Linguists Bakhtin and de Saussure on Language and Speech

Language and Speech

Human beings own the rare ability in nature to use voice as a highly complex communication means, which sets them apart from all other living creatures on the planet. But what exactly are the voice-related areas, language and speech, and to whom do they belong?

This essay will examine language and speech with the assistance of two of the most prominent linguists in history, Mikhail Bakhtin and Ferdinand de Saussure.

Mikhail Bakhtin on Language and Speech

In his essay, “Discourse in the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin discusses the function of the discourse in the novel, its essential role in language in general, and the interpretation of language accordingly. Bakhtin argues that language is necessarily created in a mutual social environment, and it never exists only within the sole individual; therefore, he rejects the study of language in texts in which there is only one voice, such as poems. The novel, however, can be used for this sort of study because, ordinarily, it contains several different social voices.

In his essay, Bakhtin claims that language only exists dialogically and does not belong solely to the individual; in fact, language is always an integral part of the dialogue (even when one speaks to himself/herself). Bakhtin proceeds to elaborate that in the novel, the different voices that consist of the dialogue (the “discourse”) are not self-sufficient and are actually subordinated to the speech unity of the author.

According to Bakhtin, “Language … is never unitary” but created by “[a]ctual social life and historical becoming” (page 675); it means that language is built upon a social community and cannot reside merely inside one person (or voice) alone. Therefore, it would be impossible to study language in texts such as poems, which usually contain only one voice. The novel, on the other hand, “can be defined as a diversity of social speech types” (674); for instance, the novel often consists of “a professional stratification of language” (675) – voices that are clearly distinguished by the profession of the speaking character. Although the novel is written by the novelist, due to the wide diversity in the types of social voices, “these languages live a real life, they struggle and evolve in an environment of social heteroglossia” (676). Thus, the novel enables the study of language through speech (parole).

It is interesting and perhaps brave that Bakhtin chooses to prove his point via a type of literary work, which is inherently textual; thus, he manages to score points outside of his own playing field. Even if his argument does not entirely convince one, one at least has to remain impressed by his bold attempt.

Ferdinand de Saussure about Language and Speech

In the book Course in General Linguistics, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure explains the different characteristics of language and speech, and analyzes their shared relations. In his text, de Saussure describes speech as “many-sided and heterogeneous” in which physical, physiological and psychological areas operate together; language, on the other hand, is the collection of the necessary social conventions that serve as the social component within speech (9). Yet, amongst the several areas of speech, language is classified first in the natural order because it is the only instrument for articulating words and giving unity to speech as a whole (11).

In practicality, de Saussure identifies that the execution of speech belongs only to the speaker himself, as it “is always individual, and the individual is always its master” (13). Contrarily, language cannot abide only within the sole individual because it “is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity” (14). Furthermore, while speech is the obvious function of the speaker himself/herself, that is not the case with language, which is merely the “product that is passively assimilated by the individual” (14).

Due to their characteristics, the study of linguistics consists of language rather than speech. In speech, “it would be impossible to provide detailed photographs of acts of speaking”; however, in language, it is possible to use writing as its tangible form, and through dictionaries and grammar, “to represent it accurately” (p. 15).

If so, the two eminent linguists mostly agree: while speech belongs to the individual executing the action of speaking itself, language belongs to a collective that agrees on its uniting elements even if an individual utters it alone. In other words, when a person speaks, the action of speaking is his, while the syllables, words, sentences, etc., belong to a social group familiar with the various literary aspects in unison.

Works Cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkind and Michael Ryan. MA.: Blackwell, 2004. 674-685.
De Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959. Course in general linguistics. Ed. Charles, Bally and Albert, Sechehaye. Trans. Wade, Baskin. New York: Fontana Collins.