Structural linguistics

Structural linguistics, or structuralism, in linguistics, denotes schools or theories in which language is conceived as a self-contained, self-regulating system, whose elements are defined by their relationship to other elements within the system.[1][2] It is derived from the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and is part of the overall approach of structuralism. Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, published posthumously in 1916, stressed examining language as a dynamic system of interconnected units. Saussure is also known for introducing several basic dimensions of semiotic analysis that are still important today. Two of these are his key methods of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis,[3] which define units syntactically and lexically, respectively, according to their contrast with the other units in the system.

Structuralism as a term, however, was not used by Saussure who himself called the approach semiology. The term structuralsm is derived from Sociologist Émile Durkheim's anti-Darwinian modification of Herbert Spencer's organic analogy which draws a parallel between social structures and the organs of an organism which have different functions or purposes.[4] Similar analogies and metaphors were used in the historical-comparative linguistics that Saussure was part of.[5][6] Saussure himself made a modification of August Schleicher's language–species analogy, based on William Dwight Whitney's critical writings, to turn focus to the internal elements of the language organism, or system.[7] Nonetheless, structural linguistics became mainly associated with Saussure's notion of language as a dual interactive system of signs and concepts. The term structuralism was adopted to linguistics after Saussure's death by the Prague school linguists Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy; while the term structural linguistics was coined by Louis Hjelmslev.[8]


Structural linguistics begins with the posthumous publication of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics in 1916, which his students compiled from his lectures. The book proved to be highly influential, providing the foundation for both modern linguistics and semiotics. Structuralist linguistics is often thought of as giving rise to independent European and American traditions due to ambiguity in the term. It is most commonly thought that structural linguistics stems from Saussure's writings; but these were rejected by an American school of linguistics based on Wilhelm Wundt's structural psychology.[9]

European structuralismEdit

In Europe, Saussure influenced: (1) the Geneva School of Albert Sechehaye and Charles Bally, (2) the Prague linguistic circle, (3) the Copenhagen School of Louis Hjelmslev, and (4) the Paris School of André Martinet and Algirdas Julien Greimas.[10] Structural linguistics also had an influence on other disciplines of humanities bringing about the movement known as structuralism.

'American structuralism'Edit

Some confusion[11][a] is caused by the fact that an American school of linguistics of 1910s through 1950s, which was based on structural psychology, (especially Wilhelm Wundt's Völkerpsychologie); and later on behavioural psychology,[12][b] was nicknamed 'American structuralism'.[13] This framework was not structuralist in the Saussurean sense that it did not consider language as arising from the interaction of meaning and expression. Instead, it was thought that the civilised human mind is organised into binary branching structures. Advocates of this type of structuralism are identified from their convention of placing the object, but not the subject, into the verb phrase; whereby the structure is disconnected from semantics in contrast to Saussurean structuralism.[9] The American school is alternatively called distributionalism, 'American descriptivism', or the 'Bloomfieldian' school – or 'post-Bloomfieldian', following the death of its leader Leonard Bloomfield in 1949. Nevertheless, Wundt's ideas had already been imported from Germany to American humanities by Franz Boas before him, influencing linguists such as Edward Sapir.[14]

There were nonetheless some confluences in the European and the American approach. Saussure borrowed his three-fold definition of language as langage, langue and parole from his teacher at the University of Berlin, Heymann Steinthal, who was an early advocate of Völkerpsychologie.[14] To reciprocate, the American linguist Charles Hockett applied André Martinet's structural explanation to the emergence of grammatical complexity.

