Saussure: Conceptual & Material Value

Saussure: Conceptual & Material Value

If signifiers are randomly chosen to “stand in for an idea,” how do they accumulate value in language? Saussure believes that the value of a word is both conceptual and material.

In his passage on 969, Saussure says:

… all [sign] values are apparently governed by the same paradoxical principle. They are always composed :
(1) of a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined; and
(2) of similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined.

Signs gain value in two distinct ways. In one aspect, similarities help to define that sign and give it value. For example, the word cat belongs to a category containing house cat, lynx, puma, leopard, tiger, and lion. These similarities help to define “cat” as having whiskers, fur, sharp teeth, and claws. But this is only half of the story.

KringleEach sign is also given value by the differences it has from another. To refer back to a “cat,” we know that house cats are smaller in relation to lions, a lynx has a wicked overgrowth of ear hair, leopards have spots, tigers have stripes and, really, all but the house cat can eat you (unless it’s mine). The differences between each of these types of cat help to define the other by what they are not.

This is simply the idea of synonyms and antonyms operating simultaneously within the system of language to define each other. A word/sign has value on it’s own, but also gains value when surrounded by others. Together, they both limit and enhance each other.

In his passage on 971, Saussure says:

Signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position … it is impossible for sound alone, a material element, to belong to language. It is only a secondary thing, substance to be put to use. All our conventional values have the characteristic of not being confused with the tangible element which supports them. For instance, it is not the metal in piece of money that fixes its value. A coin nominally worth five francs may contain less than half its worth in silver. Its value will vary according to its use inside or outside a political boundary. This is even more true of the linguistic signifier, which is not phonic but incorporeal – constituted not by its material substance but by the differences that separate its sound-image from all others.

Speech is comprised of material sounds and yet uniformity of these sounds is not solely what give a word value. Saussure says that the difference between sounds is what separates the sign from all others. We can enjoy the latitude of pronunciation variation, whether through dialect or drunken slurring, and still be understood by the masses.

To illustrate how a sign’s value is not simply comprised of its parts, consider a painting. (This example has been brought to you by the oh-so-brilliant John Urbanski.) The canvas, gesso, paint and brushes used to create that painting are worth a certain dollar amount, but once hung in a gallery, the value of the completed creation increases significantly based on a social value system. Similarly, the value of words/signs must be accepted, understood and thus dictated by society, yet some wiggle room exists for creative differences.

Dr. Kim Middleton says:

You might consider which words are more valuable in our society, and which are less valuable, based on their associations and synonyms/antonyms (as you discuss above). Can you think of a particularly valuable word? Or one that is less valuable? (which ones do we need, and which could we live without?)

I nominate sign, signifier, and signified for the latter category. (Ba-dum-bum.) Okay, seriously, what about our use of eeeevil “terrorist” vs. the good “freedom fighter.” Each are politically charged groups employing guerrilla tactics. The label assigned depends on cultural perspective. Or how about “escalation” (a rise) vs. “surge” (as in quick blast and retreat)? Both mean an increase in troops but the terms are being batted around to see which sounds more pallatable to US citizens. As for those words we can completely do without? Racial slurs win, hands down.


So, the value of the sign is a positive fact based in differential definition. But what happens when lines cross and there isn’t enough difference to distinguish accurate meaning? On 973, Saussure says,

“Two ideas that are no longer distinct in the mind tend to merge into the same signifier.”

Dude, it’s a joke! See the (lame) humor on 958 in the introduction to Saussure:

A homeowner answering the phone and hearing that “The viper is coming” might feel fear, but when the voice on the line explains that “he’s coming to vipe your vindows,” what had initially been a serpent becomes a benign household maintenance worker. A foreign accent changes the sounds in a language without changing the system of differences.

Although this seems to prove that Sassure’s value system is a good place to start, is societal value so absolute? What if value shifts slightly between the process of expression and interpretation dependant upon the individual’s world of reference.

In other words, as I write this, I know what our group is trying to say. The question is, as a reader, do you see the message as clearly as we intended?

Resistance is FUTILE!

Resistance is FUTILE!

As a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, Saussure’s “assimilation” grabbed my attention. Trekkies know this term well, thus, I refer to Star Trek for two reasons:

borg-cubea.) First and foremost, Captain Picard’s superior intelligence is WAY sexier than Captain Kirk’s overactive libido.

2.) And probably far more applicable to Saussure’s theory is this: The Borg Collective, arch enemy of Picard’s individuality, expands and grows through assimilation, much like Saussure’s definition of language.

saussureSaussure says language is developed by society as a whole, employing a collection of conventions adopted by the social body. It is then assimilated through speech into the mind of an individual. Dude, the Borg would totally love this concept. But geographical dialects, institutional influence, Ethnology? These would be surely be assimilated, stomped on and disregarded too. Speech? Sure, the Borg use it, but not because it is “an individual and wilful act.” I guess the Borg aren’t much for literary theory.

So, the question is posed: Can speech exist without language? Saussure thinks no, although the two certainly influence each other. But can language exist without speech? I think yes. – Who cares what Saussure thinks (although he said it first). I am an individual. I WILL NOT BE ASSIMILATED. I have spoken! – Speech, like sign language, is just an expression of ideas through signifiers. This certainly begs the question of whether we have a natural instinct to use vocal chords rather than our hands to communicate, although Saussure says that’s only a secondary consideration. Linguistics doesn’t deal with that. Linguistics deals with tracing ALL manifestations of human speech, and when it can’t be studied aurally, texts are used to uncover the history.

Sadly, as the Borg have departed from this theory, I too must go. But stay tuned! After a word from our sponsor, I’ll be right back to spout more ridiculisciousness. (<- There. I just influenced language, although technically this only happens if you assimilate the word into your own vocabulary and influence the societal whole.)

q_borgPS: The last time I visited Border’s, I noticed the staff’s new little ear thingies used to communicate with other employees. I asked the guy behind the counter if this was part of the Borg Collective. Rather irritated, he was sure to tell me, “No. I am perfectly capable of thinking on my own.”

The Borg never did have a sense of humor.

How ridiculiscious. 😉