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From Saussure to CriticalSociolinguistics:The Turn Towards aSocial View of LanguageGunther Kwss
There are many plausible ways to read the history of linguistics over the last one
hundred years or so. The viewpoint that one takes is, in the end, shaped by one'sown personal history and experience, and by what 1will call an 'ethical/politicalstance'. 'Evidence' will not carry the day, because someone else's theory, resting
on a different stance, will produce different kinds of evidence; or else it can
recast my own in the shape of the other theory. My own position is that social
factors take central place, that the influence of culture is crucial, and linguistic
practice is seen as one among very many socially and culturally significant
To approach this issue of the 'turn' towards a more social view of language we
know what the 'turn' has been away from. That provides my startingpoint. 1 then want to formulate some of the questions which might characterize[he two positions. The overarching question clearly is: What is a social view oflanguage? And what, therefore, is not a social view of language? The 'non-social
view' puts into the foreground questions about language-as-system: What is asysrern like? It may have subsidiary questions, such as: 'Why is the system (orwhy is language) as it is? The first, the 'social view', puts into the foreground
questions such as: 'What is the role of the social in relation to language? Both askquestions about origins and characteristics: 'How does language come to be as itis?' And hoth have subsidiary questions that focus on the role of the individual.explicitly or implicitly, and on their potentials for action, for agency. The answersare deeply different in each case.
The mainstream in linguistic thinking in the twentiethcentury
'Western' linguistic thinking in the twentieth century has to be seen in the context
ofits origins in the previous century. That had been the century devoted to the
revolutionary discovery that (nearly all) European languages, and many of those
in the Middle East and of the Indian subcontinent (Hittite, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu)
were mernhers ofthe one Indo-European 'family' of languages. That insight gaverise ro a century's work in which connections were discovered, relationshipstmced and documented, and 'laws' - general principles - established, whichcould account for the diversity, the proliferation, and the fragmentation of this
'family'. I t is a story ofconstant change stretching across all ofEurope, the MiddleEast and the Indian subcontinent.
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Against this picture of ceaseless change. Ferdinand de Saussure (who himself
had participated in this enterprise and written a definitive work on the sound-system of Indo-European languages) posed the question: 'Rut what does a
language look like, what is it like at a particular moment?'. We know languages
change from one moment to another, but what are their characteristics, if wecould hold them still, freeze them, at one moment in time? The question was
posed in a series of lectures Saussure gave at the University of Geneva hetween1903 and 1904. After his death several of his students produced, from lecturenotes that they had made, the Coulse in General Linguistics (1916).
Of course. ideas of such significance do not occur in isolation even ifwe can
identify one individual as the seeming originator of them - they are 'about' at thetime, however subtly that may he. It is that 'aboutness' which ensured that out of
the rich and complex set of questions in the Cotllse (many of them social andhistorical) this one became focal for linguistics in the twentieth century. The
strand oflinguistics that it gave rise to is generally referred to as structuralist; ithecame the dominant mode of intellectual inquiry in that century nor only inlinguistics hut throughout the humanities and heyond.
The fundamental question posed in structuralism is that of th e characteristicsof the system. What are the elements of a structure (whatever it may he), andwhat are the relations between the elements? Saussure himself gave a complex
answer in which the focus was on the sign, and on the all-encompassing entity
in which signs exist, language as such or langue. I will return to the latter in amoment.
He focused on the characteristics of the sign in two ways: first on its internalcharacteristics, and second on its relation to entities outside th e sign. He alsospeculated on the principles sustaining these characteristics and relations.
He saw the sign as participating in two kinds of structures: one, its place in an
organized inventory of signs, which he referred to as the ~ m i sf association; andthe other, its place in an actual, outwardly visible form, which he called the axisofcomhirzation. (The Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev (1961) later named thesethe paradigmatic and the syntagmatic planes respectively, the names bywhich they are now referred to commonly.)
To exemplify: in the cultural system of furniture and the subsystems of objects
you can sit in or on, we might have a paradigmatic set such as: chair. stool.bench, easy chair, sofa, beanbag. In a system such as language we might have aparadigmatic set such as the vowel sounds of (Standard Southern) English: short
and long i, u. o, a, e: a reduced vowel (as in the final vowel of butter), the a esound as in had, etc.
Elements of these systems are combined into synlagmat ic structures. An easychair can be combined with an element from the subsystem of ohiects that youplace things on - a coffee table, say- and with another ohiect from the suhsystemof objects that we might lie on- a sofa, let's say - to make the structure of'an easychair and coffer table and sofa: a comfortable corner in our living room'. Inlanguage, a vowel might be combined with a consonant to form a syllable: it , hi; ortwo consonants with one vowel: hit, sin. etc.
Even from this tiny exemplification a large number of consequences follow.When I said, 'can be combined with', I didn't specify the agent who did thiscomhining. You might say, rrasonahly, that the syllables of a language such as
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English are simply 'there', so there is no combining for me to do. You might even
say that the same is true ofthe comfortable corner in the living room; go into ten
thousand middle-class homes in Europe and you'll find such an arrangement. Is
there choice? For Sauqsure the answer was that individuals make use of thestructures and elements that are there, but they do not change them. The
arrangements and elements are pre-given by society. This question ofagency hasbeen one of the central issues in the turn to a social view of language.A second consequence, perhaps the central one in structuralism generally and
in structuralist linguistics particularly, is that ofmeaning. If, in arranging thecomfortablecorner, I only have the one easy chair, coffee tahle and sofa, I simplyuse what I have. Of course, 1 can arrange them in different ways, and that makes
a difference in how the room feels in its 'meaning'. But as I had no choice in
what to use, no meaning attaches to my use of the three items. However. if I dohave a choice (a comfy old chair or a smart new one, a glass-ropped table or awooden one) then meaning does attach to my choice. 'Glass-topped tahle andsmart new easy chair' produces a different meaning to 'wooden table and a
comfy old chair'. Meaning of one kind arises from the possibilities ofselection
from a range ofelemenls within one paradigm. A second kind ofmeaning arisesfrom the fact that different types ofchairs are, in fact, cultural encodings of
different possible forms ofbehaviour: A stool asks me to sit differently to an easychair. Setting up the room for a job interview with a stool for the interviewee and
easy chairs for the interviewers - to make a ridiculous example - would set thetone decisively. The elements in systems ofchoice have meaning because they
refer to elements (obiects or practices) in other systems of choice.For Saussure both kinds of meaning were important. On the one hand, to put
it too simply, the sign is based on the relation of reference. The sign is a devicefor permitting form to express meaning because it is a means for allowing one
element to be the form (the signifier) through which another element, themeaning (the signified) finds it realization. its expression. A rose can he theform for the expression of the meaning 'love'. A connection is made between an
element in the system oflanguage, and an element in the system ofculturally
salient values. The former 'refers' to the latter. On the other hand, if there is asystem of elements (vowel sounds in language; furniture in the system ofcultural
ohjects: different flowers in that system), and I can select from a number (a roserather than an orchid), I have choice, therefore meaning attaches to my selection.
To select a straight-backed chair 'means' not to have chosen an easy chair or
stool that could also have been chosen. The meaning ofan element in the system
arises by virtue of its opposilion to the other elements. That meaning is its value.The greater the number of elements in a system, the greater the possibility of
choice, the smaller the value ofeach element. So, for example, if there are words
such as party, bash, get together, celebratiotr, raw,a smalldo, drinks a n d nibblesor supper in my everyday vocabulary, then my choice of one is significant in two