One of the most important contributions made by Ferdinand de Saussure is the concept of langue and parole, French words that roughly equate to language and speaking. For Saussure, langue, language, is the system of signs that a speech community has agreed upon. It is one homogeneous whole. It exists “outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself. It exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community.” Thus, learning a language is a matter of learning all the linguistic signs of the community, learning which sounds make up the phonemic system and how the sounds are put together into linguistic signs, i.e., being able to relate the sound-images (signifiers) with their appropriate mental concepts (signifieds), and combining these into coherent utterances. Standing apart from this homogeneous system is the individual utterance, the execution of the act of speaking, that is, parole. Unlike langue, speaking is always heterogeneous, changing with each utterance. The distinction is important because for Saussure linguistics as a science is concerned only with langue, not with parole. (See Course in General Linguistics, pp. 10-15).
Competence vs Performance
Saussure’s division of human speech into langue and parole has had a vast influence on thinking about language and linguistics, and eventually led to a new formulation by NoamChomsky. Chomsky’s views of language as part of the innate biology of the human mind led him to shift the notion of langue away from an external “social contract” of linguistic signs, to an internal, cognitive recognition of the grammar of language. The term he used for this internal grammatical knowledge is linguistic competence. Every native speaker of a language has an internalized set of finite rules that allows them to comprehend and to create an infinite number of expressions. These rules govern the use of the different structural systems of English–the phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon, and so on. The actual execution of these rules is the performance, almost identical to Saussure’s parole. Any of the rules might be violated by a speaker during a specific utterance, and yet this has no bearing on that speaker’s linguistic competence. Speakers having a conversation know which words to use, how to pronounce them, and the order to put them in, and the audience of native speakers knows these rules as well. Yet during the conversation speakers might stutter or mispronounce a word, might need to pause to remember a word or to correct themselves after using a wrong word by accident, but in spite of the errors that appear in an individual performance, the linguistic competence of the speakers remains. And it is the rules that make up one’s linguistic competence that are the object of study in linguistics.
Descriptive vs Prescriptive Linguistics
Many of us have been taught certain “rules” of English in grammar classes from elementary school up through college: “do not split infinitives,” “do not end a sentence with a preposition,” “two negatives cancel each other out and make a positive,” “i before e except after c,” and so on. These are not rules of English; rather, they are rules of a specific type of standard, formal written English as decided by certain people who are considered (by some) to be authorities. Most of them were invented as stylistic suggestions in the 18th century, and they have since been passed down as rules for “correct” English. We call them prescriptive rules because they prescribe, that is, authorize or at least recommend, a certain usage. For anyone trying to write formal written English, it is a good idea to follow these rules, but that does not mean that they are rules of the English language or that the version of English they prescribe is the “correct” or “pure” version.
The true rules of English, those which make up one’s linguistic competence, are discovered by observing how English speakers actually speak, that is, they describe the usage found among English speakers; they are therefore called descriptive rules. For example, English speakers will know immediately that a word like “rbadn” cannot exist in English because it violates certain rules of English phonology: English does not use the consonant cluster rb at the beginning of words, nor does it use the cluster dn at the end of words. These phonological rules are not taught in school but all English speakers know them as part of their competence in English. In other words, these are not rules that English speakers must follow, but rather they are rules that all English speakers simply do follow (compare Saussure’s notion of a “social contract”). If we were to search every single word that exists in English we would not find a single one that begins with the consonant cluster rb. In other words, this rule describes a feature of English. It does not prescribe a feature. If a community of English speakers start using a new word that begins with rb, the rule would change so that it would describe the new reality.
The same types of rules exist for English grammar. “Don’t end sentence with a preposition” is not a descriptive rule of English; we know this because many English speakers frequently end sentences with prepositions. As an example, many native English speakers would feel quite comfortable with a sentence like “Where do you come from?” Therefore, it would be wrong to say that English cannot have prepositions at the end of a sentence. On the other hand, the rule “definite articles are placed before the noun they refer to” is a rule of English. English speakers must say “the man” not “man the.” Like the phonological rules above, this is not a rule that has to be taught, but is a rule that is formulated by observing how all speakers of English speak, even with the knowledge that other languages, like Swedish, place the definite article after the noun, “mannen.”
People sometimes confuse descriptive grammar with an idea that there are no rules of English or that “anything goes.” Observation of English speakers tells us that this is not so and that there are in fact a great many rules of English, and if a speaker violates one of these rules then the utterance is considered ungrammatical. The term we use when evaluating whether an utterance is grammatical or not is acceptability. Any native speaker who hears an utterance makes an immediate judgment whether or not the utterance is acceptable or not. This term keeps us from falling into problems that are associated with more loaded terms like “good” or “bad” or “correct” or “incorrect.” Some utterances are “acceptable” and some are not, based solely on the criterion of whether or not a linguistic community accepts the phrase as meaningful. The acceptability of an utterance depends entirely on the usage of speakers of the language. Different speakers might have different notions of acceptability. We must therefore make a distinction between what we as individual speakers of a language consider acceptable and what we as students studying language can term acceptable or not. Consider the following three sentences:
- I do not have any money.
- I ain’t got no money.
- Money no I has.
Which of these are acceptable and which are unacceptable? The criterion used to make that determination depends on the person making the judgment, so that one speaker might find that only 1 is acceptable, or only 2, or perhaps both 1 and 2. Part of what makes someone a native English speaker is having the ability to determine what is acceptable in their version of English. Linguists studying English as a whole, however, observe that many speakers of English would utter either 1 or 2 or both, but that no speakers of English anywhere would utter 3. 3 is therefore unacceptable in English grammar because there are no actual attestations of it in usage among speakers. To denote that an utterance is unattested, and therefore considered unacceptable, we mark it with an asterisk *:
- *Money no I has.
It should also be noted that a speaker’s judgment of grammatical acceptability is not dependent on the semantics of the utterance. In his 1957 work Syntactic Structures, Chomsky presented what has become his most famous sentence:
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
This sentence makes no sense, and yet it can be judged as grammatically acceptable by all native English speakers. Chomsky contrasted it with the sentence *”Furiously sleep ideas green colorless,” immediately recognized as unacceptable to a native English speaker. In other words, the notions of what is acceptable in a linguistic performance depends on whether or not the sentence conforms to the internalized rules of grammatical expression, not to whether or not the utterance makes logical sense.