Notes: Semiotics and Structuralism Lecture by Prof. Paul Fry at Yale University

Saussure: Language is not a function of the speaker. It is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual.

Paul Fry: It means that when I speak, when I use language in speech, I am using something that is not strictly my own. It is conventional–that is to say it belongs in the public sphere to all of us… The incredible gain which makes language something like the object of science… if language is not private, if it’s not my own, if it’s not somethign that I can make up as I go along, and if in other words it is conventional, belonging to all of us then that’s precisely what allows it to be communicative.

Essential Ideas:

1) The signifier-signified relationship is arbitrary.
2) The way in which we know one sign from another, the way in which we understand what a sign means is differential.

Saussure: If we study speech from several viewpoints simultaneously, the object of linguistics appears to us as a confused mass of heterogeneous and unrelated things. This procedure opens the door to several sciences, psychology, anthropology, normative grammar, philology and so on, which are distinct from linguistics but which might claim speech in view of the faulty method of linguistics as one of their objects. As I see it, there’s only one solution to all the foregoing difficulties. From the very outset we must put both feet on the ground of language, and use language as the norm of all the manifestations of speech.

>clustered in synonymity > clustered in association


Saussure: Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others.

Fry: The value of a sound I utter except by its contents, except by the way in which it differs from everything that surrounds it.

Saussure: A segment of language can never be in the final analysis be based on anything except its non-coincidence with the rest. Arbitrary and differential are two correlative qualities.

Saussure: Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with other terms of the system.

Example: the red light.

positive hypothesis: red in a red light means stop // a certain thing: stop
counter: red nosed reindeer // beacon, forward, follow me, damn the torpedoes: go
counter: intelligibility of a sign is determined by a semiotic system, its meaning is always in respect to what it is not in a semiotic system, may negate its meaning existing in another semiotic system
*gross constituent >neutralizes value i.e. red light in a Christmas tree, not part of a semiotic system
*semiosis > cultural system
*To know a thing is to know which system it belongs to, and that is to say, to know that which it is not.

Language exists synchronically. It only exists in a moment, in a moment of simultaneity. We study language diachronically. That is to say we study its history. We study its unfolding in time. It’s not a question in which language has changed without, but rather a sequence of synchronic cross-sections. We have to honor its simultaneity. Rather than something that changes organically through time. People are either willing or not to use something as a sign. Nothing can change simply by individual agency in and of itself.


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