At various points in the ‘Cours de linguistique’, Saussure draws a comparison between language and the game of Chess. What aspects of language (and which of the Saussurean dichotomies) does this analogy serve to highlight? What kinds of games other than Chess can be used to illustrate aspects of language use? Ferdinand de Saussure, born in 1857, was a pioneer of ‘present-day’ linguistics. During his lifetime, he left behind standard ways of thinking of language in the nineteenth century, and began to lay foundations for the scientific study of language.
After his death in 1913, Saussure’s students put together and published the “Cours de Linguistique Gï¿½nï¿½rale”, compiled from notes from a series of lectures which he gave between 1907 and 1910. In these ‘Cours’, Saussure introduced several new and revolutionary dichotomies. These were: value against signification, form against substance, synchrony against diachrony, and langue against parole. To illustrate these new concepts, he attempted to draw analogies, and one of these analogies was a comparison between language and the game of Chess.
Chess and language can both be considered as abstract objects, which manifest themselves in different forms. They have to have substance. With both Chess and language, we are dealing with a system of values and with modification of the system. In Saussure’s view, a game of Chess is an artificial form of what is presented in a natural form by language. When thinking about Chess, the first thing to consider is the Chessboard. It is a set parameter with a certain number of spaces. The state of the board corresponds exactly to the state of language. On the board, at the start of the game, are a specific number of pieces.
Each has its own unique starting position, and the piece can be identified by where on the board it has been placed. For example, we know that anything starting on the second row must be a pawn, and the pieces on either end of the first row must be rooks. If language is broken down into separate words and elements, this is the same. In English, we know that a sentence must be constructed by a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase. It is often impossible to categorise a word into its part of speech solely by looking at the letters used within it, or its morphology. For example, the word ‘model’ can be used as a noun, ‘she is a model’, an adjective, ‘he is a model citizen’, or as a verb ‘this clay is difficult to model with’.
Therefore, instead we can only discover exactly which part of speech it is by examining how it can move around in the sentence, and what precedes and follows it. Saussure explained this similarity by stating that the value of the Chess pieces depends on their position upon the Chessboard, just as in the language each term has its value through its contrast with all the other terms.
Chess is a game with many rules; in the same way, language and the use of language are controlled by many fixed rules. For our first language, most of these rules do not need learning, they are innate. However, when we are learning foreign languages, it is essential to learn all of the rules relevant to that language, for example in French, the general rule, with but a few exceptions, is that adjectives come after the noun, whereas in English, adjectives tend to come before a noun in a sentence.
Likewise with Chess, before a full game can be played, it is essential that we know every rule for every piece; for example, we need to be clear that a bishop can only move across the board diagonally, whereas a rook can only move vertically or horizontally. Everyone playing the game needs to know every rule, and if any rules are going to be changed, it is imperative that every player knows about the changes and has the same clear understanding of what the new rules are. The rules constitute the unchanging principles of semiology.
An important dichotomy of Saussure’s, which is evident in the analogy drawn between linguistics and the game of Chess, is the idea of diachrony against synchrony. Diachronic linguistics is the study of language with reference to change over time, while synchronic linguistics is the study of language from the perspective of a single moment in time, in abstraction from its history. In a sense, synchronic linguistics involves taking slices through language at any particular moment in time. This is certainly similar to the situation created at each different move in the game of Chess: the system is only ever a temporary one, and it varies from one position to the next.
Although a game of Chess does have a historical context, for example we could trace every move of the Queen throughout the entire game, the main importance is the state of play at each move. A frozen moment in time and the dynamics of the board at that moment are the only essential things to know when playing. For example, in the position of check, the way the players reached that situation is irrelevant, instead what must be focussed on is the situation as it stands, and what can be done next to change that situation. Similarly with linguistics, according to Saussure, the way in which language has evolved over time is fascinating but to a degree irrelevant when studying its present state as a system in a scientific way. When looking at a game of Chess it is important to realise that any given state of the board is totally independent of any previous state of the board. The sequence of moves which have led to this state is irrelevant.