The Value of Signs: Saussure’s rebuttal

Ferdinand de Saussure, semiology, synchrony, diachronyWe’ve reached the final installment of our series on Ferdinand de Saussure and the scintillating study of semiology. In our last post we left our friend Saussure in a rather unflattering light, when we explored the first scientific evidence against his hypothesis: that the relationship between the sign (a word) and the signified (the concept a word represents) might not be as arbitrary as Saussure posited.

Saussure believed that there was no natural dogness in the word “dog” or treeness in the word “tree,” and that the words could be any string of letters as long as every speaker of a given language agrees upon and accepts that they have the same meaning. This theory went widely unopposed for the latter half of the twentieth century, but in 2001 neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard developed a study that uncovered a cognitive link between physical shapes and the sounds speakers associate with them.

In their “Bouba/Kiki Experiment,” test subjects were shown two shapes: one spiky and one with rounded edges. They were then asked which shape was “Kiki” and which was “Bouba.” 95-98% of participants named the spiky shape “Kiki” and the rounded shape “Bouba.”

So wait a minute. If there is some organic connection between a concept and the word for it than Saussure was wrong, our language isn’t arbitrary!

Hold your horses, skeptics. Saussure’s got something to say—

In A Course on General Linguistics (a piece transcribed from Saussure’s lectures by his former students that formed the backbone of semiology and linguistic structuralism), the linguist introduces the idea of signification versus value.

Signification is essentially the work of the sign, the unit that combines concept and sound-image (word). But the key feature of a single signification like “B-I-R-D” representing creature with wings is that the sign is self-contained and means “creature with wings” independently of other signs. The introduction of the term value creates a necessary paradox within linguistic theory because the mental conjuring of signs and their subsequent use in speech and writing is deeply dependent on their place in the greater system of language. Let’s unpack that a bit. What is a bird? A creature with wings. But a “bird” is not an “insect” despite the fact that many insects have wings. So for us to gain a fuller understanding of “bird” we must also understand the meaning of “insect” so that we know what a bird is not.

According to Saussure, values can also be exchanged for new concepts the way monetary values are exchanged. There was a time in the early- to mid-twentieth century when “bird” was a slang term for “women.”

The same concept of differentiation applies to the written/spoken value of a sign, because its clear communication is dependent on that sign not being confused with any other sign. If a mispronunciation allows “bird” to slip into “heard,” then the sentence will become incomprehensible. Similarly in written language each letter of a word must distinguish itself from every other letter of the alphabet for the word to be readable.

Alright, signification = self-contained; value = interdependent. We get it. So what does any of this have to do with Kiki and Bouba?

Saussure would point out the fact that Kiki and Bouba have an extremely limited value and that value is reliant on the directly oppositional nature of both shapes (i.e., there are only two, and their forms conflict). What if the value was increased and there were 50 shapes and participants were asked to choose from a bank of 50 names? Would they choose the same or similar names for the shapes in question? What if value were removed entirely and only one shape was pictured and participants were asked to make up a name for it? Would they draw a plosive “K” for the spiky shape out of thin air?

It’s difficult to say. Attempting to remove value might be an impossible dream. We have been trained by our culture and our language to make certain associations, and when we look at a page with a shape on it, we bring a lifetime of cultural conditioning with us.

These would be Saussure’s doubts through the lens of A Course on General Linguistics, and they’re not without merit. But even in the face of so much linguistic skepticism this data is still groundbreaking. It doesn’t have to threaten the arbitrary origins of established words, but it can help us direct the development of new words in more intuitive directions.

And if you can believe it, Saussure makes room for shifts of this kind in his theory. He thought that there were two ways to study language, forming a sort of axis of thought: synchrony, a snapshot of a language frozen in time, and diachrony, the study of language in flux. The “Bouba/Kiki Experiment” is nothing if not a diachronic moment for language.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a rebel. He came out of a nineteenth-century scientific tradition that sought to study language taxonomically the way a botanist might catalogue plants or an entomologist, flies. But Saussure saw that language was an enormous picture, and that there was no attempting to describe or quantify one aspect of it without also conceptualizing the vastness of the whole. Knowing that to understand the whole would be impossible, he looked to language’s origin in the mind with the non-verbal “concept,” and then applied this idea to the individual unit of the “sign,” a constant within all languages.

Throughout out his entire life, Saussure’s conception of language grew and grew as elements of universality entered into his system of signs. Why should it not grow beyond his death?


