Langue and parole

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Langue (French, meaning "language") and parole (meaning "speaking") are linguistic terms distinguished by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics. Langue encompasses the abstract, systematic rules and conventions of a signifying system; it is independent of, and pre-exists, individual users. Langue involves the principles of language, without which no meaningful utterance, "parole", would be possible. Parole refers to the concrete instances of the use of langue. This is the individual, personal phenomenon of language as a series of speech acts made by a linguistic subject.[1] 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).[2] 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.


When translated from the French term langue can mean language. However, it is known Saussure intended the term to mean internal, arrangement and relationship of rules understood by a social group, however, rarely thought of in everyday life. Langue is believed to be a universal structure and, while it may have variations as seen in foreign languages, with principal linguistic patterns.


Parole typically when it is translated 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. Furthermore, parole is known to have been changed and manipulated by a number of causes for example time, social groups, and age of users.

Langue and Parole as a Function[edit]

The underlying basis to Langue is the interpretation that it is made up of signs and not sentences. Signs are thought to have a two part aspect in that each sign relates a notion with a sound pattern (or a written symbol). A sign cannot exist as a single part for if there is a sound pattern without a notion the sound becomes only noise. Similarly, a notion cannot be communicated without a sound pattern. It is also interesting to note that the sound pattern for each notion can be extremely diverse and vice versa. For example, the notion of oneself may use the sound patterns of ‘I’ or ‘me’ while the sound pattern of ‘rose’ may have the notion of a flower or the past of ‘rise’. The notion or sound pattern remains unchanged even if the other changes. It is by understanding the relationship of the two parts of a sign through langue that the gist of communication or parole may be understood. Without the understanding of langue, parole would be meaningless sounds or symbols grouped together haphazardly. Saussure used the example of chess to explain how langue and parole work together. Langue is the normative rules in a chess game while parole represents the individual’s choice of moves. If one was to study the parole of a chess game an understanding could be derived but it would not be a universal understanding of chess. However, by studying the langue of a chess game the derived understanding may be applicable to further chess games. Thus Saussure argued when studying language, especially a foreign language, it is more important to understand the langue than to gain a large vocabulary of parole so that sense may be made equal to that of native speaker.

Course in General Linguistics[edit]

Saussure did not publish his notes in relation to linguistics and langue and parole. Unfortunately Cours de linguistique générale was published after his death in 1916 (later translated into English in 1959 as Course in General Linguistics) and was made up of remaining lecture notes by Saussure, course notes provided to students and notes taken by former students of his lectures he performed between 1907-1911 in Geneva. This was then published by two of his former colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. It was after this publication that the importance and revolutionary nature of his work truly was understood by linguists and philosophers of his time. Reviews, commentaries and critics of both the Course in General Linguistics and original notes made by Saussure have revealed much controversy over time. One controversy is that many ideas and notions often accredited to Saussure may have been borrowed from other linguists and philosophers of the nineteenth century. Saussure’s idea of language as a sign system had been proposed by other philosophers, however, he will always be known to have provided a strong, theoretical basis for a scientific approach to understanding language as a whole.


Saussure’s langue and parole form one of the theoretical foundations of structuralism. Langue and parole have allowed structuralists to separately examine the broad structures and formations of literature as well as the individual words. Structuralists achieved this by making a distinction within literary works between the words on a page (parole) and the context behind these words (langue). Although the reader may appear to simply be reading the words in a book their ability to understand (or possibly misunderstand) the text is a result of a person’s knowledge of the langue or rules of a certain language. Similarly, langue and parole have been highly influential in the study of the signs, termed semiotics. Saussure’s most notable influence on semiotics was his belief that the rules and codes of a language (langue) are vital in interpreting and gaining an understanding of that language system, while individual utterances (parole) are of little significance. Langue and parole have also impacted the way language is taught. Since Saussure’s terms have become well known, language teaching often emphasizes teaching the langue and how these rules are applied, rather than simply teaching the words of a certain language. Additionally, langue and parole have been applied to other fields of study. Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used Structuralism and langue and parole to understand myths and tales within a broader context. In this case parole is a single tale or myth, while langue is considered the broader range of tales and myths from within a series or group. These may be myths from the same community, time period or geographical location.


  1. ^ de Saussure, F. (1986). Course in general linguistics (3rd ed.). (R. Harris, Trans.). Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. (Original work published 1972). p. 9-10, 15.
  2. ^ "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." Charles Taylor, The Importance of Herder, "Philosophical Arguments" (Harvard University Press, 1997), 97.