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“The Nature of the Linguistic Sign.” Problems in General Linguistics. Trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables: U of Miami P, 1971. 43-48. Benveniste argues the “idea of the linguistic sign” (43) is derived from the work of Saussure. It was Saussure who argued that the “nature of the sign is arbitrary” (43), an assertion the correctness of which has come to be “granted as obvious” (43) on a widespread basis. Benveniste is alluding, of course, to Saussure’s view that signifiers/phonemes, signifieds/concepts and, thus, signs are purely differential and not defined by their positive content (in short, the meaning of a sign is a matter of what the sign is not). For Saussure, the idea of an ‘ox’ (the signified), for example, is not connected to the signifier thereof (o-x) by any necessary or motivated bond. This “characteristic ought then to explain the very fact by which it is verified: namely, that expressions of a given notion vary in time and space and in consequence have no necessary relationship with it” (43). In claiming that the proof that signifiers are only arbitrarily linked to particular signifieds lies in the existence of different languages which use different signs to refer to the same referent, Benveniste contends, Saussure is conflating the proof with the cause. Benveniste contends that even though Saussure said that the idea of ‘sister’ is not connected to the signifier s-o-r, he was not thinking any less of the reality of the notion. When he spoke of the difference between b-o-f and o-k-s, he was referring in spite of himself to the fact that these two terms applied to the same reality. Here, then, is the thing, expressly excluded from the definition of the sign, now creeping back into it by a detour, and permanently installing a contradiction there. For if one states in principle – and with reason – that language is form, not substance, it is necessary to admit – and Saussure asserted it plainly – that linguistics is exclusively a science of forms. (44) Even “more imperative is the necessity for leaving the ‘substance,’ sister or ox, outside the realm of the sign” (44): “it is only if one thinks of the animal ox in its concrete and ‘substantial’ particularity, that one is justified in considering ‘arbitrary’ the relationship between böf (‘boeuf’) [the French word] on the one hand and oks (‘ox’) [the English word] on the other to the same reality” (725). The thing-in-itself, expressly excluded from Saussure’s model of the sign, creeps back into it by a detour, as it were. Benveniste may be said in this essay to be showing how Saussure’s argument deconstructs itself, that is, Benveniste is stressing the aporia or contradictions latent in his argument. Saussure’s argument in this
if it does not. Together the two are imprinted on my mind. Benveniste argues that the connection between the signifier (the sound image) and the signified (the concept attached thereto) is in fact “necessary” (45). (45) “What is arbitrary is that one certain sign and no other is applied to a certain element of reality. The signifier and the signified. The signifier is the phonic translation of a concept. The sign only appears arbitrary to someone “who limits himself to observing from the outside the bond established between an objective reality and human behaviour and condemns himself thus to seeing nothing but contingency” (44). . The infinite diversity of attitudes and judgments leads to the consideration that apparently nothing is necessary. The mind accepts only a sound form that incorporates a representation identifiable for it. This is because the “mind does not contain empty forms” (45) nor “concepts without names” (45). This consubstantiality of the signifier and the signified assures the structural unity of the linguistic sign. Benveniste concedes that all this proves is that no “denomination in itself is absolute” (45). The Saussurian concept is in some measure dependent on this system of thought” (44). . the signified is the mental counterpart of the signifier. speech taboos. From the universal dissimilarity. it rejects it as unknown or foreign. even better it is that reality (nomen/omen. there is a "close symbiosis" (45) between sound and idea to the point where the latter is “like the soul” (45) of the former. the signified being "perforce identical in my consciousness with the sound sequence . For the speaker. a universal contingency is inferred. In the speaker's mind. the magic . are thus in reality the two aspects of a single notion and together make up the ensemble as the embodier and the embodiment. Benveniste attributes the reason for this “contradiction” (44) in Saussure's theory not to a “relaxation of his critical attention” (44). “consists in discerning the inner structure of2 Richard L.regard collapses because the distinction which he is drawing between the signified and the referent and upon which his contention here is predicated begins to blur upon closer inspection. “there is complete equivalence between language and reality. however. W. and not to any other” (46). This is the “metaphysical problem of the agreement between the mind and the world transposed into linguistic terms” (46). The more important question. the mental representation and the sound image. but to the “historical and relativist thought of the end of the nineteenth century” (44) according to which “[d]ifferent people react differently to the same phenomenon. together they evoke each other under any circumstance" (45). Clarke LITS3304 Notes 02A the phenomenon of which only the outward appearance is perceived" (45). The sign overlies and commands reality.