Other than that, there were unsolvable incompatibilities between the psychological and positivistic orientation of the Bloomfieldian school, and the semiotic orientation of the structuralists proper. In the generative or Chomskyan concept, a purported rejection of 'structuralism' usually refers to Noam Chomsky's opposition to the behaviourism of Bloomfield's 1933 textbook Language; though, coincidentally, he is also opposed to structuralism proper.[15][11]

Basic theories and methodsEdit

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", e.g. a word, is thus the combined association of signifier and signified. Signs can be defined only by being placed in contrast with other signs. This forms the basis of what later became the paradigmatic dimension of semiotic organization (i.e., terms and inventories of terms that stand in opposition to each other). This is contrasted drastically with the idea that linguistic structures can be examined in isolation from meaning, or that the organisation of the conceptual system can exist without a corresponding organisation of the signifying system.

Paradigmatic relations hold among sets of units, 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.

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 English, 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 was provided by Louis Hjelmslev in his Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, giving rise to formal linguistics. Hjelmslev's model was subsequently incorporated into systemic functional grammar, functional discourse grammar, and Danish functional grammar.

Structural explanationEdit

The structural approach in humanities follows from 19th century Geist thinking which is derived from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's philosophy.[16][14] According to such theories, society or language arises as the collective psyche of a community; and this psyche is sometimes described as an 'organism'.[17] In sociology, Émile Durkheim made a humanistic modification of Herbert Spencer's organic analogy. Durkheim, following Spencer's theory, compared society to an organism which has structures (organs) that carry out different functions. For Durkheim a structural explanation of society is that the population growth, through an organic solidarity (unlike Spencer who believes it happens by a self-interested conduct) leads to an increase of complexity and diversity in a community, creating a society.[18] This is important to the concept of structuralism in linguistics as it was established by the post-Saussurean Prague linguistic circle, following a shift from structuralism to functionalism in the social anthropology of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown and Bronisław Malinowski.[5][19]

Saussure himself had actually used a modification of Jacob Grimm's Sprachgeist;[16][14] and of August Schleicher's Darwinian organic analogy in linguistics; his concept of la langue is the social organism or spirit. It needs to be noted that, despite certain similarities, structuralism and functionalism in humanistic linguistics are explicitly anti-Darwinian.[5] This means that linguistic structures are not explained in terms of selection through competition; and that the biological metaphor is not to be taken literally.[20] What is more, Saussure abandoned evolutionary linguistics altogether[6] and, instead, defined synchronic analysis as the study of the language system; and diachronic analysis as the study of language change. With such precaution, structural explanation of language is analogous to structuralism in biology which explains structures in relation to material factors, or substance.[21] In Saussure's explanation, structure follows from systemic consequences of the association of meaning and expression.[8] This can be contrasted with functional explanation which explains linguistic structure in relation to the "adaptation" of language to the community's communicative needs.[20]

Compositional and combinatorial languageEdit

According to André Martinet's concept of double articulation, language is a double-levelled or doubly articulated system. In this context, 'articulation' means 'joining'. The first level of articulation involves minimally meaningful units (monemes: words or morphemes), while the second level consists of minimally distinct non-signifying units (phonemes). Because of double articulation, it is possible to make all necessary words of a language with a couple dozen phonic units. Meaning emerges from combinations of the non-meaningful units.[22] The organisation of language into hierarchical inventories makes highly complex and therefore highly useful language possible:

"We might imagine a system of communication in which a special cry would correspond to each given situations and these facts of experience, it will be clear that if such a system were to serve the same purpose as our languages, it would have to comprise so large a number of distinct signs that the memory of man would be incapable of storing it. A few thousand of such units as tête, mal, ai, la, freely combinable, enable us to communicate more things than could be done by millions of unarticulated cries."[23]

Louis Hjelmslev's conception includes even more levels: phoneme, morpheme, lexeme, phrase, sentence and discourse. Building on the smallest meaningful and non-meaningful elements, glossemes, it is possible to generate an infinite number of productions:

"When we compare the inventories yielded at the various stages of the deduction, their size will usually turn out to decrease as the procedure goes on. If the text is unrestricted, i.e., capable of being prolonged through constant addition of further parts … it will be possible to register an unrestricted number of sentences."[24]

These notions are a continuation in a humanistic tradition which considers language as a human invention. A similar idea is found in Port-Royal Grammar:

