Week 8, Saussure and the "arbitrariness of the sign"

I was confused by the question posed in the syllabus “What did Saussure, in his famous Course on Linguistics, refer to by what he called ‘the arbitrariness of the sign?’” namely because we did not read the Course on Linguistics. So, I am therefore assuming we are to base our answer on the limited account of Saussure in D’Alleva.

Saussure thought of the sign as a type of structure, consisting of a signifier and signified. For example, a photograph of my cat would be the signifier, and my cat would be the thing signified. With this said, Saussure argues that signs are not meaningful in isolation, but gain meaning only when interpreted in relation to each other. Binary oppositions such as ‘hot/cold’ or ‘night/day’ illustrate this notion.

To get to the point, signs are ‘arbitrary’ because they possess no inherent message illustrating one clear meaning. We construct the meanings through culture and in relation to other signs. For example, an alien visiting earth would not be immediately aware that a red light means ‘stop’. There is no universal message inherently encoded in the colour red that conveys ‘stop’. He may, however, learn that red means ‘stop’ after living in Western culture for a time and observing that people halt in response to this colour. He may also learn that red means ‘stop’ by seeing that another colour, like green, conveys a message of ‘go’. So, it seems signs are arbitrary because they are culturally constructed and gain meaning through binary oppositions.


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