The source of modern structuralism and its strongest bastion to this day is linguistics. The work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) stands out in the development of structural linguistics and, ultimately, structuralism in various other fields. Of particular interest is Saussure’s differentiation between langue and parole, which was to have enormous significance.
Langue is the formal, grammatical system of language. It is a system of phonic elements whose relationships are governed, Saussure and his followers believed, by determinate laws. Much of linguistics since Saussure’s time has been oriented to the discovery of those laws. The existence of langue makes parole possible. Parole is actual speech, the way speakers use language to express themselves. Although Saussure recognized the significance of people’s use of language in subjective and often idiosyncratic ways, he believed that the individual’s use of language cannot be the concern of the scientifically oriented linguist. Such a linguist must look at langue, the formal system of language, not at the subjective ways in which it is used by actors.
Langue, then, can be viewed as a system of signs a structure and the meaning of each sign is produced by the relationship among signs within the system. Especially important are relations of difference, including binary oppositions. Thus, for example, the meaning of the word hot comes not from some intrinsic properties of the word but from the word’s relationship with, its binary opposition to, the word cold. Meanings, the mind, and ultimately the social world are shaped by the structure of language. Thus, instead of an existential world of people shaping their surroundings, we have here a world in which people, as well as other aspects of the social world, are shaped by the structure of language.
The concern for structure has been extended beyond language to the study of all sign systems. This focus on the structure of sign systems has been labeled “semiotics” and has attracted many followers.Semiotics is broader than structural linguistics because it encompasses not only language but also other sign and symbol systems, such as facial expressions, body language, literary texts, indeed all forms of communication.
Roland Barthes often is seen as the true founder of semiotics. Barthes extended Saussure’s ideas to all areas of social life. Not only language but also social behaviors are representations, or signs: “Not just language, but wrestling matches are also signifying practices, as are TV shows, fashions, cooking and just about everything else in everyday life”. The “linguistic turn” came to encompass all social phenomena which in turn came to be reinterpreted as signs.