visualisation of langue

Langue and Parole


We usually think language refers to the signs we use to communicate our thoughts and feelings. We also associate language with culture and identity.

However, Ferdinand de Saussure wanted to “discover the true nature of language”.

He believed we needed to separate the conventions of language and the way we talk into different areas of study because they are “absolutely distinct things”. His term langue refers to the language system whereas parole refers to our performance of language through speech and writing.

We are going to look at the “essential” structure of language and Saussure’s network of interconnected signs.


Langue is the fundamental structure of languages.

Although the system exists independently of speakers, we still have to learn the rules and conventions to communicate our ideas effectively.


Parole are the individual acts of speech. Each time we talk to our friends or post something online, our choice of words will reflect our personal style, feelings, and values. Parole is also influenced by social context.

The Language System

Saussure believed “everything” in language “is based on relations”,  including the fundamental unit in langue – the sign.


In his lectures at the University of Geneva, Saussure described language as “a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas”. For example, the word “tree” corresponds to a mental concept of a tree. So does the word “arbre” to a French speaker or “crann” to someone who speaks Irish. It’s 木 in Japanese.

Since each language has its own name for the mental concept of a tree, Saussure argued the relationship between the physical form of the sign and its meaning was arbitrary. There is no real reason why the combination of the letters in “tree” should make us think of a tree. It’s a convention we learnt and accepted at some point in our lives. Even the mental concept of a tree will vary from speaker to speaker.

Saussure divided signs into two parts: the signifier and the signified.

Saussure's drawing of the signifier and signified

The signifier is the physical form of the sign – written or spoken. The signified is the corresponding mental concept. It might be worth reading our guide to Saussure’s speaking-circuit for more information on the psychological process behind signs.

Syntagm and Paradigm

Saussure also argued signs acquire their value through the presence of other signs in the system. He offered “two distinct groups” – syntagm and paradigm.

In a syntagm, signs derive meaning when they are “chained together” and “arranged in sequence”. For example, the word “tree” begins to make more sense when it is included in a sentence: “I climbed up the tree”.

Signs are also defined by their “associative relations” to other “terms that have something in common”. In our previous example, we could “exchange” the word “up” and write “I climbed down the tree” instead. The term paradigm refers to signs that are interchangeable because they share some common feature or function.

This interplay of signs is another “essential” element of language. Linguists often visualise the syntagm and paradigm relationships on separate axes:

diagram of the relationship between syntagm and paradigm

In this example, the three sentences express a syntagmatic relationship between the signs. They acquire meaning because are arranged in a coherant sequence.

The prepositions “up” and “down” both express some sort of direction. This is a paradigmatic relationship. The nouns “tree” and “ladder” can also be exchanged so that’s another paradigm.

Criticism of Langue

Ferdinand de Saussure wanted to explore the “special nature of language” and argued “the science of language is possible only if the other elements are excluded”. He compared our vocal cords to the electrical devices used to transmit Morse code. Both are external to the language system itself. A modern analogy might be the posts we share on social media are “absolutely distinct” from langue because they are individual acts of speech.

This focus on the science of language inspired the structuralist movement and the idea we can uncover the underlying systems that govern our behaviour and culture.

However, some theorists believe the value of signs is not purely arbitrary and emphasise the importance of social and cultural contexts on language conventions.

Roland Barthes, for example, was influenced by Saussure’s ideas, particularly the concept of the sign as a fundamental unit of meaning and the distinction between the signifier and the signified, but he also included the semiotics of culture in his signification process. Saussure’s language system deliberately ignores how some signs take on culturally important meanings beyond their initial connotations.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!