  1. Verònica -  April 26, 2013 - 8:06 pm

    Kudos Caleb King

  2. Jim -  April 11, 2013 - 10:02 pm

    In all the comments I had hoped to see questions about concept “value” a central notion in Saussure’s thinking. The author did not flesh out the notion of “value” enough survive “signification” as the center of discussion. The second half of the story after concept labeling with word/images, is concept differentiation (Saussure’s value process). The author states correctly that part of what makes a bird a bird is how it is different from an insect. Saussure goes on to say that the definition of every concept we keep in our mind depends on the definition of every other concept in our mind. A concept in your mind is defined by all the other concepts n your mind. That’s nice, but Saussure’s punch line is that every time you adjust the definition of a concept because of some new experience from the world, you have to adjust the definition of every other concept in your mind, because their definition depends on the concept you just re-defined. Add a chair to the den and you have to rearrange the whole room. What Saussure suggests here is an continuous integration process among mental concepts. This integration activity nips and tucks individual concepts so they fit nicely with other concepts. When one concept must accommodate new information from the world, the change immediately ripples across many other concepts redefining them based on the changes to the first concept. Saussure’s integration process is the next step beyond the thinking of fellow Swiss linguist and child psychologist Jean Piaget. Some of you may be familiar with his notions of concept assimilation and accommodation. Very famous stuff that rubbed off on several modern schools of psychology. Look it up in detail, but briefly, assimilation is the process of fitting new information into existing concepts we already have in mind (fitting by rounding off edges of square pegs to fit in our round hole concepts), latter when enough square pegs show up all the time we form a new concept that has square holes to accept square pegs. This is called accommodation. Our mental system for recognizing and organizing information performs an accommodation for the way things are in the world. Accommodation is what most people call concept formation. It is usually difficult and somewhat painful. People say “it hurts my head” when trying to understand a new concept. Our mental system resists forming new concepts, and would rather fit new information into old concepts. It puts up a fight perhaps because it knows what havoc a new concept will cause in the community of old settled concepts. The mental system may fear a widespread redefinition of many important ant established concepts. That will cause confusion and stress for some time until everything rebalances. This is what Saussure says will happen. So Piaget’s ideas about assimilation and accommodation describe how novel information from the outside world gets into the concepts we already have in our minds, and how that information eventually can lead to the formation of new concepts. What Saussure does is explain the next step which is the redefining of neighboring concepts when a new concept is created so that new definitions for one concept have the effect of sharpening old definitions for others. Together Piaget and Saussure provided a nice three-stage system for describing concept formation and maintenance in the human mental system: assimilation, accommodation. and integration.

  3. Webranger -  March 18, 2013 - 5:52 am

    Actually, sometimes ornithologists DO study flies – to make sure that they are not unzipped.
    Have you realised that this part of the conversation has involved etymologists discussing entomologists? (can also be spelled entymologists)

    To get to the real central question – is there a relationship between the form of a word and its meaning, I am astonished to find that there is any dispute about it at all; I have noticed the obvious associations since boyhood.

    Only this morning I was searching for the correct word to complete a phrase “delay can be …” and I noticed that all the words I considered began with a D – disastrous, deadly, damaging, difficult, daft, dangerous, dippy, defeatist. etc. That is no coincidence even if it is difficult to identify the neurological process.

    Nor is this limited to Euro-Indian languages. Some others – such as the Zambian/Congolese ChiBemba even use alliteration so that all the adjectives will start with the same letter as the noun or all the adverbs with the same letter as the verb. Yes, the words do actually change the first letter so that the whole sentence has the soft or guttural sound to match the meaning.

    Even words imported into English – such as “bungalow” and “char” from India – have sounds that match meaning.

    As for the difference between the English “pig” and the French “cochon” that is easily explained: it is not to do with the shape of the animal but with the mental attitude to them. The English find them rather repulsive so they spit out “pigs” whereas the French are far more comfortable with the creatures so they soothingly call “cochon.” But then they call their language itself a feminine thing – “la Francais” – and they have a national anthem with a wonderful tune to cover words that are the most blood-thirsty and threatening imaginable.

    No, you can draw no logical conclusions from the French.

  4. nasser al-sheik -  February 26, 2013 - 5:51 pm

    soon i will surprise all english speaking folks with the origin of their intrl. tongue.
    so they can understand it whenever necessary.avek due respect and thanks to you for challenging saucer and by the way overhere we call both men and women a bird each on his or her turn.

  5. anonymous -  February 25, 2013 - 7:05 am

    to everyone who says that the passage says that ornithologists study flies, that is not what it says, it says that etymologists study flies and other insects, on the other hand, if etymologists do not study flies, then it is still wrong and you can carry on with your very critical ways

  6. Truthhurts -  February 15, 2013 - 12:04 pm

    And…..what does an English if not American signifies or has done so far? or..excuse my French?

  7. Callumns -  February 15, 2013 - 7:13 am

    Where I am from “bird” is still very much used as a slang term for “woman”.

    Lancashire, North West England.