The point is that all values are values are values of opposition and are defined only by their difference. But all this. by its relationship to the other signs which comprise the sign system of which it is part. Everything is so necessary in it that modifications of the whole and of details reciprocally condition one another. owing to the force of circumstances. that values remain entirely ‘relative’ but the question is how and with respect to what. . W. the “arbitrary” (46) only exists “with respect to the phenomenon or the material object. From then on. The “assertion of the linguist as to the arbitrariness of designations does not refute the contrary feeling of the speaker” (46). according to Saussure. because being arbitrary cannot be challenged in the name of a rational norm” (46-47). Again. The “choice that invokes a certain sound slice for a certain idea is not at all arbitrary. Benveniste is of the view that this is true not of the relationship between signifier and signified. they maintain themselves in a mutual relationship of necessity. all the more should one consider the value as an attribute only of the form. and immutability. Saussure was “always thinking of the representation of the real object (although he spoke of the ‘idea’) and of the evidently unnecessary and unmotivated character of the bond which united the sign tothe thing signified” (47).)” (46). if the sign taken in itself is not arbitrary. because since it is arbitrary it is always open to change. Benveniste turns his attention at this point to the claim by Saussure that the sign is both mutable and immutable: “mutability. . Clarke LITS3304 Notes 02A to each other. An opposition is. Even in cases such as onomatopoeia. Benveniste contends. something determined. is that not precisely the proof of their necessity? We deal no longer here with the isolated sign but with language as a system of signs. In reality. Benveniste argues. not of the substance. . to say that the values are ‘relative’ means that they are relative3 Richard L. but true of the signification. in Benveniste’s view. subtended by necessity. . not the sign” (47). as it is necessity which gives shape to the opposition. The relativity of values is best proof that they depend closely upon one another in the synchrony of a system which is always being threatened. this sound slice would not exist without the corresponding idea and vice versa” (47). has nothing to do with the relationship which exists between signifier and signified which.power of the word. but of that which exists between sign and referent: what Saussure “demonstrated remains true. It is quite true. conformity of parts in a structure which transcends and explains its elements. Whoever says system says arrangement or] . and does not interfere with actual composition of the sign” (46). it follows that the ‘relative’ character of the value cannot depend on the ‘arbitrary’ nature of the sign. is anything but arbitrary. If language is something other than a fortuitous conglomeration of erratic notions and . etc. always being restored. which addresses the (arbitrary) relationship of sign to referent. Benveniste then turns his attention to the question of the sign’s “value” (47). . as a] systematic economy. Let us state this at once: value is an element of the sign. Opposed to each other. Since it is necessary to leave out of account the conformity of the sign to reality. Now.
sounds uttered at random. However. these two components being consubstantially the same” (48). we go beyond Saussure himself to affirm the rigour of Saussure’s thought” (48) . Benveniste ends by contending that the proof that a doctrine is truly fruitful is that “it can engender a contradiction which promotes it. and forms the structural principle of language” (48). (48) Benveniste concludes that the “role of contingency in language affects denomination insofar as denomination is a phonic symbol of reality and affects it in its relationship with reality” (48). The “absolute character of the linguistic sign thus understood commands in turn the dialectical necessity of values of constant opposition. In restoring the true nature of the sign in the internal conditioning of the system. it is because necessity is inherent in its structure as in all structure. the sign “ includes a signifier and a signified whose bond has to be recognised as necessary.
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