a profile of a face using wires

The Speaking-Circuit

Introduction

Ferdinand de Saussure challenged the assumption that language was a static system of words and grammar. He argued our understanding of language should be separated into two key areas of study: langue and parole.

The term langue refers to the “essential” conventions of language that exist independently of individual speakers whereas parole refers to the actual performances of speech in everyday communication.

Saussure believed the language system and our acts of speech were “absolutely distinct things”. His description of the speaking-circuit helped clarify the difference between the two concepts.

The Speaking-Circuit

Saussure's diagram of the speaking-circuit
“Course on General Linguistics” (1959)

Individual acts of speech require the presence of at least two people. The speaking-circuit begins with one person making an association between a mental concept and its representation through sound. Saussure said this initial process was purely psychological.

The first person then uses their vocal organs to produce sounds. This a physiological process.

The sound waves travel from the mouth of the speaker to the ears of the listener – a physical process.

The circuit continues in the second person with another physiological action transmitting the syllables from the ears to the brain. They will decode the message by making their own association between the sounds and the mental concept.

If the second person responds, a new act of speech begins.

a representation of the speaking-circuit with definitions
The Speaking-Circuit Summary

Signs

It is worth noting Saussure believed there was an arbitrary relationship between the physical form of words and their meanings. There is no reason why the term “rose” should signify a flower other than the connection has been established within a language system. As William Shakespeare joked in Romeo and Juliet, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Successful communication between speakers in the circuit relies on “the same signs united with the same concepts”. Although the mental concepts associated with the word rose will “not exactly” align in the conversation, there is “some sort of average” which enables the speakers to understand the value of the sound-image.

You can explore this fundamental unit of Saussure’s language system in more detail in our introduction to his sign theory.

Mental Concepts

Do you remember being taught nouns were the names of people, places, and things? Or verbs were doing words that described specific actions? This approach to vocabulary suggests language is simply a naming process, such as the word rose pointing to a specific type of flower.

In his description of the speaking-circuit, Saussure argued the association between concepts and linguistic sounds was a psychological process. Signifiers are “the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses”. Similarly, the signified is a concept in our mind rather than the name of an actual thing, or the referent.

Try thinking of a sentence or quote a line from Shakespeare in your mind. Your ability to recite those words without moving your lips demonstrates the fact signs are mental concepts.

Final Thoughts

Langue provides the framework for parole. Every act of speech reinforces the langue because they rely on those psychological bonds between the signifier and signified.

The way we speak is influenced by our individual mode of behaviour, the context of the conversation, and cultural conventions. We can also play with words to create new meanings. Since parole is dynamic and depends on the situation, Saussure’s description of the speaking-circuit supports his argument that signs should be the fundamental units of language.

Does that mean we should simply ignore the cultural influences on language?

Saussure emphasised the language system exists “outside the individual” and was “the social side of speech”, but the meanings of words should be left to someone who is interested in semantics rather than semiotics.

Stuart Hall (1997) defined representation as the process that linked our conceptual maps of the world to the messages we construct through language. However, he believed the signs we use to communicate our thoughts and feelings are encoded with values and beliefs. Some of these representations, especially stereotypes, carry negative connotations that can have a harmful effect on groups of people. Signs are not neutral psychological processes. They can provoke an emotional response. That’s why we should continue to critically assess their role in the speaking-circuit.

Hall, Stuart (1997) The Work of Representation.
Saussure, Ferdinand (1959) Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Baskin, Wade.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!