The Value of Signs: Saussure’s rebuttal

Ferdinand de Saussure, semiology, synchrony, diachronyWe’ve reached the final installment of our series on Ferdinand de Saussure and the scintillating study of semiology. In our last post we left our friend Saussure in a rather unflattering light, when we explored the first scientific evidence against his hypothesis: that the relationship between the sign (a word) and the signified (the concept a word represents) might not be as arbitrary as Saussure posited.

Saussure believed that there was no natural dogness in the word “dog” or treeness in the word “tree,” and that the words could be any string of letters as long as every speaker of a given language agrees upon and accepts that they have the same meaning. This theory went widely unopposed for the latter half of the twentieth century, but in 2001 neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard developed a study that uncovered a cognitive link between physical shapes and the sounds speakers associate with them.

In their “Bouba/Kiki Experiment,” test subjects were shown two shapes: one spiky and one with rounded edges. They were then asked which shape was “Kiki” and which was “Bouba.” 95-98% of participants named the spiky shape “Kiki” and the rounded shape “Bouba.”

So wait a minute. If there is some organic connection between a concept and the word for it than Saussure was wrong, our language isn’t arbitrary!

Hold your horses, skeptics. Saussure’s got something to say—

In A Course on General Linguistics (a piece transcribed from Saussure’s lectures by his former students that formed the backbone of semiology and linguistic structuralism), the linguist introduces the idea of signification versus value.

Signification is essentially the work of the sign, the unit that combines concept and sound-image (word). But the key feature of a single signification like “B-I-R-D” representing creature with wings is that the sign is self-contained and means “creature with wings” independently of other signs. The introduction of the term value creates a necessary paradox within linguistic theory because the mental conjuring of signs and their subsequent use in speech and writing is deeply dependent on their place in the greater system of language. Let’s unpack that a bit. What is a bird? A creature with wings. But a “bird” is not an “insect” despite the fact that many insects have wings. So for us to gain a fuller understanding of “bird” we must also understand the meaning of “insect” so that we know what a bird is not.

According to Saussure, values can also be exchanged for new concepts the way monetary values are exchanged. There was a time in the early- to mid-twentieth century when “bird” was a slang term for “women.”

The same concept of differentiation applies to the written/spoken value of a sign, because its clear communication is dependent on that sign not being confused with any other sign. If a mispronunciation allows “bird” to slip into “heard,” then the sentence will become incomprehensible. Similarly in written language each letter of a word must distinguish itself from every other letter of the alphabet for the word to be readable.

Alright, signification = self-contained; value = interdependent. We get it. So what does any of this have to do with Kiki and Bouba?

Saussure would point out the fact that Kiki and Bouba have an extremely limited value and that value is reliant on the directly oppositional nature of both shapes (i.e., there are only two, and their forms conflict). What if the value was increased and there were 50 shapes and participants were asked to choose from a bank of 50 names? Would they choose the same or similar names for the shapes in question? What if value were removed entirely and only one shape was pictured and participants were asked to make up a name for it? Would they draw a plosive “K” for the spiky shape out of thin air?

It’s difficult to say. Attempting to remove value might be an impossible dream. We have been trained by our culture and our language to make certain associations, and when we look at a page with a shape on it, we bring a lifetime of cultural conditioning with us.

These would be Saussure’s doubts through the lens of A Course on General Linguistics, and they’re not without merit. But even in the face of so much linguistic skepticism this data is still groundbreaking. It doesn’t have to threaten the arbitrary origins of established words, but it can help us direct the development of new words in more intuitive directions.

And if you can believe it, Saussure makes room for shifts of this kind in his theory. He thought that there were two ways to study language, forming a sort of axis of thought: synchrony, a snapshot of a language frozen in time, and diachrony, the study of language in flux. The “Bouba/Kiki Experiment” is nothing if not a diachronic moment for language.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a rebel. He came out of a nineteenth-century scientific tradition that sought to study language taxonomically the way a botanist might catalogue plants or an entomologist, flies. But Saussure saw that language was an enormous picture, and that there was no attempting to describe or quantify one aspect of it without also conceptualizing the vastness of the whole. Knowing that to understand the whole would be impossible, he looked to language’s origin in the mind with the non-verbal “concept,” and then applied this idea to the individual unit of the “sign,” a constant within all languages.

Throughout out his entire life, Saussure’s conception of language grew and grew as elements of universality entered into his system of signs. Why should it not grow beyond his death?