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The Poem and the Sign by Ferdinand de Saussure Essay


What do you think Saussure means by the statement “language is form and not substance”?

Ferdinand de Saussure is the founder of semiology. “Semiology – a science that studies the life of sign within society” (Saussure 60). His most significant work is Course in General Linguistics. It was recognized evolutional for its ideas of the study of language as a structure and introduction of the notion “linguistic sign”. The basic statement of the new linguistic approach founded by de Saussure is “language is form and not substance” which explains the function and structure of the language.

The basic idea of a new approach to the structure and function of the language was that language is a system of signs which can be distinguished and studied separately, “Language is a system of signs that express the idea” (Saussure 60).

The definition of language provided by Saussure presupposes there are two notions: sing or “sound image” and concept “signified”. The relation between these notions is arbitrary, “in a language, an auditory image becomes associated with a concept” (Saussure 60). In different languages, there are different notions for every “thing” or, in other words, idea. For example, the “flower” is a concept that exists in every language, however, the system of signs (letters) is different for each language. Thus, Saussure provides the idea that “the linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-meaning” (60). Furthermore, the relation between the signifier and the signified is based on association. Thus, the individual’s mind has an “image” for every notion. In language, this relation is expressed through the “sing”, “letter is a psychological imprint of the sound” (Saussure 61). Consequently, the linguistic sign has a two-side psychological nature, on the one hand, it is a sound image, on the other, it is a concept.

Another theory concerning the function of the language is that it has a binary structure, in other words, it is based on the opposition. Saussure claimed that “language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others” (62). Thus, each notion has a negative meaning and makes sense only when it is opposed to another term, in other words, it is identified through its distinctions with other notions. For example, the verb “to go” has its sense only in its opposition to the verb “to stand”, or, in time context, the verb “to go” has its meaning within opposition with the verb “went”, etc. At the same time, Saussure provided that signifier and signified are negative and can be explained through the binary opposition and can be analyzed separately, however, the unity, in which they are combined, is a sign and it is a positive notion. Consequently, the signs exist in opposition to each other and they are not different.

Thus, we can conclude that language itself is only a form, or system that has no meaning and substance. It serves to relate “the idea” with its “sing”. The terms within a language are related through the relations of opposition and they are independent of the content. Thus, “language is not a function of the speaker, it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual” (Saussure 62). In this light, the statement “language is formed and not substance” explains the basic function of the language and its structure.

A brief analysis of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map”

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, “sign is a two-side psychological entity represented by the relations between sound image and content” (61). The link between “signifier” and “signified” is based on association. In its turn, a sign exists and makes sense only when it is put in opposition to some other sign. Thus:

“The essential feature of Saussure’s linguistic sign is that being intrinsically arbitrary, it can be identified only by contrast with coexisting signs of the same nature, which together constitute a structured system” (Saussure 10).

This “play with contrast” was successfully used in the poem by Elizabeth Bishop “The Map”. It is one of the author’s earliest works and it can be perceived as a geographical guide to Labrador or Newfoundland. However, the variations with the signs and their meaning serve to transfer the “message” of the poem to the reader. With the help of the different associations that appear in the mind of the reader, Bishop creates different images that help to understand the meaning of the poem.

Thus, the poem begins with the lines:

“Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.

Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges

showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges

where weeds hang to the simple blue from a green” (Bishop 3).

In the first lines, the author creates a “colored” image of the country and makes the map “revive” in the readers’ imagination.

The author makes use of comparisons and allusions to produce the effect of “live nature”, “These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods” (Bishop 3). It is hard to imagine that a topographical map can be so animated. The author reveals the reader’s emotion when substituting strict lines and the formality of the map with images of live nature. She tries to explain that, apart from the lines and figures that are used to create a topography map, there is always a subjective vision of the topographer that can be noticed through the colors, though, “Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West. More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors” (Bishop 3). As has already been mention, the author describes nature emotionally. The possibility to attach to the sign any “meaning” (as it is possible according to Saussure’s definition and function of the sign) makes it possible to make logic of the “movement” that appears on the topography map:

“The names of seashore towns run out to sea,

the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains

–the printer here experiencing the same excitement

as when emotion too far exceeds its cause” (Bishop 3).

We can see that towns and mountains experience the excitement, the feeling that only people can have.

A parallel can be made between the poem and the definition of the sign by Saussure: as well as Ferdinand de Saussure uses the association between sing and its notion, the author of the poet Elizabeth Bishop uses the work of imagination to relate the drafts of cities and mountains with the images of a live nature that appear in the imagination of the individual who observes the map. Moreover, using language as a system, the author of the poem manages to transfer these feelings to the reader.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Map” Poems, Prose, and Letters. in Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Giroux, Lloyd Schwartz. Library of America, 2008.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966.

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