|SYNTAGMATIC AND ASSOCIATIVE RELATIONS
FERDINAND DE SAUSSURE (1857-1913)
[28 October 1910]
Chapter V, Translated by W. Baskin.
New York: McGraw-Hill.
|Ferdinand de Saussure the Swiss linguist
(1857-1913) is widely considered to be the
founder of modern linguistics in his attempt
to describe the structure of language rather
than the history of particular languages
and language forms.
In a language-state everything is based on
relations. How do they function?
Relations and differences between linguistic
terms fall into two distinct groups, each
of which generates a certain class of values.
The opposition between the two classes gives
a better understanding of the nature of each
class. They correspond to two forms of our
mental activity, both indispensable to the
life of language.
In discourse, on the one hand, words acquire
relations based on the linear nature of language
because they are chained together. This rules
out the possibility of pronouncing two elements
simultaneously (see p.
70). The elements are arranged in sequence
on the chain of speaking. Combinations supported
by linearity are syntagms b The syntagm is
always composed of two or more consecutive
units (e. g. French re-lire [reread], contre
tous [against everyone], la vie humaine [human
life], Dieu est bon [God is good], s'il fait
beau temps, nous sortirons [if the weather
is nice, we'll go out] etc.). In the syntagm
a term acquires its value only because it
stands in opposition to everything that precedes
or follows it, or to both. Outside discourse,
on the other hand, words acquire relations
of a different kind. Those that have something
in common are associated in the memory, resulting
in groups marked by diverse relations. For
instance, the French word enseignement [teaching]
will unconsciously call to mind a host of
other words (enseigner [teach], renseigner
[acquaint] etc.; or armement [armament],
changement [amendment] etc.; or education
[education] apprentissage [apprenticeship]
etc.). All those words are related in some
We see that the co-ordinations formed outside
discourse differ strikingly from those formed
inside discourse. Those formed outside discourse
are not supported by linearity. Their seat
is in the brain; they are a part of the inner
storehouse that makes up the language of
each speaker. They are associative relations.
The syntagmatic relation is in praesentia.
It is based on two or more terms that occur
in an effective series. Against this, the
associative relation unites terms in absentia
in a potential mnemonic series.
From the associative and syntagmatic viewpoint
a linguistic unit is like a fixed part of
a building, e. g. a column. On the one hand,
the column has a certain relation to the
architrave that it supports; the arrangement
of the two units in space suggests the syntagmatic
relation. On the other hand, if the column
is Doric, it suggests a mental comparison
of this style with others (Ionic, Corinthian,
etc.) although none of these elements is
present in space: the relation is associative.
Each of the two classes of co-ordination
calls for some specific remarks.
2. Syntagmatic Relations
Definition: syntagma so syntagm n. pl. syntagmas or syntagmata
1. A sequence of linguistic units in a syntagmatic
relationship to one another.
2. A sequence of words in a particular syntactic
relationship to one another; a construction.
[New Latin, from French syntagme, from Greek
suntagma, suntagmat-, arrangement, syntactic
unit, from suntassein, suntag-, to put in
order; see syntax.]
The examples on page 123 have already indicated
that the notion of syntagm applies not only
to words but to groups of words, to complex
units of all lengths and types (compounds,
derivatives, phrases, whole sentences).
This is what all work on sociolinguistics,
particularly conversation analysis, has expanded
to include conversation, that is speaking
[parole] across people that can be shown
to have its own orders (langue). I explore
It is not enough to consider the relation
that ties together the different parts of
syntagms (e. g. French contre [against] and
tous [everyone] in contre tous, contre and
maitre [master] in contremaitre [foreman]);
one must also bear in mind the relation that
links the whole to its parts (e. g. contre
tous in opposition on the one hand to contre
and on the other tous, or contremaitre in
opposition to contre and maitre).
An objection might be raised at this point.
The sentence is the ideal type of syntagm.
But it belongs to speaking, not to language
(see p. 14). Does it not follow that the
syntagm belongs to speaking? I do not think
so. Speaking is characterized by freedom
of combinations; one must therefore ask whether
or not all syntagms are equally free.
