Saussure on synonymy

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Klaas Willems


Saussure’s observations on synonymie in De la double essence du langage (Saussure 2011) cast an interesting light on his general account of linguistic meaning. Synonymie covers three distinct concepts for Saussure: 1) semantic similarity of words in a particular language, based on the contrasts between (and mutual demarcation of) meanings in the lexicon, 2) semantic identity of different words in a particular language, by definition impossible in natural language, and 3) multifunctionality of a word in a particular language, to be understood in terms of a hierarchical relationship between a word’s encoded language-particular meaning and its instances of use (including figurative uses). As well as tracing the connections between these three concepts, this article calls attention to the internal consistency of Saussure’s explanations and underscores their importance for a coherent and unified approach to the linguistic sign in accordance with Saussure’s basic theoretical assumptions.


Synonymy, polysemy, multifunctionality, metaphor (figurative language), meaning, “signifié” (signified)

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Willems, K. 2022. Saussure on synonymy. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure. 74, (déc. 2022), 115-134. DOI:
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