Ferdinand De Saussure's Course in General Linguistics carefully lays out a theory by which language is conceived as a structure used to unite a community through instilling meaning into words based first upon the collective agreement of the signification of a word and then the value established by the relation between those significations.
De Saussure begins by outlining the three phases that linguistics had undergone up to the point when he developed his theory: grammar, developed by the ancient Greeks; philology, which had its origins in the 19th century; and the realization that different languages separated by geography could be bonded by relationships not yet discovered. Saussure calls for the study of all know languages and the attempt to uncover the greatest generality between them.
Beginning with the idea of language as a series of sounds produced by nearly everyone, language per se becomes a product of the ability of articulation. This concept of language is based on two different kinds of relations. The first is termed associative because words are used to create links beween words and memories in order to comparmentalize them in groups or series of meanings. Syntagmatic relations depend upon the relation of words to other words and ideas in speech.
Saussure also spends a great deal of time in developing and explaining his theory behind the value of terms as they relate to the meaning of words. His essay includes many diagrams and figures that provide an almost mathematical element to breaking down meaning and language.
De Saussure’s major contribution to linguistics was his realization that language is a social institution, and this institution is not organized through any objective perception of the senses, but through a very subjective and completely arbitrary system devised by the human mind. Words are merely signs that are collectively agreed upon in a completely arbitrary way to represent an object, and these words vary according to the community that has chosen to adopt them. Even words that appear to represent universal sounds are at variance according to the community standard of signification.
The meaning expressed by a collection of words is further arbitrary because that meaning is based upon how the words are associated to each other. A word can gain meaning not only from its similarity to the other words, but also from how it differs, and even based on what the word is not. All this arbitrariness and relational attribution ultimately defines language as a form of communication designed to impose order upon a world that has no inherent order in it, and it is only through a mass collective of agreement upon signification that this order can be imposed.