Note: this essay was written in the fall of 2010 for Professor Dennis Perzanowski’s “Theories of Language” class.

The main purpose of Derrida’s Of Grammatology is not attacking Saussure’s linguistic study but rather deconstructing the logocentral point of view, which he thought has long been a western philosophical tradition. Saussure had, as Derrida suggested, inherited this tradition, and thus only focused his general linguistics course on “the privileging of the spoken over the written word”. Taking Saussure’s study as a breakthrough point, Derrida made great efforts in deconstructing the dichotomies or polarities that logocentrism generates, such as Synchronic vs. Diachronic, Sign vs. Symbol, institutional vs. natural.

However, Derrida and Saussure are not totally opposed. Derrida, too, considered arbitrariness as the relation between words and meanings, and difference as the true value of language, although he did not use the same terms as Saussure did. Derrida considered language as an ever-changing movement. Therefore, he substituted the diachronic term “unmotivation” for arbitrariness. He also made up a word: différance to replace différence, because the word différence cannot fully explain the correspondence between word and meaning from a diachronic perspective.

Saussure inherited Aristotle’s view that speech is an arbitrary sign of concepts, and there should be no natural connection between a sound and its meaning. Based on the arbitrariness of the sign, Saussure excluded symbol from language since it has a rational connection with what it symbolizes. Derrida found this claim contradictory to Saussure’s own claim that sound is the only true bond between signifier and signified (handout, 25). Derrida argued that Saussure should also exclude sound from language, since it resists the first principle of sign: Arbitrariness. By pointing out these two paradoxical arguments, Derrida successfully deconstructed the fundamental rule Saussure made for language. In Derrida’s opinion, the relationship between words and their meaning is institutional (handout, 46). I think “institution” is almost the same as “arbitrariness” except it is a diachronic term.

In Part 1 of Of Grammatology Derrida states that an institutional relation refers to an arbitrary one-to-many correspondence between words (both spoken and written words) and meaning, rather than as a one-to-one relationship. A word institutionally corresponds to a meaning pool where different meanings could be thrown in all the time. Theoretically, this pool has no boundaries, which means it can contain an infinite numbers of meanings. I think the process of adding new meanings to the pool is Derrida’s “trace”, and the way of adding meanings is arbitrary or “unmotivated”. Therefore, one word always defers to signify either the unusual meanings or the upcoming meanings; also the meanings a word signifies, as Saussure said, can only be understood by comparison to the meanings of other words. The delay in representing the presence of all the possible meanings, and the differences among words might be the definition for the made-up word “différance”.

Derrida stated that Saussure’s linguistic theory is based on phonocentrism since Saussure claimed oral sound as “the true bond”. However, Saussure did not say that speech is the only possible inner-element of language, but admitted the ideographic writing system as a second language to its users (handout, 26). The reason why Saussure limited his discussion to the realm of phonetic systems might simply be because he wanted to use the language his pupils were familiar with. Besides, the expression “the only true bond, the bond of sound” could be an error made by his pupils, since the book Course in General Linguistics is entirely the pupils’ notes, and this expression only appears once in the whole book.

Saussure did describe at great length how writing affects oral speaking. He actually said that writing is not related to the inner-system of language (handout, p23), since written words are artificial. Contrarily, Derrida argued that writing is not simply an inner-element of language, but exactly language itself. However, are Derrida and Saussure talking about the same thing here? To Derrida, writing is an inscription in general and a durable institution of sign. He argued that writing refers to not only written words, but also cinematography, choreography, picture, music, sculpture and of course speaking (Of Grammatology p9, p44). No wonder Derrida said in Of Grammatology that there is nothing outside of the text (Of Grammatology, p158). Indeed, if we give writing such a broad definition, almost anything could be writing, and thus almost anything could be language. However, when everything becomes language, linguistic study loses its focus.

In addition, the ideographic writing system of Chinese characters is gradually changing from symbols of concepts to symbols of sounds. Around 80% of Chinese characters are pictophonetic Characters, each of which contains one phonetic symbol that only represents sound . As Saussure claimed, the Chinese writing system has become a mixture of both ideographic and phonetic systems. Will Chinese characters someday drop all the semantic symbols to change the writing system to be an entirely phonetic one? The communist government tried once in the 1960s to implement such a change by fiat, against a storm of objections. If the most powerful supporter of this program, Mao Zedong, had not died in 1976, the Language Reform Committee of the central government might have succeeded in its mission of changing all the characters to a Romanized alphabetic system.

Although the Chinese government has not changed the ideographic writing system, many other countries have. In East Asia, some languages had been using the Chinese characters as their written form for a long time. Some of them (Vietnamese and Korean) later replaced characters with sound symbols, while Japanese is still using some characters. However, the languages in those countries are quite different from one another. If writing really is, as Derrida said, an inner-element of language, why did those various languages once share the same writing system? In Vietnam, the character system had long been the official written form before Portuguese missionaries created a Romanized alphabet for them. During the French colonization period, Vietnamese chose to use a written form designed by French missionaries which itself is different from the Portuguese one. Now Vietnamese are using yet another more recently designed phonetic system. If writing really, as broadly defined, is language, why has not the constant changing of writing system changed linguistic features of Vietnamese (e.g. syntax, phonology)? All this evidence indicates that writing is more likely to be a representation of language than to language itself.

As a philosopher, Derrida might be more interested in philosophy than in linguistics. He assumed that the entirety of western culture is affected by logocentrism, which was described by him as a “metaphysics of presence,” and linguistics is not immune from this philosophy. The influence of the “metaphysics of presence” is not the conclusion of Derrida’s deconstruction, but rather the target. Derrida assumed that Saussure inherited Aristotle’s and other conventionalists’ ideas. However, Saussure actually rejected Aristotle’s suggestion of pre-existing ideas (mental experiences) (handout, 112); he claimed that thoughts would be a vague uncharted nebula in the absence of language.

Derrida’s deconstruction does not overwhelm Saussure’s linguistic theories. He discussed writing from a diachronic perspective, which to Saussure is meaningless. By broadening the definition of writing and making up new words, Derrida jumped directly to the realm of philosophy. I think his opinion of writing may be thought-provoking as philosophy, but doesn’t help us much in the field of linguistics.