A comparison of the figures representing the “fait linguistique” in the Cours (1916) and its sources

Context: It is well-established that the representation of the "fait linguistique" in the 1916 version of the Cours (Fig. 1) stems from the editors rather than from Saussure himself. Yet Fig. 1 continues to be among the most often reproduced figures of the Cours, allegedly representing the basis of two central aspects of Saussure's theory of the linguistic sign, i.e. its bilateralness and arbitrariness.

Fig. 1: Cours (1916: 161 [155])

Research Questions: The paper addresses the following questions:

1. In what ways do the figures representing the "fait linguistique" in the 1916 Cours and in the sources resemble and differ from each other?

2. Is the figure in the 1916 Cours compatible with Saussure's account of the "fait linguistique" and his theory of the linguistic sign?

Methodology: The paper compares Fig. 1 with the diagrams in the student notes that can be found in Godel (1957), Engler's critical edition of the Cours (CLG-E 1968 and 1974) and the Constantin notes (Komatsu/Harris 1993). The original diagrams in the student notes are reproduced below:

Fig. 2: CLG-E (1968: 252)

Fig. 3: Troisième Cours (Komatsu/Harris 1993: 138)

The right-hand diagram in Fig. 2 can also be found, with a minor variation, in Godel (1957: 214).

Results: Fig. 1 resembles the figures in the sources with respect to the principle of bilateralness. However, the addition of vertical dotted lines extending over the two "amorphous masses" of thought (A) and sound (B) points to an interpretation by the editors of the 1916 Cours which is not consistent with Saussure's account of arbitrariness. In particular, Fig. 1 does not adequately represent Saussure's observation that the linguistic sign resulting from "le fait linguistique" is not reducible to thoughts and sounds. The sign constitutes an original phenomenon: "C'est entre deux ['idées' and 'sons'] que le fait linguistique se passe" (Godel 1957: 214 ; CLG-E 1968: 252). Fig. 1 suggests a delimitation of thoughts, resulting in "signifiés", and of sounds, resulting in "signifiants". Yet Saussure states that thoughts and sounds are not to be considered "substrates" of the linguistic sign (CLG-Notes 1974: 47; ELG 65). Rather than resulting from a combination of thoughts and sounds, linguistic units are the prerequisite for such a combination: "Son et pensée ne peuvent se combiner que par ces unités" (CLG-E 1968: 253; cf. Willems 2005). This is adequately represented in Fig. 2 and 3. The editors' interpretation in the 1916 Cours may also explain why they saw no contradiction between Saussure's account of the "fait linguistique" and the famous, yet profoundly un-Saussurean, diagram of the linguistic sign which they provide in the Cours (Fig. 4), along with two other diagrams, and which since the late 1980s has been heralded as foundational to current Cognitive Linguistics.

Fig. 4: Cours (1916: 101 [99])

Godel, Robert. 1957. Les Sources manuscrites du Cours de linguistique générale de Ferdinand de Saussure. Genève: Droz.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1995 [1916]. Cours de linguistique générale. Publié par Ch. Bally et A. Sechehaye avec la collaboration de A. Riedlinger. Edition critique préparée par T. de Mauro. Paris: Payot. (Cours 1916)

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1968/1974. Cours de linguistique générale/Appendice (Notes sur la linguistique générale). Edition critique par Rudolf Engler. Wies­baden : Harrassowitz. (CLG-E & CLG-Notes)

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1993. Troisième Cours de linguistique générale (1910-1911) d'après les cahiers d' E. Constantin / Saussure's Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics (1910-1911). From the notebooks of E. Constantin. Edited by E. Komatsu and translated by R. Harris. Oxford etc.: Pergamon. (Komatsu/Harris 1993)

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 2002. Écrits de linguistique générale. Etablis et édités par Simon Bouquet et Rudolf Engler. Paris: Gallimard. (ELG)

Willems, Klaas. 2005. Die Grenzen der Ikonizität der Sprache: Saussures Konzeption des 'fait linguistique' revisited. Kodikas/Code. Ars Semeiotica 28: 243-272.

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