The Term "Langue" in Linguistics

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is widely considered one of the fathers of modern linguistics. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In linguistics, language as 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).

See more observations below. Also see:

Etymology: From the French, "language"

Pronunciation: lahng

Observations on Langue

"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."
(Nick Lacey, Image and Representation: Key Concepts in Media Studies. Palgrave, 1998)

"The language system [langue] 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."
(Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, 1916; translated by Wade Baskin, 1959)

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."
(Stephen Heath, Translator's Note in Image-Music-Text by Roland Barthes. Macmillan, 1988)

Interdependency of Langue and Parole
​"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)."
(Claude Hagège, On the Death and Life of Languages. Yale Univ. Press, 2009)