Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist, whose innovative ideas paved the way for numerous key developments in modern linguistic theory. Saussure's theories allowed linguists to analyze language synchronically, as a complete system at any given point in time; or diachronically, in its historical development. .
Saussure's views were significantly different than the predominant views of his time which suggested that language was a combination of sounds that magically create meanings. Conversely, he suggested that each word-which he termed as a basic unit or sign-is not merely a sound, but a sound pattern that denotes a particular meaning when contrasted with other existing signs within any given language system. Thus, he redefined the concept of language as a systematic combination of meaningful words, with variations in pronunciation made for specific structural, linguistic, historical, and social reasons.
Moreover, Saussure's theories suggest that the key to understanding the underlying structure of a language system lies in noticing the differences within each system. To explain, one individual sound differs from another sound (such as d and t). Likewise, one word differs from another word (such as cat and hat), and one grammatical form differs from another (such as has gone from will go). No linguistic unit, sound, or word, denotes a significant meaning in and of itself. Rather, each unit acquires meaning simply by combining and contrasting with other units. .
Aside from the basic organizing principles of language commonly termed as syntax and grammar, Saussure coined new terminology, classifying language as an intricate system composed of what he called a, "sign," "signifier," and, "signified." He classified the signifier as the written form of language, which is an endorsed combination of sounds (i.e. syllables and intonation), with marks (i.e. letters and punctuation). The concept or idea that the signifier expresses is the signified.