In Chess, only one piece is moved at a time. In linguistics, changes only affect isolated elements. However, one simple move can have a repercussion upon the whole system. This repercussion could be mild, moderate or of extreme importance. A sole move from one piece on the Chessboard could be responsible for putting the opponent into checkmate, or it could only have a very mild effect on the overall pattern on the whole game. One move could mark a turning point in the whole game, and could have consequences even for the pieces which are not for the moment directly involved. In linguistics, a movement of one word in a sentence can end up dramatically altering the entire meaning of that sentence, or alternatively could have very little effect on the meaning.
Although it is not a game, another analogy which Saussure drew was to compare language with the cross section of a plant stem. This relates to his idea of diachrony versus synchrony. The cross section can either be taken horizontally or vertically, and in a way, one perspective depends on the other. The longitudinal section shows the fibres which make up the plant, while the transversal section shows their arrangement on one particular level. Just as with language, diachrony explains the history which has over time made up language, while synchrony shows the system of language and how it is working in one particular cross section or moment in time.
Language can also be thought of as a system which is built up, little by little, until it is at a stage where it can be played around with, or ‘modified’. In this way, language is comparable to the game of Jenga, or Tumbledown. Blocks are added one by one until a tower is formed. In the same way, words are pieced together one at a time until a sentence has been formed. Each block is individually responsible for keeping the tower standing; each has its own unique purpose to keep the block above it from falling down. In language, each word is important grammatically to make a clear, sensible sentence.
The game of Jenga then proceeds as players take out a piece at a time. Some of the pieces are of much greater importance than others, so the removal of certain pieces leads to an overall collapse of the original structure. In sentences, some words are more vital to the overall construct than others. Take for example the sentence, ‘John ran quickly to get to the shops’. If ‘quickly’ is removed, the sentence still makes grammatical sense even though the overall construction is now somewhat different. If, on the other hand, ‘shops’ is removed, the entire sentence becomes nonsense and thus the structure collapse, making no sense. Other words can be taken out one at a time, and sometimes the sense changes, but the sentence still works grammatically. At other times, the ‘tower’ will fall down and the sentence becomes nonsense.
To summarise, Saussure uses analogies to describe language. In particular, he uses the Chess analogy to describe language transactions between people. Just as two people come to a Chess game with a predetermined and pre-agreed view of how to play the game, so people come to language transactions with a similar predetermined view. Chess has two characteristics that make it suitable for pre-agreed rules. Firstly, it is a limited model: there are only 32 pieces and 64 squares, which implies that even if there were no rules about moving pieces within the limits of the board, then there would still be a limited number of moves available.
Second, Chess is an old game with simple rules. Whilst the strategies are complex, they are based in a regulated structure of rules. He also uses the cross-section of a plant stem to demonstrate the significance of his two dichotomies, diachrony against synchrony. The general sense is that whilst the history of how a particular language develops is fascinating (diachrony), it can be considered irrelevant to the scientific study of a language at any given moment in time (synchrony). Finally, I have compared language to the game of Jenga to demonstrate how sentences are built up of words and whilst the removal of certain words can still leave the sentence grammatically intact, there are words which cannot be removed and if they are, the entire structure collapses leaving nonsense.
Saussure, F. de (1974) ‘Course in General Linguistics’, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, translated by Wade Baskin. London: Peter Owen.
Beaugrande, R. de (1991) ‘Linguistic Theory: The Discourse of Fundamental Works’. London: Longman.
Trask, R. L. (1996) ‘A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics’. London: Routledge