Phonology in Course In General Linguistics – Ferdinand de Saussure

In an effort to learn more about Phonology, the study of the organization of a language’s sounds, I took a deep dive into Ferdinand de Saussure’s thoughts on Phonology in Course in General Linguistics. Saussure’s words on the topic were absolutely fascinating, and they significantly advanced my understanding of the field, so I wanted to share a few of them with you.

Saussure starts by making the difference between Phonetics and Phonology clear. They are two distinct fields and noting the difference between them is vital to understanding the methods used to conduct research in each of them. Phonetics is a historical study of the evolution of language, while Phonology is a modern study of the sounds humans make, which is timeless, and thus not historical. In simpler terms, Phonetics is concerned with the past of spoken language, and Phonology is concerned with the classification of sounds.

Saussure goes on to describe the purpose of phonology and give an outline of the requirements of a good phonetic language. He writes that “The linguist needs above all else a means of transcribing articulated sounds that will rule out all ambiguity” (33). In other words, a phonetic language must present sounds in a standardized, written way. In order to do this well, the language must have one symbol for each element on the verbal chain, and it must differentiate between implosive and explosive sounds. Because this language will be so concise in nature, it will be quite confusing to the inexperienced eye and is thus only practical in scientific applications.

Many phonologists limit themselves to the phonational act, the production of sound by vocal organs. Saussure claims this is wrong, as they are neglecting the auditory side, the ear’s impression of a sound, which is vital to any theory on verbal communication. Auditory impressions exist subconsciously before any phonological units are studied, and they are important because one beat, a unit of spoken language, is characterized by unity of impression, meaning we can tell the difference between beats by noticing when the sound our ears receive changes. We cannot tell the subdivisions of sounds by observing only physical movements, as we do not know where one sound starts and ends. We can, however, identify individual sounds with auditory impressions based not on the length of a sound but on its uniqueness.

Our discussion of phonology now moves on to representations of the division of spoken language. The first units obtained by cutting the spoken chain are made up of b and b’. These symbols stand for auditory beat and articulatory beat, and they are equal when discussing movements involved in phonation. The first units are called phonemes: the sums of the auditory impressions and articulatory movements, the unit heard and the unit seen, each conditioning the other. Saussure moves on to a more technical discussion of the phonetic alphabet and its categorizations, but that topic deserves a post of its own, so I will conclude my explanation of Phonology here for the moment.

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