Structural analysis of language by Saussure: Signifier and signified

Saussure (1857-1913) is a Swiss linguist who is very renowned in the field of linguistics for his analysis of language from a structural perspective. The idea reached its “apotheosis in the mid-1960s” (Macey 364). He aims at offering a universal system for analyzing all the languages available in the world. His idea is considered a revolutionary break in the study of language because of its historical and philological aspects. He discusses his ideas in his Course in General Linguistics (1916). Saussure brings a shift in his understanding of language. Barry argues that “linguistic scholars had mainly been interested in historical aspects of language” (40) but Saussure highlights the “patterns and functions of language in use today” (Barry 40). Though Saussure is a linguist, he is included in the field of literary theory to investigate how literature operates. As literature is made up of language, it is important to explore how language itself works. Saussure attempts to analyze the universal structure of language in his structural analysis of language.

Saussure’s idea of language

To Saussure, language is nothing but a system of signs. These signs are the fundamental aspects of any language. Signs are also known as atoms or the smallest units of any language. More concisely, it can be argued that sign is the atomic existence of any language if it is broken (atomic theory).


Before Saussure, sign was defined in many ways. It is basically taken as an “automatic or natural expression of emotional states” (Macey 351). Lucretius in 55 B.C. compared signs to the sounds produced by animals. He argues that wild animals produce sounds when they encounter any fearful situation or experience pain. In the same way, human beings also naturally driven to utter similar sounds that “give a form to the names of different objects” (Macey 351). On the other hand, St. Augustine in his De doectrina christiana opines that sign always offers some more associative meanings.

To Saussure, sign is a “linguistic unit” (Klages 35) or the basic unit of the analysis of language” (Macey 352). It has its own structure which functions socially, culturally, and philologically to introduce meaning in human society. He argues that two things are done with the utterance of any word or sign. The first one is the sound and the second one is the concept or idea produced by the sound. For this reason, Macey argues that sign refers to the “formation upon how meaning is constituted by the relationship between what is signified and what signifies it” (351). So, it can be said that every sign consists of two aspects which are:

  • signifier and
  • signified


Signifier is the sound produced by the speaker with the utterance of any word or sign by using his vocal cords. It is also called an “acoustic image” (Macey 352)It is produced using biological limbs to refer to a particularly intended object for which Saussure terms sound or signifier as an entity associated with physicality.


It is the concept or idea which is produced with the utterance of the sound or signifier. It is predominantly the psychological imprint of the sound. In a simplified manner, it can be said that a signifier cannot offer meaning if there is no signified. With the signifier, the signified must be produced to refer to the target object. For this reason, Saussure associates signified with intellectuality.


When the word “table” is uttered, it creates a psychological imprint of the table in the speaker’s mind. The speaker gets the idea that the word table refers to an object which consists of a surface supported by four legs. In this way, whenever the word dog is uttered, psychologically the idea is received that it is a four-legged animal that barks. So, the utterance is the signifier, and the idea the speaker forms about the thing after the utterance is the signified.

Pre-existence of language

Saussure also suggests that no ideas pre-exist language. Idea or thought is a shapeless mass that can only be ordered and shaped with the use of language. Considering the pre-existence of the language, he concludes by saying that human beings don’t speak the language, rather language speaks them. Thus, language to him, is not just a thing or a substance, but a form or container or a system or a structure.

Langue and parole

Saussure concentrates on the existence of language as a whole, but not as a partial entity. He argues that language can be read as a whole and as a separate entity. According to him, the system of language as a whole is called langue while its distinctive and separate existence can be called parole. Parole refers to the individual existence while langue deals with larger unity. John Donne’s Good Morrow can be taken into consideration. It is called a dawn poem which is an example of parole. In order to understand the alba or dawn poem, we have to go back to the 12th century. This brand of the poem was written at that time in which lovers lamented the approach of daybreak because the rising of the sun meant the end of the romance. So, this larger approach to the poetic tradition called alba or dawn poem can be called langue. These two entities give permanence to the social meaning system. Every society confirms parole through social acceptance and recognition and these paroles are connected in a broader stage in the langue level.

Language and the constitution of the human world

The role of language is to constitute the human world. It does not just record it. Meanings are attributed to human minds which are expressed through language. Meanings are not contained in the objects. Two words such as terrorist and freedom fighter can be taken into consideration. Both of them do the same thing but for a particular country, a man can be a terrorist who may be taken as a freedom fighter by another country.


In his structural analysis of language, Saussure examines the basic components of language to explore its common structure so that all the languages of the world can be analyzed using the same structure. Thus, he explores sign, signifier, signified, etc that constitute the language.


  • Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008
  • Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000
  • Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: From Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Pearson, 2014



Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


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