(selections from the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 960-80)

  1. What effect do you think the fact that Saussure did not actually prepare his own notes for publication may have had on the quality of what we read by him?
  2. What are some ways in which Saussure differentiates language from speech? (961, "Language is the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself").
  3. What does Saussure mean when he says that language "exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community"? (961)
  4. What does he mean by his claim that "Language, unlike speaking, is something that we can study separately" (961). Why can't we study speech separately, in his view?
  5. What does it mean to say that language's essential feature is the "union of meanings and sound-images"? (961)
  6. What does Saussure mean by "semiology"? What are some other semiotic systems beside language? (961) What is the benefit of studying them comparatively? (962, will add to greater understanding of all these systems)
  7. What in Saussure's view have been some of the defects of earlier studies of language? (962, has not been studied in itself but in conjunction with something else; too historical) What is wrong with thinking of language as a "name-giving system"? (obscures its true nature)

    "Nature of the Linguistic Sign"
  8. According to Saussure in this chapter, what's wrong with the view that language is a naming process? (assumes that ideas exist before words, that relation between name and thing is simple, 963)
  9. What two things does the linguistic sign unite? (a concept and a sound-image, 963) What is the latter, exactly? (not a material sound but its psychological imprint on consciousness)
  10. What is the relationship of a "sign" to the concept and sound image? (of whole to part, 963) What are the signifier and signified?
  11. What is meant by Saussure's claim of the "arbitrary nature of the sign"? (964) How is a sign differentiated from a symbol? (965)
  12. Why is language "the most characteristic" of all sign systems? (965)
  13. Why is the existence of onomatopoeia not a refutation of this claim? (965) Are allegedly onomatopoetic words subject to historical processes? (965-66) Against what theories of language formation is Saussure arguing in his comments on onomatopoeia?
  14. What is meant by the notion that the signifier is linear? (966, signifiers must proceed in time)
  15. What does Saussure mean by the term "linguistic value"? (966ff.)
  16. What metaphors does Saussure use to express the relationship between ideas and sound? (967, two shapeless masses joined into a wave; a sheet of paper) What does it mean to say that the combination of sound and thought "produces a form, not a substance" (967)?
  17. What examples does he adduce to indicate that the values of a word remain relative? How does "value" remain different from signification? What pictures does he use to indicate the relationship words have with each other? (969)
  18. Of what forms of oppositions and/or comparisons are language values composed? (969, dissimilar things which can be exchanged, similar things which can be compared)
  19. What deduction does he make from the fact that in different languages similar words may have slightly different meanings? (words do not stand for pre-existing concepts, 970)
  20. What are some striking examples of different features of different languages? (970, absence of future tense)
  21. Is sound by itself a property of language, according to Saussure? (971) What analogy does he give with the properties of a coin?
  22. What determines whether a different pronunication changes the meaning of a word? (972)
  23. Does the way in which a sign is produced--that is, the lettering--affect its meaning? (972, no)
  24. Although according to Saussure in language there are only differences without positive terms, what happens when the signifier and signified are joined? (973, their combination is a positive fact)
  25. What processes of usage cause words to change their value? (973, confusion through phonetic alteration, confusion through similarity of meaning)
  26. What is indicated by his example of the use of the German plural? (974, language is a form and not a substance)
  27. What are syntagmatic relations, according to Saussure's definition? (974, linear combinations within discourse, in praesentia)
  28. What according to Saussure are qualities of associative relations? (in absentia, formed through memory, 975-77) What are some different types of associative chains? Are all of these infinitite in number? (976-77
  29. What use does he make of the metaphor comparing a linguistic unit to an architectural column? (975)
  30. How does Saussure answer the objection that sentences are forms of speaking, not language? (there are fixed patterns, even in speech, 975; even spoken language not entirely free to vary)
  31. How is the freedom of the individual speaker consistent with the prescriptions of collective usage? (976)
  32. Do Saussure's ideas have application to the study of literature? Which schools of criticism might have found his ideas especially intriguing?

Would Marx have agreed with/appreciated Saussure's ideas? Would Freud have done so? What are/would have been some implications of Saussure's views of language for the social sciences? For the study of literature?

Are there aspects of language which Saussure's scheme ignores?