I have a hard time understanding the concept of "negative meaning" in linguistic Structuralism (Saussure). Their proposition is that signs don't have meaning by themselfes but only within the structure they reside in. The difference between the signs create meaning.

My first issue with this is: What is the difference between two signs? I understand that each sign is made up of a signifier and a signified. Now I can see how each of those have a certain distance to its neighbours, e.g. the signifier "and" is close to "ant", whereas the signified "and" is close to the signified "or". But whats the distance between the signs "and" and "ant" (signifier + signified)? Are they closely related because they only differ in one letter, or are they far apart because an insect has nothing to do with a logical conjunction?

My second issue: Even taken separately, I still don't see how my knowledge of the signifier and the signified is only given negatively. Sure I can say that I know 2+2 == 4 because I know 2+2 =/= 5 and 2+2 =/= 3, however, I also know it positively. How is that different in the world of language? The moment I learn that in Japanese "Arigatō" means "Thanks", I know it positively, since I'm not aware of any other Japanese words - don't I?

The closest I've come to understanding this concept (at least I think) is the fact that an term/idea can only exist in contrast to all others. If it wouldn't be different to all others, it would be one of those things and thus non-existent. Best examples would be all dichotomies like Good/Evil, On/Off, Big/Small


The cornerstone of Saussure's view is the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, not only on the "obvious" side of the signifiant (different sounds used for the same "concept"), but also on the side of the signifié.

Meaning is not univocally determined by the world's feature: different languages "divide" the world in different ways.

See Paul Bouissac, Saussure: A Guide For The Perplexed (Continuum, 2010), page 95:

Saussure took as an example the distinction that is made in English between “sheep” and “mutton,” depending on whether this animal is grazing in the field or served on the table, while the French have only one word, mouton, which equally applies to the two cases. If the forms of words were determined by some objective properties of the objects or ideas that they signify, all languages would be more or less similar.

And page 98:

Saussure claim[s] that linguistic signs were “negative” in as much as their identities primarily depend on what they are not. The value of a sign comes from its opposition to other signs. Terms such as “hat,” “rat,” and “cat” are not independent from each other but have differential and reciprocal values within the language system of English, both as sound patterns and as concepts.Everything holds together, both the acoustic images and the concepts with which they are associated.

IMO, this must be read not as saying that there is a sort of "negative meaning" but that meaning of words is determined more by opposition to other existing words (this is the "negative" aspect) than by definitions listing the "positive" traits of the concept signified.

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  • Thanks, your remarks fleshed out what I roughly had in mind. Language forms the concepts we think/speak in arbitrarily. These concepts don't refer to something "outside", but are best understood as to how they seperate ("highlight") themselves from all other concepts (i.e., what they are not). Thus language is structured in differences, not identities. All this leads to the revelation that language puts a contingent structure over our reality which creates, orders and gives meaning to our world; it determines how we think and act within it. Is this somewhat philosophical structuralism? – Philipp Murry Jul 20 at 16:56

Assume, you first have the following colors and names available:

enter image description here

Whatever patch of color in the world, you will have to describe it with these.

Than, you change to the following scheme:

enter image description here

Subsequently, the meaning of "yellow" will change, as the truth value of sentences containing "yellow" will change. The change is a change in negative meaning: the meaning changes due the other signs that become available.

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  • 1
    Thanks for this perspective, very helpful! This makes me think of another intuitive example: traffic lights. If we only have red and green, then red means "stop, but be prepared" and green means "start to accelerate and go". once we introduce orange as "start to accelerate", then red becomes "stop" and green "continue". introducing orange changes the structure of this semiotic system and thus the way we interpret "red" and "green". – Philipp Murry Jul 20 at 18:51

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