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Language, thought and reality: a comparison of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics with C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards' The Meaning of Meaning

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This paper returns to two key texts in the history of linguistic theory: Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1916) and Ogden and Richards' The Meaning of Meaning (1923). While Saussure's linguistic model is dialectical and synthetic, with the two elements of the linguistic sign (signal and signification) being compared to the two sides of a sheet of paper, Ogden and Richards' is tripartite and analytic, with the three elements involved in the language situation (word, thought and thing) being represented as the three points of a triangle. Moreover, while Saussure sees language as turning in upon itself, with the sign referring not to things in an extra‐linguistic reality but to other signs within the same linguistic structure, Ogden and Richards see language as referring beyond itself, to a reality outside language. These differences are related to differences in how the human mind is conceived: while Saussure sees thought as embedded in language, and while he invests the mind with the power to order and regulate the chaos inherent in language, Ogden and Richards, writing very much in the wake of the new psychology of stimulus–response behaviourism, separate thought from language, and divest the mind of any power to resist ‘the power of words'. Interestingly, though, Ogden and Richards show signs of an early cognitivism, which raises the question of whether contemporary cognitive science is perhaps more indebted to the stimulus–response paradigm than it would care to admit.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Northumbria, UK

Publication date: October 1, 2005

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