The Term Langue in Linguistics and Semiotics

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, considered a father of modern linguistics
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In linguistics and language, langue is an abstract system of signs (the underlying structure of a language), in contrast to parole, the individual expressions of language (speech acts that are the products of langue). This distinction between langue and parole was first made by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics (1916).

Fast Facts: Langue

  • Etymology: From the French, "language"
  • Pronunciation: lahng

Observations

"The language system is not a function of the speaking subject, it is the product which the individual registers passively; it never presupposes premeditation, and reflection only comes into it for the activity of classification which will be discussed later." (Saussure)

"Saussure distinguished between;

  • langue: the rules of sign system (which might be grammar) and
  • parole: the articulation of signs (for example, speech or writing),

the sum of which is language:

  • language = langue + parole

While langue could be the rules of, say, English grammar, it does not mean parole always has to conform to the rules of standard English (what some people erroneously call 'proper' English). Langue is less rigid than the phrase 'set of rules' implies, it is more a guideline and is inferred from the parole. Language is often likened to an iceberg: the parole is visible, but the rules, the supporting structure, are hidden." (Lacey)

Interdependency of Langue and Parole

"Langue/Parole—The reference here is to the distinction made by the Swiss linguist Saussure. Where parole is the realm of the individual moments of language use, of particular 'utterances' or 'messages,' whether spoken or written, langue is the system or code (le code de la langue') which allows the realization of the individual messages. As the language-system, object of linguistics, langue is thus totally to be differentiated from language, the heterogeneous totality with which the linguist is initially faced and which may be studied from a variety of points of view, partaking as it does of the physical, the physiological, the mental, the individual and the social. It is precisely by delimiting its specific object (that is, of the langue, the system of the language) that Saussure founds linguistics as a science." (Heath)

​"Saussure's Cours does not overlook the importance of reciprocal conditioning between langue and parole. If it is true that langue is implied by parole, parole, on the other hand, takes priority on two levels, namely that of learning and that of development: 'it is in hearing others that we learn our mother tongue; it manages to settle in our brain only after countless experiences. Finally, it is parole that makes langue develop: it is the impressions received by hearing others that alter our linguistic habits. Thus langue and parole are interdependent; the former is both the instrument and the product of the latter' (1952, 27)." (Hagège)

Resources and Further Reading

  • Hagège Claude. On the Death and Life of Languages. Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Heath, Stephen. “Translator's Note.” Image—Music—Text, by Roland Barthes, translated by Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, 1978, pp. 7-12.
  • Lacey, Nick. Image and Representation: Key Concepts in Media Studies. 2nd ed., Red Globe, 2009.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Haun Saussy and Perry Meisel. Translated by Wade Baskin, Columbia University, 2011.