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What is Structuralism

What is Structuralism?

In this study, we will elaborate on What is Structuralism? In the field of linguistics, Ferdinand De Saussure does the most profound shift in the field of linguistics in the 20th century. He was a Swiss origin French Linguist. His theoretical works were not published in his life. One of his students collected his lectures and notes, put them to gather, and published as a book with the title “Course in General Linguistics.” Furthermore, with the help of this theory, the world knew his contribution to the field of linguistics. Structuralism brought revolution not only in linguistics but also in many other areas as the paradigm or model for studying other cultural products in the hands of structuralists like Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and many others.

System of Arbitrary Signs 

According to the structuralist approach, language is a system of arbitrary signs. A sign is a complex term and has two components the signifier and the signified (Sign= Signifier+Signified). Signifier means the sound, image, or its written equivalent; While the signified is that thing that is denoted (modified) by the signifier. Saussure compares the signifier, and the signified as two sides of a sheet of paper, though both sides are opposite to each other but also are inseparable. So linguistic signs are treated as two-sided psychological entities. Here sign means anything that tells us something other than itself. Sound image or its written equivalent(word) become sign when denote or evoke a concept. For example, the name ‘goat’ is the signifier, and the object that is indicated by it is signified. When someone says the word goat, then he has a concrete idea in his mind as well. The listener also has a concrete concept regarding it.

What is Structuralism

Some signs tell us something different in routine life while in technical terms also portray different ideas. An example of red light is portrayed here. Here the red light does not tell about redness, but it means to stop at that very point when it comes. In the same way, our writings on the pages are not simple signs but the sketch of our ideas. He introduced the terms signifier/signified, individual/mass, langue/parole, synchrony/diachrony, and comparison/exchange.

Saussure Distinction between Language and speech 

According to Saussure’s concept, there are two modes of language existence speech and written language. At the first point, human beings learn speaking first before writing. So the primary importance is given to the speech. Moreover, as per Saussure’s view, language is spoken. He put more details on this concept that it has two aspects ‘parole’ and ‘langue.’ these are two French terminologies. Here ‘Parole’ means spoken words, while ‘langue’ means the tongue. ‘Parole’ is the basis of speech acts. Every act of speech is individual. In other words, the expression of every person is different, and every individual speaks by himself. No one speaks for him. Such individual acts of speech by individual speakers in a linguistic community constitute parole.

Read also: What is language

Moreover, language is not made up of parole. These acts would not be considered the speech until there would not be a set of norms from which these acts organize. The system of rules that organize ‘parole’ turn it into meaningful speech is called langue.

Furthermore, the term language is for the general purpose of language working. Parole belongs to individuals and provides a concrete basis to langue. While langue collectively belongs to the speakers of the language and it gives importance to parole. Both are necessary for each other. One concept depends upon others. If there is not langue parole would be a series of noises while without parole, langue would be a series of mute abstraction.

Language a system of differences 

According to the Structuralist school of thought, language is a double system of differences. In this double system, things are interlinked with each other or element of language are interconnected. And according to them, the work of linguists is to point out the nature of the linguistics system, and its work. A linguist is to identify sets and elements of a system and its rules for operation and development. According to this phenomenon, there is a system at the level of Phonology another system at the Morphological level. Phonology studies the basic speech sound that is called a phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest and basic unit of expression(unit of sounds) in a language. These are the minimum or smallest units and can not further divided. A phoneme is distinctive or contrastive units and, when combined with another, causes the meaning to change. There are the examples of /m/ /b/, /s/ phonemes. When these are changed as ‘mat’ to ‘bat’ to ‘sat. There is always a change in meaning. So the /p/, /b/ and /s/ are different phonemes in the English Language, and the standard English language has forty-four phonemes.

What is Structuralism
Phonology studies the basic speech sound

As per the structuralist view, the second level of the language system is morphology. It is the study of the smallest meaningful units of the language. Smallest/ minimal significant unit in any language is called a morpheme. A morpheme is composed of one or more phoneme and produce the same or similar meaning in the language. Some morphemes make complete words as ‘man’ ‘van’ ‘rain’ etc. Some morphemes occur as part of the words as prefixes and suffixes. As ‘dis’ with graceful and makes disgraceful etc. Morphology also studies how morpheme joins and make words.

The most important observation of the structuralist school of thought is that the phonic and morphemic systems are not the result of some preexisting elements entering into some kind of relationship with one another. There is not any real substance in the element system. The fundamental characteristic of the phonemes is that every phoneme is different from the other one. According to the Saussure, the meaning that words produce, are relational or differentials. No word can be defined in isolation from the other.

Read also: Historical linguistics

Furthermore, the explanation of a word depends on its relation with other joining words. According to Saussure, “… in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up, but in language, there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system.”


With the above-said views in the era of structuralism, most developments were made in the field of descriptive or synchronic linguistics as the whole focus of the structuralists was for Descriptive or Synchronic. When the followers of some idea or theory get fame, then their concept or theory also becomes essential for people. However, it does not means that other things or approaches have lost their importance. It may become passive for a particular time but can not be swiped out. The study of the structuralist school of thought plays an important role in the language learning phenomenon and also provides a new path for language researchers and linguistics.


  • Agha, Agha (2006). Language and Social Relations. Cambridge University Press.
  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra(2001). “Introduction”. In Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald; M.W. Dixon (eds.). Areal diffusion and genetic inheritance: problems in comparative linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 1–26.
  • Aitchison, Jean(2001). Language Change: Progress or Decay? (3rd (1st edition 1981) ed.). Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
  • Allerton, D.J. (1989). “Language as Form and Pattern: Grammar and its Categories”. In Collinge, N.E. (ed.). An Encyclopedia of Language. London:NewYork: Routledge.
  • Anderson, Stephen(2012). Languages: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-959059-9.

Written  & Reviewed by: Muhammad Asad Kasra,


M.Phil Scholar, Riphah Institute of Language and Literature, Riphah International University Lahore, Pakistan.


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