Jonathan CULLER

The Place of Motivation in the Cours de Linguistique Générale

The Cours de linguistique générale emphasizes that the principle of the arbitrary nature of the sign is foundation stone of the linguistics that Saussure sought to promote (it dominates the whole of the "linguistique de la langue," he wrote; its consequences are innumerable). The emphasis on this principle in the Course had profound consequences for the employment of Saussurian linguistics in the discourses of structuralism and semiology. Roland Barthes claimed that "S'il y a une santé du signe, c'est l'arbitraire du signe qui la fonde," so that arbitrariness became a moral value as well as a central semiotic principle, and a good deal of semiotic analysis was devoted to exposing the unjustified ideological motivations that societies have allowed to encrustate signs that are in principle arbitrary.

But revisiting the notes on which the Course was based, however, one can see that Saussure in fact gave considerable weight to processes of motivation in the linguistic system, though the ordering of the published course relegated these discussions to a minor place, after the major issues had been discussed. By examining the lecture notes one can imagine alternative ways of constructing the Cours which might have given the notion of motivation greater prominence and integrated it more fully in the Saussurian account of linguistic structure. What are the consequences of giving appropriate weight to these discussions of motivation as a fundamental linguistic mechanism – one that contributes in a major way to the structure of a language and enables signs sequences to be understood? In this paper I will attempt to describe what I think is the place that the principle of motivation deserves in a Saussurian linguistics, its relation to the fundamental principal of arbitrariness, and speculate about the consequences that this might have for semiotic inquiry.

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