The Saussurian Paradox


Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu


In his classic review of linguistic methodology Labov refers to the Saussurian Paradox:

Saussure argued (I962: 321) that the linguist must concentrate upon the social aspect of language, langue, which is conceived as so general that it is in the possession of every speaker. It follows that one can investigate langue by asking anyone about it, even oneself, which is what Chomsky proceeded to do. On the other hand, the individual details of parole can be ascertained only through a social survey in the midst of the population. The SAUSSURIAN PARADOX, then, is that the social aspect of language can be studied through the intuitions of any one individual, while the individual aspect can be studied only by sampling the behavior of an entire population.

(William Labov 1972 Some Principles of Linguistic Methodology. Language in Society 1:97-120)


Comparative research poses a similar paradox: Common features of a language family can be studied through research on one language, while the features of a single language can be studied only by sampling the behavior of an entire family of languages.


Nov. 5, 2017


Page last modified 11/25/17

© 2017 Clifton Pye