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Auteur: Klaas WILLEMS

The reception of Saussure's theory of the linguistic sign in Cognitive Grammar

Abstract/Résumé: CONTEXT: Proponents of Cognitive Grammar (CG) have emphasized their commitment to Saussure’s theory of the linguistic sign (Langacker 1987, Taylor 1999). A figure combining a drawing of a tree and the word form ‘arbor’ in the 1916 edition of the CLG is considered to anticipate on the ‘symbolic thesis’ of CG, which says that language is a means for relating ‘sound’ and ‘meaning’ (Taylor 2002). RESEARCH QUESTIONS: Does Saussure’s figure for ‘arbor’ in the CLG (1916) adequately render his theory of the linguistic sign? Is the CG interpretation of Saussure’s theory of the linguistic sign compatible with his notion of ‘value’ (Fr. ‘valeur’) and his emphasis on the arbitrary nature of linguistic signs? METHODOLOGY: A close reading will be undertaken of relevant passages in Godel (1957), Engler’s critical edition of the CLG (1968/1974) and the Écrits (2002). They will be interpreted in the light of modern Saussure scholarship and confronted with the key assumptions of the ‘symbolic thesis’ of CG. RESULTS: First, Saussure’s theory of the linguistic sign is at variance with the ‘encyclopedic conception of linguistic semantics’ in CG (Langacker 1987:156). Second, the figure combining a drawing of a tree and the Latin word ‘arbor’ does not refer to the relationship between signifié and signifiant, but to the relationship between ‘objects’ and ‘names’ (Saussure 1968:147, B and E). Third, according to Saussure, a linguistic sign should not be understood in terms of a ‘pairing’ of a concept and an expression (Saussure 1968:253, C), neither ideas (and ‘referents’) nor sounds can be regarded as ‘substrates’ of linguistic signs (Saussure 1974:47, 2). Saussure’s alternative view is summarized in another figure found in Godel (1957:214) and Saussure (1968:252) which is accompanied by the following explanation: ‘C’est entre deux [‘idées’ and ‘sons’] que le fait linguistique se passe’. The ‘misreading’ of Saussure in CG is indicative of a perspective on the linguistic sign that differs significantly from the one advocated by Saussure (Willems 2005). In particular, Saussure's diagram of ‘le fait linguistique’ does not lend itself to an experientialist conception of semantics along the lines of CG. Whereas CG rejects the distinction between language-specific meanings (Saussure’s ‘signifiés’) and general conceptual content, one of Saussure’s central aims was to provide a framework to describe how meaning is organized in specific ways in different languages. References Godel (1957), Langacker (1987), Saussure (1968/1974), (2002), Taylor (1999), (2002), Willems (2005).