A hundred years of semiotics

There are numerous kinds of accounts of the history semiotics, and a number of people have been claimed to be the founder or a classic of the present-day science of signs. It is primarily the nineteenth-century American pragmatist philosopher, Charles S. Peirce, and the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, who are usually taken to be its real initiators. Followers of the former use the English term semiotics, whereas those of the latter use the French term sémiologie, to refer to the general and specific study of signs today. In accordance with the subject matter of the present conference, the paper first discusses Saussure’s reference to the study of signs, followed by a discussion of the work of two modern semioticians, Louis Hjelmselv and Roland Barthes, who have systematised and laid out the areas of modern semiology. It was only to a certain extent that the “Saussurean” theory of signs was relied on by the next generation of semioticians (like the school of A. J. Greimas). Nevertheless, semiotics as it has consolidated and is applied worldwide today continues to think of Ferdinand de Saussure as one of its classics.

Vilmos Voigt


The concept of language before and after Saussure

The title may be taken to cover two issues: (1) a narrower issue of the historiography of linguistics concerning Saussure’s “predecessors” and “followers”, as well as (2) a more general problem of intellectual history of whether Saussure’s linguistics has a place, and what kind of place it has, in the overall history of thinking about the nature of language. This paper mainly deals with the second issue. It situates the “Saussurean turn” within the more general anti-historicist, anti-psychologist, and anti-idealist turn of philosophy that is represented, in various areas, by Frege, Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, and Durkheim, among others. Similarities and differences between the Fregean and Saussurean concepts of language are emphasised, as well as the importance of the analogy between language and money. The conclusion is that Saussure’s views, to the present day, constitute one of the most important chapters of the interpretation of the social nature of language, as well as of the history of the concept of linguistic form, starting with Plato.

János Kelemen


Views of the Prague School of Linguistics on synchrony and diachrony

From the very beginning, the PSL did not accept Saussure’s strict opposition of the synchronic and diachronic approaches to language. Following the ideas of Baudouin de Courtenay, the Prague scholars extended the structural principle to the historical study of language on the one hand and, on the other hand, they introduced the notion of the “dynamics of synchrony”, i.e., the view of the language system as one containing, besides its stable elements, also remnants of its former state and seeds of a forthcoming state as well. The concept of the language system as a space with an uneven density of elements, structured according to the principle “Centre – Periphery – Transition” (Daneš) greatly contributed to the handling of intermediate linguistic phenomena and problems of linguistic vagueness, and promoted the foundation of the theory of “functional-semantic categories” (Bondarko).

Mihály Péter

The rise and fall of the notion of ‘phoneme’

The first part of this paper provides a bird’s eye view of the early stages of the story of the notion of ‘phoneme’ from Saussure and Baudouin de Courtenay, via Trubetzkoy, up to the American descriptivists. The second part discusses three major components of that notion: the idea that phonemes are indivisible primitive units of phonological representation, the concept of contrast, as well as segmental organisation in general, reviewing various portions of recent literature arguing against each component in turn. Specifically, it is pointed out that (1) in present-day phonology, the basic units of phonological representations are features, and phonemes are only used as shorthand for bundles of distinctive features; (2) the presence vs. absence of contrast is not a matter of all-or-nothing in a number of cases; there are cases in which two sequences are not phonologically identical but not distinct, either; consequently, phonological descriptions cannot be exclusively based on segmental transcriptions; and (3) phonetic transcription suggests that speech consists of speech sounds – a claim that is obviously false phonetically; but even a sizeable portion of the phonological literature claims that phonological analysis is to be conducted in a nonsegmental (and rule-free) fashion.

Péter Siptár

Saussure and Chomsky: The distinctness of their “identical” views

Due to the “systematic” approach to language that they both proposed, and on account of their pairs of terms langue vs. parole and competence vs. performance, the literature abounds in claims concerning the relatedness, indeed the identity, of the major tenets of the two most influential linguists of the twentieth century, Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structuralism, and Noam Chomsky, the initiator of generative linguistics. Yet, looking more closely at Saussure’s and Chomsky’s views on (1) language and competence, (2) language acquisition, (3) speech and language use, (4) grammar, (5) the evolution of language, and (6) the tasks of linguistics, we can see that, despite certain points of identity, they differ in several important respects. The present paper takes each of the above problem areas in turn, contrasts Saussure’s and Chomsky’s claims and definitions concerning them, and points out similarities and differences between the two systems, the two theories.

Enikõ Németh T.

On the historiographic reconstruction of Saussure’s structuralism

Among linguists there seems to be general agreement on the assumption that the history of linguistics can be accounted for in terms of Kuhn’s approach to paradigms and scientific revolutions, and that, accordingly, Saussure’s Cours gave rise to a scientific revolution in linguistics. The aim of the paper is, first, to give an overview of the arguments which seriously question this assumption. Second, as a consequence of this overview, it emphasizes the necessity of drawing a much more refined picture of Saussure’s impact on linguistics than the Kuhnian framework does. Third, the precondition of such a sophisticated reconstruction of Saussure’s structuralism is the renewal of the historiography of linguistics.

András Kertész – Csilla Rákosi – Alexa Bódog


Explaining the word order of inclusive and exclusive expressions

The paper aims to account for the fact that negative adverbials of manner, degree, and frequency (the so-called exclusive expressions) are obligatorily focussed, unlike their positive counterparts (the so-called inclusive phrases). The behaviour of inclusive and exclusive adverbials is understood on the basis of the behaviour of noun phrases containing a numeral modifier. It is shown that an expression like 3 children can mean ’3 or more children’ in every sentence position except the focus slot. This well-known semantic property of numeral quantifiers holds for the whole class of scalar modifiers. That is, if n is a scalar element, it can be understood as ’n or more’; hence a sentence involving n remains true also if the value of n is replaced by a higher value (e.g. the sentence I have read five books remains true also if I have actually read ten books). It is argued that in the case of scalar elements in the negative domain of a bidirectional scale, the replacement of the value of n with a higher value may result in a semantic anomaly (thus in the case of I have read few books the value of few cannot be replaced with the value of many). The replacement of the value of a scalar element with a higher value can be prevented by the focussing of the scalar element, given that focussing involves the exclusion of all alternatives but the one named by the focussed phrase. This is why exclusive adverbials, also representing scalar expressions, must be focussed.

Katalin É. Kiss