I will freely admit that I found the Saussure essay “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” very dense and difficult to follow. The part I feel I’ve grasped is what we discussed in class (and read about in Culler) is Saussure’s proposition that the “linguistic sign is arbitrary” (843). In other words, it doesn’t matter if we call the thing with pointy ears and fur a “cat” or a “crocodile”, the relation of the sign to the thing signified is a product of repetition, culture, and practice, not something intrinsic in the relationship of the object and the word.
Saussure makes a point of showing how this is true across languages (he mentions Latin, Greek, French, English, German, and Russian in this essay) but he does not mention sign language. I have currently been dabbling in learning a little sign language, both because I’ve read that it’s a useful tool to communicate with pre-verbal infants and because my babysitter is profoundly deaf and has been since birth. Unlike spoken language, I would argue that American Sign Language (ASL), which uses gestures instead of phonemes or sound-images, does use signs that are not arbitrary in nature but in fact have a direct relationship to the thing being signified.
Take, for example, the sign for “eat” (which is also almost identical to the sign for “food”):
I would not call this an arbitrary sign– it mimics pretty directly the action of eating, and subsequently implies that there is food present as well. Not all ASL signs are so obvious, of course, and many are just as arbitrary as “cat” or “crocodile”. But enough signs mimic actions or nouns in order that with some helpful context, I can generally understand my babysitter and communicate back to her using my limited knowledge and signs I invent on the spot. It’s also been interesting to me to observe my babysitter’s relationship with language in general. When I hired her, I figured it would be very easy to communicate via text (I’ll use this moment to apologize for checking my phone in class!) but her texting habits are as visual as the way she communicates in person. While I know she is literate, and definitely understands what I write to her, she is more likely to answer me with a photograph of what is going on (most memorably my daughter’s full diaper) then she is of writing out a complete sentence.