Ferdinand de Saussure
Saussure, a Swiss critic writing at the end of the nineteenth century, was the first critic to focus on the analysis of the way that the present language is put together, rather than tracing the development of language throughout history (as philologists had been doing for centuries). He highlighted the arbitrary, referential nature of language, the way in which words can only be defined in relation to each other. For instance, consider the following words:
Each of these words takes its existence from its relationship to the other words. A boat is bigger than a raft but smaller than a ship. An ocean liner is a big ship. A raft is a small, less sophisticated version of a boat. Saussure stresses the way in which words have no real relationship to that which they are describing. If the word raft didn't exist, we'd have to either a) call the raft a boat, which would necessarily change the meaning of the word "boat", as its limits of definition would have to be extended to include rafts; or b) invent a new word for raft. Because of the arbitrariness of the words which designate objects (except for the rare onomatopaeic words), our new word for raft would have no relationship to the object itself (and, indeed, we would be hard pressed to come up with a word which did). Saussure described it thus: "Why can a street be completely rebuilt and still be the same? Because it does not constitute a purely material entity; it is based on certain conditions that are distinct from the materials that fit the conditions, e.g. its location with respect to other streets" (Course in General Linguistics, pp.108-109).
The next crucial idea put forward by Saussure, and one which was heartily expounded upon by Barthes, is the concept that language constitutes our world; that the way that we understand things is entirely influenced by the language used to describe them. An easy example of this is the way that the West tends to describe extreme Arab nationalists as "terrorists", whilst at home they are referred to as "freedom fighters" or "liberators". If we were able to take photographs of mental images, then the pictures produced from different minds when the words "cow", "painting" and "polo" are spoken would be bound to be very different.
Saussure also coined the phrases "langue" (meaning language) and "parole" (meaning word) to explain his theories. "Parole" was a private meaning which could only be grasped with sufficient knowledge of the relevant "langue" - the sociolinguistic codes which had produced that "parole". This concept has been extended by critics so that often "parole" represents a single work by an author and "langue" represents the social/cultural/artistic world from which it came forth. Thus Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is the "parole" whilst post-feminism and science fiction are the "langue".
It is worth noting, however, that Saussure's theories as expounded in the Course were put together from lecture notes by a group of his students and that many of the ideas expounded therein were by no means revolutionary. Indeed, men such as Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and François Rabelais ("Utterances are meaningful not by their nature, but by choice"*) had long since noted the conventionality of language
* [Spoken by Gargantua, see The Certainty of Literature by George Watson (Hemel Hempstead, 1989), p.49]
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