"It remains for us to examine the spiritual element of speech ... this marvelous invention of composing from twenty-five or thirty sounds an infinite variety of words, which, although not having any resemblance in themselves to that which passes through our minds, nevertheless do not fail to reveal to others all of the secrets of the mind, and to make intelligible to others who cannot penetrate into the mind all that we conceive and all of the diverse movements of our souls."[25]

Interaction of meaning and formEdit

Another way to approach structural explanation is from Saussure's concept of semiology (semiotics). Language is considered as arising from the interaction of form and meaning. Saussure's concept of the bilateral sign (signifier – signified) entails that the conceptual system is distinct from physical reality. For example, the spoken sign 'cat' is an association between the combination of the sounds [k], [æ] and [t] and the concept of a cat, rather than with its referent (an actual cat). Language is thus considered a fully abstract system where each item in the conceptual inventory is associated with an expression; and these two levels define, organise and restrict each other.[26]

Key concepts of the organisation of the phonemic versus the semantic system are those of opposition and distinctiveness. Each phoneme is distinct from other phonemes of the phonological system of a given language. The concepts of distinctiveness and markedness were successfully used by the Prague Linguistic Circle to explain the phonemic organisation of languages, laying a ground for modern phonology as the study of the sound systems of languages,[11] also borrowing from Wilhelm von Humboldt.[27]

Likewise, each concept is distinct from all others in the conceptual system, and is defined in opposition with other concepts. Louis Hjelmslev laid the foundation of structural semantics with his idea that the content-level of language has a structure analogous to the level of expression.[28] Structural explanation in the sense of how language shapes our understanding of the world has been widely used by the post-structuralists.[29]

Structural linguist Lucien Tesnière, who invented dependency grammar, considered the relationship between meaning and form as conflicting due to a mathematical difference in how syntactic and semantic structure is organised. He used his concept of antinomy between syntax and semantics to elucidate the concept of a language as a solution to the communication problem. From his perspective, the two-dimensional semantic dependency structure is necessarily forced into one-dimensional (linear) form. This causes the meaningful semantic arrangement to break into a largely arbitrary word ordering.[30]

Recent perceptions of structuralismEdit

Those working in the generativist tradition often regard structuralist approaches as outdated and superseded. For example, Mitchell Marcus writes that structural linguistics was "fundamentally inadequate to process the full range of natural language".[31] Holland[32] writes that Chomsky had "decisively refuted Saussure". Similar views have been expressed by Jan Koster,[33] Mark Turner,[34] and other advocates of sociobiology.[35][36]

Others however stress the continuing importance of Saussure's thought and structuralist approaches. Gilbert Lazard has dismissed the Chomskyan approach as passé while applauding a return to Saussurean structuralism as the only course by which linguistics can become more scientific.[37] Matthews 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.[38]

Effect of structuralist linguistics upon other disciplinesEdit

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.[39][40]

Modern guidebooks of structural (formal and functional) analysisEdit

  • Roland Schäfer, 2016. Einführung in die grammatische Beschreibung des Deutschen (2nd ed.). Berlin: Language Science Press. ISBN 978-1-537504-95-7
  • Emma Pavey, 2010. The Structure of Language: An Introduction to Grammatical Analysis. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780511777929
  • Kees Hengeveld & Lachlan MacKenzie, 2008. Functional Discourse Grammar: A Typologically-Based Theory of Language Structure. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199278107
  • M.A.K. Halliday, 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 3rd edition, revised by Christian Matthiessen. London: Hodder Arnold.ISBN 978 0 340 76167 0

