The arbre-tree sign: Pictures and words in counterpoint in the Cours de linguistique générale

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In his three courses of lectures on general linguistics given between 1907 and 1911, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) sometimes drew diagrams and figures on the chalkboard to add a visual dimension to the novel and challenging theoretical concepts he was laying out. Those which the editors redrew for inclusion in the Cours de linguistique générale (1916) – in some cases with significant changes – have had a surprisingly strong impact on readers ever since. If Saussure hoped that the drawings would clear up ambiguities in his verbal text, he might have been disappointed; for while they extend a hand to students and readers to guide them into his conceptual world via the stepping-stones of the semi-familiar, accessible and concrete, they have opened up whole new realms of ambiguity, and strengthened the ones already present in the verbal text. This article examines seven of the illustrations or sets of illustrations in the CLG and the various interpretations to which they have given or could give rise, treating these not as erroneous but as contrapuntal to the text when the two appear to be in contradiction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-171
Issue number1
Early online date26 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Saussure
  • linguistic sign
  • value
  • arbitrariness
  • scientific illustration


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