Structural linguistics

Structural linguistics is an approach to linguistics originating from the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and is part of the overall approach of structuralism. De Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, published posthumously in 1916, stressed examining language as a static system of interconnected units. He is thus known as a father of modern linguistics for bringing about the shift from diachronic (historical) to synchronic (non-historical) analysis, as well as for introducing several basic dimensions of semiotic analysis that are still important today, such as syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis (or 'associations' as Saussure was still calling them).[1]

Structural linguistics involves collecting a corpus of utterances and then attempting to classify all of the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: the phonemes, morphemes, lexical categories, noun phrases, verb phrases, and sentence types.[2] Two of Saussure's key methods were syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis, which define units syntactically and lexically, respectively, according to their contrast with the other units in the system.


Structural linguistics begins with the posthumous publication of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics in 1916, which was compiled from lectures by his students. The book proved to be highly influential, providing the foundation for both modern linguistics and semiotics. Structuralist linguistics is normally seen as giving rise to independent European and American traditions.

European Structuralism

In Europe, Saussure influenced: (1) the Geneva School of Albert Sechehaye and Charles Bally, (2) the Prague School of Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy, whose work would prove hugely influential, particularly concerning phonology, (3) the Copenhagen School of Louis Hjelmslev, and (4) the Paris School of Algirdas Julien Greimas.[3] Structural linguistics also had an influence on other disciplines in Europe, including anthropology, psychoanalysis and Marxism, bringing about the movement known as structuralism.

American Structuralism

First, in America, linguist Leonard Bloomfield's reading of Saussure's course proved influential, bringing about the Bloomfieldean phase in American linguistics that lasted from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Bloomfield "bracketed" all questions of semantics and meaning as largely unanswerable, and encouraged a mechanistic approach to linguistics. The paradigm of Bloomfieldean linguistics in American linguistics was challenged by the paradigm of generative grammar, initially articulated in the publication of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures in 1957.

Basic theories and methods

The foundation of structural linguistics is a sign, which in turn has two components: a "signified" is an idea or concept, while the "signifier" is a means of expressing the signified. The "sign" is thus the combined association of signifier and signified. Signs can be defined only by being placed in contrast with other signs, which forms the basis of what later became the paradigmatic dimension of semiotic organization (i.e., collections of terms/entities that stand in opposition). This idea contrasted drastically with the idea that signs can be examined in isolation from a language and stressed Saussure's point that linguistics must treat language synchronically.

Paradigmatic relations hold among sets of units that (in the early Saussurian renditions) exist in the mind, such as the set distinguished phonologically by variation in their initial sound cat, bat, hat, mat, fat, or the morphologically distinguished set ran, run, running. The units of a set must have something in common with one another, but they must contrast too, otherwise they could not be distinguished from each other and would collapse into a single unit, which could not constitute a set on its own, since a set always consists of more than one unit. Syntagmatic relations, in contrast, are concerned with how units, once selected from their paradigmatic sets of oppositions, are 'chained' together into structural wholes.

One further common confusion here is that syntagmatic relations, assumed to occur in time, are anchored in speech and are considered either diachronic (confusing syntagmatic with historical) or are part of parole ("everyday speech": confusing syntagmatic with performance and behaviour and divorcing it from the linguistic system), or both. Both paradigmatic and syntagmatic organizations belong to the abstract system of language langue (French for "Language;" or an abstract, Platonic ideal). Different linguistic theories place different weight on the study of these dimensions: all structural and generative accounts, for example, pursue primarily characterisations of the syntagmatic dimension of the language system (syntax), while functional approaches, such as systemic linguistics, focus on the paradigmatic. Both dimensions need to be appropriately included, however.

Syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations provide the structural linguist with a tool for categorization for phonology, morphology and syntax. Take morphology, for example. The signs cat and cats are associated in the mind, producing an abstract paradigm of the word forms of cat. Comparing this with other paradigms of word forms, we can note that in the English language the plural often consists of little more than adding an S to the end of the word. Likewise, through paradigmatic and syntagmatic analysis, we can discover the syntax of sentences. For instance, contrasting the syntagma je dois ("I should") and dois je? ("Should I?") allows us to realize that in French we only have to invert the units to turn a statement into a question. We thus take syntagmatic evidence (difference in structural configurations) as indicators of paradigmatic relations (e.g., in the present case: questions vs. assertions). The most detailed account of the relationship between a paradigmatic organisation of language as a motivator and classifier for syntagmatic configurations is that set out in the systemic-network organization of systemic functional grammar, where paradigmatic relations and syntagmatic configurations each have their own separate formalisation, related by realization constraints. Modern linguistic formalisms that work in terms of lattices of linguistic signs, such as head-driven phrase structure grammar, similarly begin to separate out an explicit level of paradigmatic organization.