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ p. 6: "There was a second misunderstanding. Chomsky's criticism did not address European structuralism. It focused on American structuralism, represented by Leonard Bloomfield and his "distributionist" or Yale School, the dominant form of linguistics in the United States in the fifties. Bloomfield drew his inspiration from behavioral psychology, and considered that it was enough to describe the mechanism of language, to underscore its regularities."
  2. ^ Seuren 2006: "The prime mover, in this respect, was Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949), who drew his inspiration mainly from the German philosopher-psychologist Wilhelm Wundt ... Wundt proposed that both psychological and linguistic structures should be analyzed according to the principle of ... tree structure or immediate constituent analysis. ... In the early 1920s Bloomfield turned away from Wundtian psychology and embraced the then brand new ideology of behaviorism. Yet the Wundtian notion of constituent structure remained and even became more and more central to Bloomfield’s thinking about language. It is the central notion in the theory of grammar presented in the chapters 10 to 16 of his (1933)."


  1. ^ Martinet, André (1989). "Linguistique générale, linguistique structurale, linguistique fonctionnelle". La Linguistique. 25 (1): 145–154.
  2. ^ Matthews, P. H. (2014). "Structural linguistics". The Concise Dictionary of Linguistics (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191753060.
  3. ^ de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Open Court House.
  4. ^ Hejl, P. M. (2013). "The importance of the concepts of "organism" and "evolution" in Emile Durkheim's division of social labor and the influence of Herbert Spencer". In Maasen, Sabine; Mendelsohn, E.; Weingart, P. (eds.). Biology as Society, Society as Biology: Metaphors. Springer. pp. 155–191. ISBN 9789401106733.
  5. ^ a b c Sériot, Patrick (1999). "The Impact of Czech and Russian Biology on the Linguistic Thought of the Prague Linguistic Circle". In Hajičová; Hoskovec; Leška; Sgall; Skoumalová (eds.). Prague Linguistic Circle Papers, Vol. 3. John Benjamins. pp. 15–24. ISBN 9789027275066.
  6. ^ a b Aronoff, Mark (2017). "Darwinism tested by the science of language". In Bowern; Horn; Zanuttini (eds.). On Looking into Words (and Beyond): Structures, Relations, Analyses. SUNY Press. pp. 443–456. ISBN 978-3-946234-92-0. Retrieved 2020-03-03.
  7. ^ Saussure, Ferdinand De (1931). Cours de linguistique générale (3e éd.). Paris: Payot. p. 42. Nous pensons que l’étude des phénomènes linguistiques externes est très fructueuse ; mais il est faux de dire que sans eux on ne puisse connaître l’organisme linguistique interne.
  8. ^ a b Dosse, François (1997) [First published 1991]. History of Structuralism, Vol.1: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966; translated by Edborah Glassman (PDF). University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-2241-2.
  9. ^ a b Seuren, Pieter A. M. (1998). Western linguistics: An historical introduction. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-20891-7.CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  10. ^ Chapman, Siobhan; Routledge, Christopher, eds. (2005). "Algirdas Greimas". Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. Oxford University Press. p. 107.
  11. ^ a b c Dosse, François (1997) [First published 1992]. History of Structuralism, Vol.2: The Sign Sets, 1967- Present; translated by Edborah Glassman (PDF). University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-2239-6.
  12. ^ Seuren, Pieter (2008). "Early formalization tendencies in 20th-century American linguistics". In Auroux, Sylvain (ed.). History of the Language Sciences: An International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 2026–2034. ISBN 9783110199826. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
  13. ^ Blevins, James P. (2013). "American descriptivism ('structuralism')". In Allan, Keith (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199585847.013.0019.
  14. ^ a b c d Klautke, Egbert (2010). "The mind of the nation: the debate about Völkerpsychologie" (PDF). Central Europe. 8 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1179/174582110X12676382921428. Retrieved 2020-07-08.
