the spoken chain have both symbolic and indexical properties. If
the former set the nonsubstantive parameters for the articulation of a given sound-type, the latter
indexically substantively ground the phoneme-type in question by indexing the specific co-articulation
of articulatory movements which takes place on that speaking occasion as an instantiation of the type
category at the same time that the phonic significance of this particular instantiation of the symbolic
character is contextualized in relation to the indexical necessities of intonational, prosodic, rhythmic
and other phenomena which are not strictly phonological - i-e. in the narrow, segmental sense - in
character.
The construing of phonological values in the acoustico-articulatory flux enables a language specific
phonic substance to emerge from the analog continuum of possibilities in the vocal tract (cf.
Hjelmslev's expression-purport). This results from the categorization of the articulatory processes
through the progressive convergence of the forms of the articulatory process and those which are
internal to the phonological system of the language. Articulatory acts are construed as instances of
phonological categories, rather than as specific physical acts per se. Categories are created by the
contextualizing of diverse sets of articulatory parameters. That is, the articulatory act is not comprised
of fixed physical properties which predefine it. Rather, a given set of articulatory parameters
constitutes information which must be interpreted in relation to the requirements of the individuals in
the speech circuit.
In this way, morphological structures or forms emerge from a lower level physical substrate. As
Merleau-Ponty (1983: 143) points out, form is not a physical reality, but a perception; form is a
phenomenon of human experience. Phonological categories provide procedural models for selectively
attending to and acting on the acoustico-articulatory information according to specific contextual
demands. In this way, the process of categorization reveals only those properties of the physicalmaterial event which are salient or relevant in a given context.
One of the few linguists who has understood the real import of Saussure's conception of the sign and
its relation to what lies 'outside' along both of the 'interfaces' - viz. the kinetic-bodily and the
perceptual-phenomenal - is Hjelmslev :
That a sign is a sign for something means that the content-form of a sign can subsume that something
as a content-substance. Just as we felt before a need to use the word purport, not simply of the content,
but also of the expression, so here again, in the interest of clarity, despite the time-honored concepts
whose shortcomings now become increasingly evident, we feel a desire to invert the sign-orientation:
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actually we should be able to say with precisely the same right that a sign is a sign for an expressionsubstance. The sound sequence [ri(ng)] itself, as a unique phenomenon, pronounced hic et nunc, is an
entity of expression-substance which, by virtue of the sign and only by virtue thereof, is ordered to an
expression-form and classified under it together with various other entities of expression-substance
(other possible pronunciations, by other persons or on other occasions, of the same sign).
The sign is, then - paradoxical as it may seem - a sign for a content-substance and a sign for an
expression-substance. It is in this sense that the sign can be said to be a sign for something. On the
other hand, we see no justification for calling the sign a sign merely for the content-substance, or (what
nobody has thought, to be sure) merely for the expression-substance. The sign is a two-sided entity,
with a Janus-like perspective in two directions, and with effect in two respects: "outwards" toward the
expression-substance and "inwards" toward the content-substance. (Hjelmslev 1969 [1943]: 57-8)
The sign is dually implicated in the physical-material processes with which it cross-couples. The sign
is a 'putting into form' of this relationship with the phenomena of experience. This occurs along the
following two dimensions:
1. the individuation of the speaker-hearer as an embodied participant in semiosis;
2. the exploration and construal of the phenomenal world which the subject perceives and acts on.
The first dimension corresponds to the phonological pole of the signifier; the second to the conceptual
stratum of the signified. Neither sound-substance nor thought-substance are objectified physical
realities in the Newtonian sense. They are phenomena of experience which emerge from their
respective physical-material substrates. This means that the sign categorizes and construes the
phenomena of our experience along the two interfaces of (1) the bodily processes of articulation and
(2) our perceptions of things, states, events, and so on in the phenomenal world - both the 'outer' world
of observed events, etc. and the 'inner' world of consciousness, bodily states, and so on. It does so
along the two dimensions simultaneously. In such a view, the sign functions as the interface which
mediates between the self and its ecosocial environment. 'Sound' and 'thought' are transduced into the
symbolic categories - phonological and conceptual - of some language system which the self has
internalized as a semiotic resource for modelling and predicting both its internal and external
environments Saussure'slangue interieure constitutes an internal model of the environment whereby
the self semiotically interprets the analog domains of sound and thought by means of symbolic signs.
The symbolic character of the sign means that there is no necessary connection between the internal
model of the self and external events. Sound and thought, on the other hand, are indexical necessities
(Salthe 1993: 180-1). There is a necessary fit between incoming stimuli and sensory receptors as well
as between, say, modulated vocal tract activity and the acoustic percepts that go out into the
environment. On the other hand, the transduction of indexical necessities into symbolic possibilities
means that the self is creatively freed from the immediate here-&-now, and in ways that enable the self
to adaptively modify its relations to the environment as well as to psychically orient to it by way of the
sign-making activities which it returns to the environment.
In both cases, an a priori system of phonic and conceptual categories which are defined by the
language system are deployed in order to categorize and construe the phenomena of experience along
these two dimensions of semiosis. The language system provides the phonic and conceptual categories
which enable the language user to explore and interpret the ecosocial environment. The process of
categorization is not a simple naming of external phenomena. Rather, the categories of the language
system are 'filled' with the phenomena of experience at the same time that the variables and
contingencies of experience are 'standardized' by the categories of the language system. In this way, the
phenomena of experience are inserted into and manipulated by the structuring potential of language
form.
87

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