Langue and parole

Langue and parole is a theoretical linguistic dichotomy distinguished by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics.[1]

The French term langue ('[an individual] language')[2] encompasses the abstract, systematic rules and conventions of a signifying system; it is independent of, and pre-exists, the individual user. It involves the principles of language, without which no meaningful utterance, or parole, would be possible.

In contrast, parole ('speech') refers to the concrete instances of the use of langue, including texts which provide the ordinary research material for linguistics.[1]

Background and significanceEdit

Langue and parole are concepts belonging to an argument made by Ferdinand de Saussure for the autonomy of linguistics as a scientific discipline. Saussure declares language to be a social fact, relating it to cultural and social sciences. As such, he opposed the 19th-century European views, which remain dominant in America, that the study of language is a subfield of psychology or biology. This would be part of a structuralist programme initiated in sociology by Émile Durkheim.[3]

Structural linguistics, as proposed by Saussure, assumes a humanistic standpoint of culture within the nature–nurture divide. Langue and parole make up two thirds of Saussure's speech circuit (French: circuit de la parole); the third part being the brain, where the individual's knowledge of language is located. The speech circuit is a feedback loop between the individual speakers of a given language. It is an interactive phenomenon: knowledge of language arises from language usage, and language usage arises from knowledge of language. Saussure, however, argues that the true locus of the language is neither in the verbal behaviour (parole) nor in the mind of the speakers, but is situated in the loop between speech and the individual, existing as such nowhere else but only as a social phenomenon within the speech community.[1]

Consequently, Saussure rejects other contemporary views of language and argues for the autonomy of linguistics. According to Saussure, general linguistics is not:[1]

Instead, it is properly regarded as the study of semiology or languages as semiotic systems.

Saussure did not concern himself overly with parole; however, the structure of langue is revealed through the study of parole. The distinction is similar to that made about language by Wilhelm von Humboldt, between energeia (active doing) and ergon (the product of that doing);[7] as well as the distinction between language and speech made by Jan Baudouin de Courtenay.[8] Saussure drew an analogy to chess to explain the concept of langue and parole. He compared langue to the rules of chess—the norms for playing the game—and compared the moves that an individual chooses to make—the individual's preferences in playing the game—to the parole. The rules of the game – or language – are systematised and solidified in each historical stage. Languages change diachronically, but the previous historical stages are irrelevant to the language users. What is essential is that the current norms must always support a coherent functional system.

Meaning of the termsEdit


French has two words corresponding to the English word language:[9]

  1. langue, which is primarily used to refer to individual languages such as French and English; and
  2. langage, which primarily refers to language as a general phenomenon, or to the human ability to have language.

Langue therefore corresponds to the common meaning of language, and the pair langue versus parole is properly expressed in English as 'language versus speech',[1] so long as language is not to taken in evolutionary terms. The Saussurean term is not, for example, compatible with the concepts of language organ, Universal Grammar, or linguistic competence in the Chomskyan frame of reference. Instead, it is the concept of any language as a semiological system, a social fact, and a system of linguistic norms.


Parole, in typical translation, means 'speech'. Saussure, on the other hand, intended for it to mean both the written and spoken language as experienced in everyday life; it is the precise utterances and use of langue. Therefore, parole, unlike langue, is as diverse and varied as the number of people who share a language and the number of utterances and attempts to use that language.

Relation to formal linguisticsEdit

From a formal linguistics perspective, Saussure's concept of language and speech can be thought of as corresponding, respectively, to a formal language and the sentences it generates. De Saussure argued before Course in General Linguistics that linguistic expressions might be algebraic.[10]

Building on his insights, Louis Hjelmslev proposed in his 1943 Prolegomena to a Theory of Language a model of linguistic description and analysis based on work of mathematicians David Hilbert and Rudolf Carnap in formal language theory.[11] The structuralist endeavor is, however, more comprehensive, ranging from the mathematical organisation of the semantic system to phonology, morphology, syntax, and the whole discourse or textual arrangement. The algebraic device was considered by Hjelmslev as independent of psychology, sociology and biology. [12] It is consolidated in consequent models of structural–functional linguistics such as Systemic Functional Linguistics and Functional Discourse Grammar.[13]