  8. Anonymous -  February 14, 2013 - 6:20 pm

    Hmm that’s interesting… now I fully understand certain Arctic Monkeys song lyrics… “his bird says that’s amazing so now all that’s left is the truth that love…” and “he’s pinched your bird and he’ll probably…”

    Apologies if nobody knows who Arctic Monkeys are…

    Personally I’d think Kiki was a sharp thing only because it reminds me of the gull Kittiwake and thinking of it’s beak.

  9. Farweasel -  February 14, 2013 - 3:54 am

    Kiki & Bouba, or if you want to use one of the older indo-Pac languages Tez and Gothil, do have some intuitively obvious if hard to define associations.

    But I would have thought a simpler test to confirm how readily that falls apart would be to look across several languages. Where’s the anaolg between, say, English Pig & French Cochon?
    Totally different word shapes, same animal.

    And if you showed ‘Pig’ to a non-English speaker they’d probably allocate Pig to the same sharp sounding category as Kiki and Tez.
    For that matter they probably wouldn’t differentiate too readily amongst any of the 3 letter words ending in ‘ig’.

  10. Nobody -  February 13, 2013 - 7:11 pm

    HE WAS MAKING A JOKE ABOUT ORNITHOLOGISTS STUDYING FLIES. Remember earlier in the article when he said the difference between flies and insects? He was obviously referring to that.

  11. ZTbhe -  February 13, 2013 - 6:19 pm

    i agree with most of you i tried the bouba/kiki test on my sister and she failed the test was so easy ya know they do this on synesthetes

  12. He Who Must Not Be Named -  February 13, 2013 - 1:56 pm


  13. Mike -  February 13, 2013 - 9:26 am

    What about onomatopoeia? There may be ‘no natural dogness in the word “dog” or treeness in the word “tree,”’, but there is a bit of drippiness in the word ‘drip’ and boominess in the word ‘boom’…ie. the sound made by the signifier directly influences the sign.

    Many languages (and I have this on the authority of a Trivial Pursuit question) use onomatopoeia to represent the sound of a dog barking (including English – ‘bark’), and while these words differ, they are all recognisable as an approximation of dog’s bark.

    Apologies if this has been discussed already, but I have only read this installment.

  14. Larry Thompson -  February 13, 2013 - 8:10 am

    It’s really simple. Birds fly; so an ornithologist studies flies. So simple [minded].

  15. Joe -  February 13, 2013 - 7:26 am

    So you poeple are telling me this isn’t already recorded in some kind of ancient secret place with preserved scripts, yet there is no one smart enough to figure it out?

  16. will -  February 12, 2013 - 8:30 pm

    i understand that this is a piece of crap!, Buoba is not a comnon word. Hence, peeple rwlate an incommon word with a uncommon object, like a rouuded shape that is not a sphere or cylinder. Bad Wrting!

  17. Michael -  February 12, 2013 - 3:23 pm

    I think that the author was making a little joke. Ornithologists study birds. Earlier in the article, he discusses how we associate the word “bird” with “a creature with wings,” but don’t associate it with an insect, even though insects have wings. I.e., we associate the word “bird” with the concept we understand as a bird. Later, when the author mentions ornithology and ostentatiously identifies it as the study of insects, he is playing off this earlier point.

  18. Paul Karch -  February 12, 2013 - 2:45 pm

    Simply put, if there were some ‘organic connection’ between a thing and the word used to signify it, all humans everywhere would be speaking the same language… wouldn’t we? :)

  19. Ursula Hell -  February 12, 2013 - 1:48 pm

    Ang lupit ng sinabi mo bogart. Na appreciate ko yun gustong gusto ko yan.

  20. Lyn -  February 12, 2013 - 1:03 pm


  21. Bubba -  February 12, 2013 - 11:36 am

    Re Caleb King: I am neither corpulent or rotund. I am, however, a rednecked W.hite A.theist S.ecular P.ragmatist – but I get the idea, and you are mostly correct on that. (I have a beer gut and I like guns)

  22. Bubba -  February 12, 2013 - 11:07 am

    As the Kraut soldier on the old TV show ‘Laugh In’ would say,
    “Veree Hintereshting” hmmm…

  23. that-be-my-name -  February 12, 2013 - 10:03 am

    he does

  24. FSB -  February 12, 2013 - 9:53 am

    In the next-to-last paragraph, there is an unforgivable error. The text claims that: “…He came out of a nineteenth-century scientific tradition that sought to study language taxonomically the way a botanist might catalogue plants or an ornithologist, flies.”

    But ornithologists [from ὄρνις (ornis), bird, and λόγος (logos), rationale or explanation], study BIRDS. On the other hand, ENTOMOLOGISTS [from ἔντομος (entomos), "that which is cut in pieces or engraved/segmented", hence "insect"] study insects, including flies.

    These mistakes are unacceptable in a website such as Dictionary.com devoted to language. Please make the needed corrections.

