Ferdinand de Saussure: The linguist who unexpectedly helped create film theory

In a nutshell

  • Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories, which sees language as a system of signs, have profoundly influenced film theory by providing tools to analyze films as structured languages.
  • Saussure’s concepts of synchronic and diachronic analysis help scholars and critics understand both the internal mechanics of films and their evolution over time.
  • Applying Saussure’s semiotic framework to film allows for deeper interpretations of cinematic elements as signs.

When we think of some of the great names in film history, most that come to mind are iconic directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein or John Ford, or inventors, like Thomas Edison, Laurie Dickson and William Kennedy, credited as the inventors of the first motion-picture camera. However, the history of cinema runs deeper than its most iconic figures. Ferdinand de Saussure and his work has laid the foundation for 20th century linguistics and semiotics. According to American linguist Leonard Bloomfield, “he has given us the theoretical basis for a science of human speech.” As such, his work has naturally influenced the way we understand and talk about cinema today.

While not a house-hold name when it comes to cinema icons, Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories offer a structured way to dissect and interpret cinematic narratives. By learning and applying his ideas to how we look at films, we all will all have the tools we need to effectively analyze and understand the art of filmmaking.

Who is Ferdinand de Saussure?

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a pioneering Swiss linguist whose work laid the foundation for many developments in the field of linguistics and semiotics. Born in Geneva, Switzerland, he studied Latin, Greek and Sanskrit during his youth. While in graduate school, Saussure published his first major work, “Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes” (1879). After receiving his doctorate in 1880, he spent the remainder of his life publishing more short books and essays while teaching at various universities. However, his most influential contributions actually came to light after his death in 1913.

Saussure’s posthumously published work, “Course in General Linguistics” (1916), is a compilation of notes taken by students during his 1906-1911 lectures at the University of Geneva. In this work, he introduces several key concepts that revolutionized linguistics, including the idea of the linguistic sign, which consists of the signifier (the form of a word or phrase) and the signified (the concept it represents). He also emphasizes the importance of understanding language as a structured system of differences rather than a mere collection of words and rules. Saussure’s theories laid the groundwork for structuralism, which became a dominant approach in the humanities and social sciences in the 20th century.

Core concepts of Saussure’s linguistic theory

Saussure’s theory proposed that language is a structured system of signs that express ideas. Each sign consists of a signifier and the signified. This distinction helped articulate how language works at a fundamental level, emphasizing that meanings arise from the differences between signs within the system, not from any inherent relationship to the real world.

This idea was revolutionary at the time; it suggested that languages are governed by rules known to their speakers — and that these rules are used to generate meaningful statements. Saussure also distinguished between synchronic (studying language at a particular point in time) and diachronic’ (studying the evolution of language over time) approaches. This encouraged a focus on language as a living and changing phenomenon.

Changing how we analyze media

Saussure’s theories in linguistics carried over to other fields, including anthropology, psychology, literary theory and semiotics. But his theories meant significant implications for film theory, as well. This is because these new concepts provided a new way to analyze and interpret films. 

Semiotics

Film theorists adopted Saussure’s semiotic framework to explore how films create meaning through visual and auditory signs. This approach helped to dissect the ways in which cinematic techniques — such as editing, mise-en-scène and narrative structure — function as a language of their own, capable of conveying complex ideas and emotions. This allowed for a deeper understanding of how audiences interpret films and how filmmakers use symbolic elements to communicate with viewers.

In media and cultural studies, Saussure’s theories help scholars analyze how various forms of media operate as systems of signs that produce/communicate meaning. Analysts explore how different media texts (like a film or TV show) can be read in multiple ways depending on the viewer’s cultural context and the signs’ interpretation within that context.

Synchronic and diachronic analysis

Synchronic analysis focuses on films as they exist at a particular moment in time, disregarding historical precedents or developments. This approach is crucial for understanding a film’s internal structure, such as its narrative mechanics, visual style and use of sound within a specific cultural or social context. Performing a synchronic analysis allows the analyst to examine how a particular set of films operate under the same cultural conditions, as well as how they employ similar signs and codes to communicate meanings.

Conversely, diachronic analysis examines the development and evolution of film over time, tracing how particular styles, genres or narrative structures change. This approach is similar to studying the history of a language, looking at how certain film techniques or genres have evolved across different periods due to changes in technology, audience preferences and cultural shifts.

These approaches have helped scholars and critics understand not only how films are made and understood in their own time but also how they evolve over time within the broader context of film history.

Examples of linguistic signs in media

According to Ferdinand de Saussure, every element in film is a sign. Just as Saussure saw language as a system of signs, film theorists began to see films as systems of visual and auditory signs that communicate meaning. This approach allows for deeper interpretations of films beyond surface-level plots to explore deeper meanings. Whether it be a character’s action, a shift in lighting, or a specific sound effect, these elements function as signs that contribute to the overall meaning of the film. This semiotic approach to film analysis allows critics to dissect complex symbols and themes in movies, much like a linguist dissects the grammar of a language.

For example, if we were to analyze the One Ring in the film trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003) using Saussure’s approach, we would see that the ring means more to the plot than simply being a magic ring. The ring (the signifier) represents the idea of power’s corrupting, tempting nature (the signified). Further, by identifying the ring’s deeper meaning in the plot, we can apply the film’s messages about the temptation of power to our societies today — that even the most innocent people aren’t above power’s temptation.

Image courtesy: New Line Cinema

We can even apply Saussure’s theories to non-physical objects. In “Blade Runner 2049,” in the Ruins of Las Vegas scene, as K walks through the amber/orange environment, the color of the lighting communicates mystery shrouded in uneasiness and a sense of warning. 

Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

Ferdinand de Saussure’s impact on cinema lives on

Saussure’s concepts have equipped film scholars with tools to unpack the multiple layers of meaning in films, from the obvious to the subtle. His influence is particularly evident in the development of structuralism in film, which examines the structures that underlie all human activities, including filmmaking.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s legacy in linguistics inadvertently revolutionized film theory. It provided a framework for analyzing films as language systems. While he never engaged with cinema studies directly, his theories have become fundamental to understanding the structure and meaning of film.

Through his work, we know that the power of film lies not just in the story it tells but in how it tells that story — through the signs and codes that viewers have, over time, learned to interpret.

Featured image courtesy: “F. Jullien Genève”, maybe Frank-Henri Jullien (1882-1938) – “Indogermanisches Jahrbuch.” Edits made to image: Cut out. Link to license: CC BY-SA 4.0

Kyle Alsberry
Kyle Alsberry
Kyle Alsberry is a multimedia producer and audiovisual technician at California State University, Chico and is Videomaker's associate editor.

Related Content