Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, rejected the substantive view of the subject in favor of a relational one. In the Cours de Linguistique Generale, an argument is presented that language should be studied, not only in terms of its individual parts, but also in terms of the relationship between those parts. Language should be studied as a Gestalteinheit, a unified ‘field’, a self-sufficient system, as we actually experience it in the present (Hawkes, 1997). According to Fredric Jameson, ‘Saussure’s originality was to have insisted on the fact that language as a total system is complete at every moment, no matter what happens to have been altered in it a moment before.’

Saussure made a famous distinction between langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue refers to the system of rules and conventions which is independent of, and pre-exists, and parole refers to its use in particular instances. In semiotics, this principle could be applied to understand the distinction between code and message. According to the Saussurean distinction, in a semiotic system such as cinema, ‘any specific film is the speech of that underlying system of cinema language’ (Langholz Leymore 1975, 3).

Saussure focused on langue rather than parole. To the traditional, Saussurean semiotician, what matters most are the underlying structures and rules of a semiotic system as a whole rather than specific performances or practices which are merely instances of its use. Saussure’s approach was to study the system ‘synchronically’ if it were frozen in time (like a photograph) – rather than ‘diachronically’ – in terms of its evolution over time (like a film).

Structuralist cultural theorists subsequently adopted this Saussurean priority, focusing on the functions of social and cultural phenomena within semiotic systems. Theorists differ over whether the system precedes and determines usage (structural determinism) or whether usage precedes and determines the system (social determinism) (although note that most structuralists argue that the system constrains rather than completely determines usage). (Chandler, 2005)

Saussure emphasized in particular negative, oppositional differences between signs, and the key relationships in structuralist analysis are binary oppositions (such as nature/culture, life/death). Saussure argued that ‘concepts… are defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system. What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not’ (Saussure 1983, 115; Saussure 1974, 117; my emphasis). Although Saussure focuses on speech, he also noted that in writing, ‘the values of the letter are purely negative and differential’ – all we need to be able to do is to distinguish one letter from another (Saussure 1983, 118; Saussure 1974, 119-120). As for his emphasis on negative differences, Saussure remarks that although both the signified and the signifier are purely differential and negative when considered separately, the sign in which they are combined is a positive term. He adds that ‘the moment we compare one sign with another as positive combinations, the term difference should be dropped… Two signs… are not different from each other, but only distinct. They are simply in opposition to each other. The entire mechanism of language… is based on oppositions of this kind and upon the phonic and conceptual differences they involve’ (Saussure 1983, 119; Saussure 1974, 120-121).

Although the signifier is treated by its users as ‘standing for’ the signified, Saussurean semioticians emphasize that there is no necessary, intrinsic, direct or inevitable relationship between the signifier and the signified. Saussure stressed the arbitrariness of the sign (Saussure 1983, 67, 78; Saussure 1974, 67, 78) – more specifically the arbitrariness of the link between the signifier and the signified (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67). He was focusing on linguistic signs, seeing language as the most important sign system; for Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the sign was the first principle of language (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67) – arbitrariness was identified later by Charles Hockett as a key ‘design feature’ of language (Hockett 1958; Hockett 1960; Hockett 1965). The feature of arbitrariness may indeed help to account for the extraordinary versatility of language (Lyons 1977, 71). In the context of natural language, Saussure stressed that there is no inherent, essential, ‘transparent’, self-evident or ‘natural’ connection between the signifier and the signified – between the sound or shape of a word and the concept to which it refers (Saussure 1983, 67, 68-69, 76, 111, 117; Saussure 1974, 67, 69, 76, 113, 119).