Saussure developed structural linguistics, with its idealized vision of language, partly because he was aware that it was impossible in his time to fully understand how the human brain and mind created and related to language:

Saussure set out to model language in purely linguistic terms, free of psychology, sociology, or anthropology. That is, Saussure was trying precisely not to say what goes on in your or my mind when we understand a word or make up a sentence. [...] Saussure was trying to de-psychologize linguistics.[4]

Chomsky's relationship to structuralism

Although consistent in his rejection of American Structuralism, Noam Chomsky has maintained contradictory positions on the continuity of his own views with those of de Saussure. In 1963 Chomsky identified his own view so closely with those of de Saussure that Mauro referred to his paper as "une veritable profession de foi saussurienne," "a veritable profession of Saussurian faith".[5] In 1972, Chomsky described structural linguistics as an "impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language".[6]

According to Searle, Chomsky maintained that structural linguistics was efficient for phonology and morphology, because both have a finite number of units that the linguist can collect. However, he did not believe structural linguistics was sufficient for syntax, reasoning that an infinite number of sentences could be uttered, rendering a complete collection impossible. Instead, he proposed the job of the linguist was to create a small set of rules that could generate all the sentences of a language, and nothing but those sentences.[2]

Searle paraphrases one of Chomsky's key objections to structural linguistics as its inadequacy in explaining complex and/or ambiguous sentences, writing:[2]

John is easy to please" and "John is eager to please" look as if they had exactly the same grammatical structure. Each is a sequence of noun-copula-adjective-infinitive verb. But in spite of this surface similarity the grammar of the two is quite different. In the first sentence, though it is not apparent from the surface word order, "John" functions as the direct object of the verb to please; the sentence means: it is easy for someone to please John. Whereas in the second "John" functions as the subject of the verb to please; the sentence means: John is eager that he please someone. That this is a difference in the syntax of the sentences comes out clearly in the fact that English allows us to form the noun phrase "John's eagerness to please" out of the second, but not "John's easiness to please" out of the first. There is no easy or natural way to account for these facts within structuralist assumptions.

The post-Chomskyan reception of structuralism

Some linguists now regard Structuralist approaches as outdated and as superseded by newer developments. In 1984, Mitchell Marcus declared that structural linguistics was "fundamentally inadequate to process the full range of natural language [and furthermore was] held by no current researchers, to my knowledge."[7] Holland[4] writes that it was widely accepted that Chomsky had "decisively refuted Saussure. [...] Much of Chomsky's work is not accepted by other linguists [and] I am not claiming that Chomsky is right, only that Chomsky has proven that Saussure is wrong. Linguists who reject Chomsky claim to be going beyond Chomsky, or they cling to phrase-structure grammars. They are not turning back to Saussure." Jan Koster states, "Saussure, considered the most important linguist of the century in Europe until the 1950s, hardly plays a role in current theoretical thinking about language,"[8] while cognitive linguist Mark Turner[9] believes that many of Saussure's concepts were "wrong on a grand scale" and Norman N. Holland[4] notes that "Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics, Lacanians, and the occasional philosopher;" others have made similar claims.[10][11]

Others however stress the continuing importance of Saussure's thought and Structuralist approaches. In 2012, Gilbert Lazard dismissed the Chomskyan approach as passé while applauding a return to Saussurrean structuralism as the only course by which linguistics can become more scientific.[12] Matthews (2001)[13] notes the existence of many "linguists who are structuralists by many of the definitions that have been proposed, but who would themselves vigorously deny that they are anything of the kind", suggesting a persistence of the structuralist paradigm.

Effect of structuralist linguistics upon other disciplines

In the 1950s Saussure's ideas were appropriated by several prominent figures in continental philosophy, anthropology, and from there were borrowed in literary theory, where they are used to interpret novels and other texts. However, several critics have charged that Saussure's ideas have been misunderstood or deliberately distorted by continental philosophers and literary theorists and are certainly not directly applicable to the textual level, which Saussure himself would have firmly placed within parole and so not amenable to his theoretical constructs.[14][15]


  1. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Open Court House.
  2. 1 2 3 John R. Searle, "Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics", New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972.
  3. Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge (eds.), Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 107: "Algirdas Greimas".
  4. 1 2 3 Holland, Norman N. (1992) The Critical I, Columbia University Press, ISBN ISBN 0-231-07650-9
  5. De Mauro, Tullio, 1972. Edition critique du Cours de linguistique generale de Ferdinand de Saussure. Paris: Payot. p. 400
  6. Chomsky, Noam. (1972) Language and Mind. Enlarged Ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 20
  7. Marcus, Mitchell, (1984) "Some Inadequate Theories of Human Language Processing." Talking Minds: The Study of Language in Cognitive Science. Eds. Thomas G. Bever, John M. Carroll, and Lance A. Miller. Cambridge MA: MIT P, 1984. 253-77.
  8. Koster, Jan. (1996) "Saussure meets the brain", in R. Jonkers, E. Kaan, J. K. Wiegel, eds., Language and Cognition 5. Yearbook 1992 of the Research Group for Linguistic Theory and Knowledge Representation of the University of Groningen, Groningen, pp. 115-120.
  9. Turner, Mark. 1987. Death is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphor, Criticism. University of Chicago Press, p. 6.
  10. Fabb, Nigel. (1988) Saussure and literary theory: from the perspective of linguistics. Critical Quarterly, Volume 30, Issue 2, pages 58–72, June 1988.
  11. Evans, Dylan. (2005) "From Lacan to Darwin", in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, eds. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005, pp.38-55.
  12. Gilbert Lazard. "The case for pure linguistics." Studies in Language 36:2 (2012), 241–259. doi 10.1075/sl.36.2.02laz
  13. Matthews, Peter. A Short History of Structural Linguistics, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001.
  14. Tallis, Raymond. Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory, Macmillan Press 1988, 2nd ed. 1995.
  15. Tallis, Raymond. Theorrhoea and After, Macmillan, 1998.

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