Transnational Research Associates

Two Critical Linguistic Elements: Structure and Meaning

Art Madsen, M.Ed.


There have been two prominent figures in the field of linguistics who have heavily influenced my thinking during this semester.  One of them is, of course, the Father of Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure and the other is Jacques Derrida, a linguist and theorist born in Algeria but who has published widely in France and, in translation, throughout the entire world.  I discovered Derrida in the course of independent reading on the subject of structure and meaning. In this paper, I would like to present some of the thinking that exists 'between' these two important theorists, and perhaps propose some ideas of my own regarding structure and meaning in language. Because I speak Arabic and English, I may be able to propose some useful material, building upon both Saussure and Derrida.

Having read major portions of Derrida's Writing and Difference (Routledge, 2002), I find that Derrida's most influential ideas on literary criticism and linguistics seem to me to be based upon fairly routine, but extremely insightful, notions of language and meaning which, in turn, are also broadly located in basic Saussurian linguistics. Nevertheless, Derrida appears to display a constantly shifting attitude to Saussure. On the one hand, he justifies many of his positions with reference to Saussure, readapting several of his terms, whereas, on the other hand, he heavily criticizes him.

This Derrida/Saussure dialogue appears to me one possible way to penetrate Derrida's personally defined concepts. By inspecting Derrida's ideas of language and meaning in relation to those of Saussure, I may be able to clarify certain rather unclear issues.

Derrida, it is obvious, was particularly unhappy in the mid-1970s with the ways in which Saussurian linguistics had dominated criticism and academic thinking in the field of language and meaning. He therefore developed his "deconstructionist project" in France as a consequence, to some extent, of his reaction to an ultra-strict academic and intellectual climate that imposed a single interpretation of literary texts on students and writers at the time. Not only do his deconstructionist ideas pertain narrowly to linguistics and the structure of language, but they have, as will be demonstrated, major social and political implications as well.

For Derrida, there was "nothing outside of the text", as he repeats frequently in his Writing and Difference, and when addressing the issue of text analysis with his particular linguistic frame of reference, he denounced the domineering effect of its rigid structure upon literary interpretation. It is astonishing that, contrary to Saussure's more basic thinking, Derrida wanted, not simply to undo, but to attack the central position of  'meaning' which so-called 'structuralist thinkers' of the 1950s felt contained hidden or privileged meaning in language.

There has been a long history of studying the structure of language in relation to meaning.  Ancient societies, including many in the Middle East, had complex structures in the telling of their stories and narratives. Another socio-linguist, Levi-Strauss, according to Derrida, attempted to analyze what he claimed were certain opposing elements of meaning contained in the structures of the narratives of these ancient societies. Out of this thinking, the concept of the 'myth' was developed in the minds of listeners, but both Derrida and Levi-Strauss seem to claim that the myth already existed in the listener's mind as a hidden 'signifying system' through which both the teller and the listener generated their world views.  Language (words, phonemes, morphemes) was the medium, but thought was actually at the root of this (mythical) structure, not necessarily language itself. I found this concept fascinating. 

Moving farther into his subject matter, Derrida restated certain points that were originally at the center of Saussurian linguistics based on relationships and differences within elements of meaning.  However, Derrida thought that analysis of linguistic form in terms of  'pure values', where the value of each sign depends only upon the system where it is found, was a valid answer or explanation solving the shifting thoughts and meanings that can sometimes be produced by language. On the contrary, Saussure felt there was one clear and universal distinction between concepts that could have a single value or meaning.   He thought that language, and therefore words, have only a conventional value, only at the time when spoken. So, according to Saussure, a sentence like "Wow, look at that goal just scored!" could only apply to that specific goal being scored at that specific moment on the playing field, whereas Derrida might find other meanings, depending on the linguistic system in use.

But Derrida accepts no reference outside of language, even though he accepts differing systems of language and structure. This indicates quite an important point of departure for the deconstructionist movement that Derrida founded.  As a consequence of Derrida's thinking, objects, words, and their meaning, and therefore the world, are subject to differences and various shades of meaning, in spite of previously 'standard' interpretations.

It is important to leave Derrida and Saussure for a moment, who differ obviously, to clarify this point. According to Thomkins (1988) who supports Derrida's model, "There is then no difference between language and objects because objects are at play in a system of differences too.... The sign, the thing that is articulated by the system of differences, is all that there is, and, therefore, language is not secondary, is not provisional, is not just marking time or keeping place until the thing itself arrives because things themselves are linguistically constituted. And the world itself is discourse."

