Language change and the arbitrariness of the sign

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) devised a model of linguistic meaning involving what he called the signifier (a symbolic or phonological form) and what it signifies. Their association is a basic unit of communication he referred to as a linguistic sign, and it is fundamentally arbitrary.

For example, rose signifies a flower with a pleasant smell, but by any other name it would, per Romeo, smell as sweet. Generally speaking, the meaning of a word cannot be predicted from its form, nor its form from its meaning.

Ferdinand de SaussureSaussure also drew a useful distinction between two approaches to linguistic study, which he called diachronic and synchronic – essentially historical and ahistorical. How he knitted these concepts together may be seen in this passage by Jonathan Culler in his book Saussure (Fontana Modern Masters, 1976):

What is the connection between the arbitrary nature of the sign and the profoundly historical nature of language? We can put it this way: if there were some essential or natural connection between signifier and signified, then the sign would have an essential core which would be unaffected by time or which at least would resist change. This unchanging essence could be opposed to those ‘accidental’ features which did alter from one period to another. But in fact, as we have seen, there is no aspect of the sign which is a necessary property and which therefore lies outside time. Any aspect of sound or meaning can alter; the history of languages is full of radical evolutionary alterations of both sound and meaning. . . . In short, neither signifier nor signified contains any essential core which time cannot touch. Because it is arbitrary, the sign is totally subject to history, and the combination at a particular moment of a given signifier and signified is a contingent result of the historical process.

The fact that the sign is arbitrary or wholly contingent makes it subject to history but also means that signs require an ahistorical analysis. This is not as paradoxical as it might seem. Since the sign has no necessary core which must persist, it must be defined as a relational entity, in its relations to other signs. And the relevant relations are those which obtain at a particular time.

There are exceptions to the arbitrary nature of the sign, such as onomatopoeia or sound symbolism, but even these may have aspects that are arbitrary or informed by the cultures in which they exist. And they are greatly outnumbered by the arbitrary signs.

John Lyons notes in Language and Linguistics that this arbitrary quality makes languages more difficult to learn, but it also gives them great flexibility and adaptability.


17 Responses to Language change and the arbitrariness of the sign

  1. Nelida K. says:

    I read this post out of nostalgia…. Took me back to my Linguistics class at Translation School. Cannot understand why the notion of the arbitrariness of signs (as per Saussure) seemed to hard to grasp at the time and now it is crystal clear..:).

    • Nelida K. says:

      Sorry for the typo. I meant “seemed so hard” (instead of “to” hard).

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Nelida. Maybe the concept just needed a bit of time to settle in? The way ideas are presented (or encountered, depending on your point of view) can also count for a lot.

      • Nelida K. says:

        Stan, I did have an exceptional teacher, she had a Sorbonne degree in Linguistics and a passion for her subject, I remember her quoting Saussure in Spanish while reading from the original in French…. and so, by the end of the Saussure module, finally the whole concept had gotten through our thick skulls! :). I will not deny, however, that the passage of time and immersion, as it were, in all things linguistic, has maybe made me more perceptive than I used to be as a mere speaker, not a linguist (translator). That is why I usually smile to myself when I stumble upon bilinguals – or self-labeled as such – who claim being able to translate because they happen to speak two languages – which is clearly not by a long shot enough.

        Thanks again for responding, have a good week.

  2. Diana N Chester says:

    How refreshening to read about Ferdinand de Saussure !

    It is preposterous that those self labelled “bilinguals” are actually operating as translators and interpreters and operate at Courts, Police stations and never sniffed a good old book….without speaking about hiss Course in General Linguistics.

    I wonder has it something to do with the fact that foreign languages( mother tongue included) are not taught properly anymore in schools and when it comes to professionalism in the field of interpretation and translation at least in the UK well,… let just summarise it ” too many cooks spoils the broth”.
    There is not even a standard national requirement regarding the proper training in interpretation and translation skills and techniques!