  15. ^ Bricmont, Jean; Franck, Julie (2010). Bricmont, Jean; Franck, Julie (eds.). Chomsky Notebook. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231144759.
  16. ^ a b Cassirer, Ernst A. (1945). "Structuralism in modern linguistics". Word. 1 (2): 99–120. doi:10.1080/00437956.1945.11659249. Retrieved 2020-08-21.
  17. ^ Turner, James (2015). Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781306579025.
  18. ^ Edles et. Appelrouth, Laura D; Scott (2004). Sociological Theory in the Classical Era:Text and Readings. SAGE publications. p. 107.
  19. ^ Daneš, František (1987). "On Prague school functionalism in linguistics". In Dirven, R.; Fried, V. (eds.). Functionalism in Linguistics. John Benjamins. pp. 3–38. ISBN 9789027215246.
  20. ^ a b Andersen, Henning (1989). "Markedness theory – the first 150 years". In Tomic, O. M. (ed.). Markedness in synchrony and diachrony. De Gruyter. pp. 11–46. ISBN 978-3-11-086201-0.
  21. ^ Darnell, Michael; Moravcsik, Edith A.; Noonan, Michael; Newmeyer, Frederick J.; Wheatley, Kathleen, eds. (1999). Functionalism and Formalism in Linguistics, Vol. 1. John Benjamins. ISBN 9789027298799.
  22. ^ Buckland, Warren (2014). "Semiotics of film". In Branigan, Edward; Buckland, Warren (eds.). The Routledge Encyclopedia of Film Theory. Routledge. pp. 425–429. ISBN 9781138849150.
  23. ^ Martinet, André (1964). Elements of General Linguistics. Translated by Palmer, Elisabeth. Faber and Faber. ISBN 9780571090792.
  24. ^ Hjelmslev, Louis (1971) [1943]. Prolégomènes à une théorie du langage. Paris: Les éditions de minuit. p. 27. ISBN 2707301345. Nous exigeons par exemple de la théorie du langage qu’elle permettre de décrire non contradictoirement et exhaustivement non seulement tel texte français donné, mais aussi tous les textes français existant, et non seulement ceux-ci mais encore tous les textes français possibles et concevables
  25. ^ Arnauld, Antoine; Lancelot, Claude (1975) [1660]. The Port-Royal Grammar. Translated by Rieux, Jacques; Rollin, Bernard E. Mouton. ISBN 902793004X.
  26. ^ de Saussure, Ferdinand (1959) [First published 1916]. Course in general linguistics (PDF). New York: Philosophy Library. ISBN 9780231157278.
  27. ^ Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt; Messling, Markus (2017). "Wilhelm von Humboldt". Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring ed.). Stanford University. Retrieved 2020-08-23.
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  29. ^ Williams, James (2005). Understanding Poststructuralism. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781844650330.
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  31. ^ Marcus, Mitchell (1984). "Some Inadequate Theories of Human Language Processing". In Bever, Thomas G.; Carroll, John M.; Miller, Lance A. (eds.). Talking Minds: The Study of Language in Cognitive Science. Cambridge MA: MIT P. pp. 253–277.
  32. ^ Holland, Norman N. (1992). The Critical I. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-07650-9.
  33. ^ "Saussure, considered the most important linguist of the century in Europe until the 1950s, hardly plays a role in current theoretical thinking about language," 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.
  34. ^ Turner, Mark (1987). Death is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphor, Criticism. University of Chicago Press. p. 6.
  35. ^ Fabb, Nigel (1988). "Saussure and literary theory: from the perspective of linguistics". Critical Quarterly. 30 (2): 58–72. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8705.1988.tb00303.x.
  36. ^ Evans, Dylan (2005). "From Lacan to Darwin". In Gottschall, Jonathan; Wilson, David Sloan (eds.). The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. pp. 38–55.
  37. ^ Lazard, Gilbert (2012). "The case for pure linguistics". Studies in Language. 36 (2): 241–259. doi:10.1075/sl.36.2.02laz.
  38. ^ Matthews, Peter (2001). A Short History of Structural Linguistics. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  39. ^ Tallis, Raymond (1995) [First published 1988]. Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory (2nd ed.). Macmillan Press.
  40. ^ Tallis, Raymond (1998). Theorrhoea and After. Macmillan.

External linksEdit