  25. Jon -  February 12, 2013 - 9:43 am

    Caleb got it right.

    Sorry, but this installment was poorly executed. Anyone who is interested enough to read these blog posts would demand more from a source such as dictionary.com.

    The author didn’t even attempt to challenge the study himself. Well, if he did, then his insight is so shallow the editors of this site shouldn’t have chosen him to write an intellectual article. The choice of authors, and the allowance of this entry to be published here, speaks poorly to those in charge.

    If the author didn’t immediately dismiss the “Bouba/Kiki” experiment, or if he purposefully only included information that served a weak attempt at a salacious counterpoint, then he should not be considered for any intellectual writings or discussions on this subject.

    The last entry wasn’t very well written, but at least contained enough information to carry an interesting discussion.

  26. ed -  February 12, 2013 - 9:25 am

    Look for the kiki bouba explanation at ted.com explained by James Geary. You may have to search.

  27. frank pelligno -  February 12, 2013 - 7:52 am

    Josh you got something wrong with you

  28. Steven -  February 12, 2013 - 7:41 am

    This is poorly written, so poor I can barely wade through it for all my patience – diachronic ‘moment’ in language, ornithologist studies flies?, and bird is STILL slang for women in the UK. I really appreciate these blogs but I suggest you thoroughly research the subject before posting them.

  29. Daniel -  February 12, 2013 - 5:44 am

    I think there is a possible unintended swap here: “synchrony, a snapshot of a language frozen in time, and diachrony, the study of language in flux. The “Bouba/Kiki Experiment” is nothing if not a diachronic moment for language.”

  30. DIACHRONY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  February 12, 2013 - 5:39 am

    [...] ‘Diachrony’ though the synchrony — The world becoming so much smaller — And the timing is all the more — Not standing still — Though digitized. — The Changing of the Will — For what is written academically, — Spell Check always in play. — What is added now and then again: — What is taken away. — There are no rules not broken — Whether written or whether soft spoken — Emoticommix — OMG LOL — Pictures have so much more to say. — Signs of Times to colorfully walk or don’t walk — or therwise Saucery say it. –>>L.T.Rhyme – “Oui, Arfie.”–>>J.J.Rousseau This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, JJROUSSEAU, L.T.Rhyme and tagged JJRousseau, LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on February 12, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

  31. Caleb King -  February 12, 2013 - 2:37 am

    It would be useful to learn more about Ramachandran and Hubbard’s conclusions concerning their “Bouba/Kiki” experiment findings. Assuming the subjects were primarily native speakers of Western European languages, such as English or Spanish, it is unsurprising that they would have overwhelmingly matched the imaginary word “Bouba” with the rounded shape and “Kiki” with the spiky one. This is due to preexisting associations of each of the fabricated terms with phonologically similar words in the subjects’ primary language, denoting rounded/smooth shapes and spiky/angular shapes, respectively.

    In English, “Bouba” evokes words designating round, curvaceous or smooth things and qualities—words like “bulbous”; “bubble”; “bubo” (the globular protrusions of swollen lymph nodes characteristic of the Bubonic plague); “booboo” (slang term for minor sore or bruise, derived from “bubo”); “boob” (slang term for female breast); “Bubba” (a common American nickname for a corpulent, rotund fellow); “tuba” (which has a large, rounded bell and a smooth, orb-like timbre), etc.

    “Kiki,” alternatively, conjures terms for jagged, punctuating, sharp or prickly objects, actions and aspects—terms such as “tiki”(as in “tiki hut,” a thatched palm or bamboo hut of Polynesia with walls of interlinked poles, often of uneven height); “tick”; “kick”, “click”, “beak”, “key,” etc.

    Thus, the experiment simply demonstrates that a given language’s previously embedded phoneme-to-seme clustering patterns can be extended by most of its speakers to new, asemic phonemic constructions, should these fall within the parameters of the established patterns. The study has no bearing, however, on the larger question of whether these vague phoneme-to-seme relationships detectable in natural languages are themselves derived from some universal or extra-lingual set of phonetic predilections, inherent to the brain, or whether they have arisen at random within language groups as collative, organizational devices to advance concision.

  32. Daniel -  February 12, 2013 - 2:34 am

    Thank you for the text. You managed to put different concepts and geneses in a splendid accessible way.

  33. S B N -  February 12, 2013 - 2:05 am

    Why would an ornithologist catalogue flies?

  34. Bogart -  February 11, 2013 - 11:22 pm

    BAYAG mo malaki

  35. Josh -  February 11, 2013 - 9:01 pm

    Draw a mouse, it will feed a house!

  36. -  February 11, 2013 - 6:16 pm

  37. Omar -  February 11, 2013 - 4:49 pm

    This is awesome. Thanks!


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