Langue and Parole Essay

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Ferdinand de Saussure distinguishes between a “language” (langue) in its structural form and the spoken word (parole). Saussure s distinction is synchronic rather than diachronic; the actual utterance by a person is a product of that speaker s having been socialized into a language which is relatively fixed during his or her lifetime. The ontological status of Saussure s categories is disputed. For example, Walter Benjamin was opposed to Saussure s ontological assumptions concerning the arbitrariness of the signifier.

Chomsky makes a distinction, similar to Saussure s, between ”competence and ”performance. It is possible to speak a langue in a grammatically correct manner without any knowledge of the discipline of linguistics in general, or even the application of linguistic rules to that specific language.

These distinctions are similar to the anthropological terms “etic” and “emic,” which are taken by analogy from phonetics and phonemics. In linguistics, phonemics studies the phonemes, which are a class of phonetically similar ”phones or speech sounds (from the Greek word for voice), while phonetics is also concerned with patterns of sound changes in a language or group of languages.

The structuralist tradition in anthropology associated with Claude Levi-Strauss uses Saussure’s distinction. A structuralist approach to langue is compatible with “semiology,” “signology,” or – as it is usually called now – semiotics (Seung 1982).


  1. Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. Mouton, The Hague.
  2. Seung, T. K. (1982) Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Columbia University Press, New York.

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