It is obvious from the first that many expressions
belong to language. These are the pat phrases
in which any change is prohibited by usage,
even if we can single out their meaningful
elements (cf. à quoi bon [what's the use?]allons
donc! [nonsense!]). The same is true, though
to a lesser degree, of expressions like prendre
la mouche [take offense easily], forcer la
main de quelqu'un [force someone's hand],
rompre une lance [break a lance], or even
avoir mal à la tete.) [have (a headache],
etc.) à force de soins [by dint of care],
que vous en semble? [how do you feel about
it?], pas n'est besoin de . . . [there's
no need for . . .] etc., which are characterized
by peculiarities of signification or syntax.
These idiomatic twists cannot be improvised;
they are furnished by tradition. There are
also words which, while lending themselves
perfectly to analysis, are characterized
by some morphological anomaly that is kept
solely by dint of usage (cf. difficulté [difficulty]
beside facilité [facility] etc., and mourrai
[[I] shall die] beside dormirai [[I] shall
There are further proofs. To language rather
than to speaking belong the syntagmatic types
that are built upon regular forms. Indeed,
since there is nothing abstract in language,
the types exist only if language has registered
a sufficient number of specimens. When a
word like indecorable arises in speaking
(see pp. 167 ff.), its appearance supposes
a fixed type, and this type is in turn possible
only through remembrance of a sufficient
number of similar words belonging to language
(impardonable [unpardonable], intolerable
[intolerable], infatigable [indefatigable]
etc.). Exactly the same is true of sentences
and groups of words built upon regular patterns.
Combinations like la terre tourne [the world
turns], que vous dit-il? [what does he say
to you?' etc. correspond to general types
that are in turn supported in the language
by concrete remembrances.
But we must realize that in the syntagm there
is no clear-cut boundary between the language
fact, which is a sign of collective usage,
and the fact that belongs to speaking and
depends on individual freedom. In a great
number of instances it is hard to class a
combination of units because both forces
have combined in producing it, and they have
combined in indeterminable proportions.
3. Associative Relations Mental association
creates other groups besides those based
on the comparing of terms that have something
in common; through its grasp of the nature
of the relations that bind the terms together,
the mind creates as many associative series
as there are diverse relations. For instance,
in enseignement [teaching] enseigner [teach]
enseignons [(we) teach] etc., one element,
the radical, is common to every term; the
same word may occur in a different series
formed around another common element, the
suffix (cf. enseignement, armement, changement,
etc.); or the association may spring from
the analogy of the concepts signified (enseignement,
instruction, apprentissage, education, etc.);
or again, simply from the similarity of the
sound-images (e. g. enseignement and justement
[precisely')." Thus there is at times
a double similarity of meaning and form,
at times similarity only of form or of meaning.
A word can always evoke everything that can
be associated with it in one way or another.
Whereas a syntagm immediately suggests an
order of succession and a fixed number of
elements, terms in an associative family
occur neither in fixed numbers nor in a definite
order. If we associate painful, delightful,
frightful, etc. we are unable to predict
the number of words that the memory will
suggest or the order in which they will appear.
A particular word is like the center of a
constellation; it is the point of convergence
of an indefinite number of co-ordinated terms
(see the illustration on page 127).
But of the two characteristics of the associative
series-indeterminate order and indefinite
number-only the first can always be verified;
the second may fail to meet the test. This
happens in the case of inflectional paradigms,
which are typical of associative groupings.
Latin dominos, domini, domino, etc. is obviously
an associative group formed around a common
element, the noun theme domin-, but the series"
is not indefinite as in the enseignement.
enseigner clement enseignons justement etc.
etc. etc apprentissage changement etc. education
armement etc. etc. etc. etc.
Case of enseignement, changement, etc.; the
number of cases is definite. Against this,
the words have no fixed order of succession,
and it is by a purely arbitrary act that
the grammarian groups them in one way rather
than in another; in the mind of speakers
the nominative case is by no means the first
one in the declension, and the order in which
terms are called depends on circumstances.