Despite this success, American advocates of the natural paradigm managed to fend off European structuralism by making its own modifications of the model. In 1946, Zellig Harris introduced transformational generative grammar which excluded semantics and placed the direct object into the verb phrase, following Wundt's psychological concept, as advocated in American linguistics by Leonard Bloomfield.[11] His student Noam Chomsky argued for the cognitive essence of linguistic structures,[14] eventually providing the explanation that they were caused by a random genetic mutation in humans.[15]


  1. ^ a b c d e de Saussure, Ferdinand (1959) [1916]. Course in general linguistics (PDF). New York: Philosophy Library. ISBN 9780231157278.
  2. ^ "Langue". Larousse Dictionnaire français. Larousse. Retrieved 2020-05-20. Système de signes vocaux, éventuellement graphiques, propre à une communauté d'individus, qui l'utilisent pour s'exprimer et communiquer entre eux : La langue française, anglaise.
  3. ^ Hejl, P. M. (2013). "The importance of the concepts of "organism" and "evolution" in Emile Durkheim's division of social labor and the influence of Herbert Spencer". In Maasen, Sabine; Mendelsohn, E.; Weingart, P. (eds.). Biology as Society, Society as Biology: Metaphors. Springer. pp. 155–191. ISBN 9789401106733.
  4. ^ Darwin, Charles (1981) [1871]. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (PDF). Princeton University Press. pp. 59–61. ISBN 0-691-08278-2. Retrieved 2020-03-03.
  5. ^ Aronoff, Mark (2017). "Darwinism tested by the science of language". In Bowern; Horn; Zanuttini (eds.). On Looking into Words (and Beyond): Structures, Relations, Analyses. SUNY Press. pp. 443–456. ISBN 978-3-946234-92-0. Retrieved 2020-03-03.
  6. ^ Bybee, Joan L.; Beckner, Clay (2015). "Usage-Based theory". In Heine, Bernd; Narrog, Heiko (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis. Oxfor University Press. pp. 953–980. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199544004.013.0032.
  7. ^ Taylor, Charles. 1997. "Philosophical Arguments." The Importance of Herder. Harvard University Press. p. 97: "Language as a finished product, a set of tools forged for future use, is in fact a precipitate of the ongoing activity. It is created in speech, and is in fact being continuously recreated, extended, altered, reshaped. This Humboltdian notion is the basis for another famous contribution of Saussure, his distinction between langue and parole."
  8. ^ de Courtenay, Jan Baudouin. 1876–77. A detailed programme of lectures for the academic year 1876-77. p. 115.
  9. ^ "Langue". Larousse Dictionnaire français. Larousse. Retrieved 2020-05-20. Système de signes vocaux, éventuellement graphiques, propre à une communauté d'individus, qui l'utilisent pour s'exprimer et communiquer entre eux : La langue française, anglaise.
  10. ^ Staal, Frits (2003). "The science of language". In Flood, Gavin (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Wiley. pp. 348–359. ISBN 9780470998694.
  11. ^ a b Seuren, Pieter A. M. (1998). Western linguistics: An historical introduction. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 160--167. ISBN 0-631-20891-7.CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  12. ^ Hjelmslev, Louis (1969) [First published 1943]. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0299024709.
  13. ^ Butler, Christopher S. (2003). Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major Structural-Functional Theories, part 1 (PDF). John Benjamins. pp. 121–124. ISBN 9781588113580. Retrieved 2020-01-19.
  14. ^ Lightfoot, David W. (2002). "Introduction to the second edition of Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky". In Lightfoot, David W. (ed.). Syntactic Structures (second ed.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. v–xviii. ISBN 3110172798. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  15. ^ Berwick, Robert C.; Chomsky, Noam (2015). Why Only Us: Language and Evolution. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262034241.