But Saussure's system is not too simple, as we might suspect from the foregoing quote. Words for him are not, of course, just labels which have been attached to things already understood. Words, for Saussure, supply the conceptual frame of reference for man's analysis of reality and also the linguistic framework for his description of this reality.

This brings us back, in spite of Derrida, to the starting point of linguistics. Saussure's model of a linguistic sign, as we studied in class, is of a "two-sided psychological entity" (Saussure 1983), making up the meaning of the word (morpheme), together with its sound image constituting phonemes. He uses the analogy of two sides of a piece of paper to illustrate the bond, one that is actually quite close in the Saussurian model.   

Derrida, after one reads Writing and Difference, seems to develop his main system from a new interpretation of Saussure's central principle, contained in his previously cited work, that states "... in language there are only differences." Saussure, continuing his thought, proposes that the value of a sign is produced by its relations with other signs surrounding it in actual speech (or writing). Also, the value of a sign is tied in with its psychological associations within memory groups. These are terms that can be used to replace or combine with the sign. In fact, Saussure's analysis builds upon consideration of specific differences and identities between one sign and other signs to which the first is directly related.

On the other hand, Derrida's reinterpretation of Saussure's ideas, especially as explained in Writing and Difference, allows for comparisons that can be made. Under Derrida's analysis, there was to be, what he calls, "free play" of differences.  This opens the door to multiple interpretations of the same words and structures, in effect destroying the previous system of universal meaning! The implications for this new thinking, actually a part of Derrida's deconstructionist project, are wide ranging.

Beyond this point, Derrida introduces another constantly shifting element that radically affects meaning and significance.  In a major portion of his Writing and Difference, Derrida defines the meaning of ‘differences’ to indicate a sort of dependence on a chain of linguistic terms, or what he calls "a field of infinite substitutions" that can always be extended, reviewed or placed in different contexts. He also uses the French term 'differance' (which means a deferral or a delay). Meaning, therefore, for Derrida is never in the present, it emerges from the interaction of both differences and 'differances' between the various terms in the text. These differences, and 'differances', are subject to continuous review, in an ongoing (sometimes unspoken) dialogue…that involves time and shifts in meaning. 

Deconstruction, as Derrida proposes it, removes the actual content or text from its purpose of communication, and thereby disguises or postpones, maybe indefinitely, meaning!  What does Derrida propose to substitute for this lost or distorted meaning?   He basically seems to say that everything needs to be constantly subjected to interpretation!

Contrary to Derrida’s thinking, I would argue that most observations and questions that we meet in everyday life require no interpretation or clarification at all.  This can be confirmed by the relatively few occasions on which misunderstandings occur. But I can see Derrida’s viewpoint, too. I am amazed, when listening to a tape recording of a lesson or lecture, at just how few words are used, or how few are required, to transfer meaning. If we place these ‘broadly spoken’ recorded words, phrases or elements of meaning under the microscope and analyze or ‘deconstruct’ them, they could easily be interpreted in dozens of ways.  Some of them might be affected by the time factor, and lose meaning; others might be misinterpreted because of poor contextual clues or lack of clarity.     

It is safe to conclude that social interaction, especially in this modern age, is not dependent upon spoken or written language alone. There are a myriad of other signifiers, some culturally based, which indicate how a particular statement should to be interpreted. Derrida would seem to suggest that we constantly interpret, re-interpret and re-examine everything, because the actual meaning might be something entirely unrelated to the original intent or purpose.  And that is quite disturbing because it implies that speakers may, in spite of sophisticated language structures available to them, actually have very few means at their disposal to communicate effectively.   

Having seen that Derrida is quite serious in his thrust to attack conventional language structures in the rather effective ways discussed above, it is important to ask why he did so.  Surely, as an academic, he is interested in truth.  But truth is a relative concept and is difficult to define with accuracy.  We can infer, perhaps, that Derrida might have had another reason to attack Western Language so energetically.  Born in Algeria and aware of anti-European movements in his country, I feel that he was oriented in his thinking by his early years in a foreign culture and that, convinced of the need to undermine structure and meaning in the West, he developed an elaborate system for doing so.  But he also developed, in his deconstructionist project, a valid sequence of thoughts and insights that have become useful to linguists from all cultures and backgrounds. 


Derrida, J. (2002) Writing and Difference (A. Bass Trans.) Routledge, London.


Ellis, J. (1989) Against Deconstruction. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.


Saussure, F. (1983) Course of General Linguistics, Duckworth, London.

Tompkins, J. (1988) A Short Course in Post-Structuralism. College English 50 (7) pp.733-747.