    I really love Ferdinand de Saussure and his many followers amongst them Prague Circle, Noam Chomsky, just to name the most famous. I also remember fondly and with a bit of nostalgia my University days and my lecturers and being immersed into a debate about language wonders and being fascinated about” signifié” and “signifiant”.

    We do not only face those spineless bilinguals but also the attitudes of service providers- agencies and users of translation and interpretation services.It is not about a quality and professionalism anymore and sorry to say it is about getting away with mediocre and many times very unsatisfactory service.
    And guess who suffers ?

    • Nelida K. says:

      Diana, you are absolutely right. We have to educate clients, day in, day out, about the fact that being a professional translator (i.e., having obtained a degree in translation studies) is a completely different proposition than being able to speak more than one language, and that it involves a completely different set of skills. As to the self-styled LSPs (language service providers) they simply don’t care. At the end of the day, they only worry about the bottom line in their financials. A sorry state of affairs, indeed. It was a pleasure to read the thoughts of a kindred spirit…

      • Diana N Chester says:

        I agree with you entirely. As I go along I keep spreading the good practise and educate people around me for the past 20 plus years.
        There is one thing that vexes me the most : it seems to me that DPSI at least in the UK is more valuable than a a proper University Degree and when it comes to a Degree gained abroad than it looks like it really does not count at all and you are only left with your reputation, word of mouth and hard work.
        Sometimes, I feel that even speaking to other interpreters about professional issues such as the issue of comprehension of the meaning and its processing and transfer to another language is like speaking in foreign language.

        • Nelida K. says:

          Diana, I know what you mean. I sometimes see on different forums people asking whether it is important to get a degree in order to be a translator. The mere asking of the question already gives you an inkling of the total lack of understanding about our profession, and the answers given just make you want to cry… The mistranslations I have seen over the years just defy belief. And so, we are actually run over by this seemingly unstoppable invasion of translators that aren’t but represent themselves to be… and who drag the market down, together with quality. It’s been really nice to exchange views with you and finding us to concur on these issues, oceans and continents away…(I was born and bred, and work out of Montevideo, Uruguay – Southern Cone in South America). This means that as members of the same profession, we face more or less the same challenges everywhere! Have a productive and stress-free week!

          And, as a final note, I trust that Stan is not minding that we have veered so far away of the original subject of his post!

          • Diana N Chester says:

            I hope he is not offended and just in case Mea Culpa Stan.
            I was rather surprised to come along this article today as I just spoke to my students about Ferdinand de Saussure.I work mainly as an interpreter and I originally come from former Czechoslovakia where I also completed my University; I combine my interpreting with translation and this year started to teach/train interpreters for one organisation here in the North East of England. Thanks for a nice chat and have a good week as well.

      • Stan says:

        Diana, Nelida: I don’t mind that you went off topic on this occasion, though it’s not an area to which I can meaningfully contribute, and I look forward to an on-topic chat next time! Culler’s book on Saussure is one I read and enjoyed quite some time ago, but I wrote down that passage for a possible blog post, and came across it again while browsing my notes recently.

        • Nelida K. says:

          Stan: It’s a relief knowing that we (Diana and I, that is) have not totally annoyed you by making use and abuse of your patience and your space with our off-topic chatter! :)…
          Best regards,

  3. Diana N Chester says:

    Dear Stan,
    thanks for being so understanding .Going back to your original topic -Language change and the arbitrariness of the sign- Are you familiar with the article Language by Ian Bradshaw published in 1997?He talks about diachronic changes, semantic anachronism, ambiguity and vagueness in interpreting the Bible.You might find his musings quite interesting.
    Take care

  4. Diana N Chester says:

    this is the website link you can access the article

  5. Stan says:

    Diana, thank you for the link; I wasn’t familiar with Bradshaw’s article, and look forward to reading it when I get a chance.

    I wish you and Nelida both a good weekend, and thanks again for stopping by.

  6. […] the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going […]

  7. […] the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going […]

  8. ktschwarz says:

    Mama-papa words are another significant exception to the arbitrariness of the sign (as you wrote about earlier).

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