Structuralist Linguistics

After noding a while I've found that one of the epiphenomena of creating a wu was acquiring a better understanding of the material at hand. In the case of structuralist linquistics I certainly hope this is the case, but there does seem to be a lot of gnat-straining going on here The school was developed by a Swiss, Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857, d. 1913), and I'm not at all certain that his structuralism isn't just another case of the emperor's clothes.

In this context, two technical terms immediately spring to mind, one Spanish and the other Yiddish, both of which may aptly be applied to structuralism. In Spanish slang the word baba has the literal meaning of "spit." Students will apply the term to a lecture where there is a lot of talk and very little, if any, substance. Pfumpfit is used in Yiddish to refer to someone who talks as if he knows something about a topic, but actually knows very little. This is just a personal aside.

The basic elements of the system, if system there be, involve:
    Signs: the most basic elements of language, which is another way of saying that language is a system of signs. Signs have 2 components: the signifier (such as a noise) and signified (idea behind the noise). Noises count as language only if they communicate ideas.

    Signs are arbitrary: which is to say that a sign is an arbitrary combination of signifier and signified. No particular noise is better suited to conveying a particular idea than any other, except for onomatopoeia and the combinations of other words. As an extension of this, it is posited that any language divides up the noise spectrum (phonics?) and concept spectrum arbitrarily. The inescapable conclusion is that signs are not autonomous. They do not name concepts that exist independently. Our understanding of signs is possible only in the context of a system.

    Langue-Parole: Langue (a French word for language) is a "system of forms. It is general and societal." (I feel a gnat coming on!!!) Linguistics studies the langue. Parole (a French word meaning speech), is is the "externalisation" of langue in actual speech. Phonetics studies the Langue.

    Value-Signification: the meaning of a sign in relation to other signs in the system is its value. The meaning of a sign in a particular context is its signification. Clear?

    Diachronic and Synchronic perspectives: when one studies a linguistic system at one point in time, it is a synchronic examination. When one studies the same system over time it is a diachronic examination. Structuralism asserts that because signs are arbitrary and relational, the system must be studied first synchronically and then diachronically.

    Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic (or Associative) Relations Between Linguistic Elements: "There is a syntagmatic relation between elements which might combine in a sequence. E.g., ‘he followed’ and ‘George’. There is a paradigmatic relation between elements which might replace one another. E.g., ‘George’ and ‘John’." Such relations function at all levels of linguistic analysis. The linguistic system can be described (synchronically) as a system of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations at different levels.

    Language is a Social Fact: Language is essentially a system of social conventions. Words are endowed with their meaning by society. The conceptual spectrum is divided by society etc.

Structuralism was the dominant approach in linguistics for the earlier part of the twentieth century. It was overtaken by Noam Chomsky's generative approach from the 1950s on.

Traditional grammar taught that there was good and bad, or correct and incorrect, language. Latin was held up as the paragon of rational grammar, and a common object of study was to read and write Latin well, or to understand another language within the terms of Latin. In the nineteenth century a historical approach took over, as linguists came to unravel the history of the Indo-European language family. Etymology and the genetic relationship between languages became the main area of study.

Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist whose contribution to the Indo-European field included the important postulate of laryngeals (confirmed years after his death), wanted to distinguish how people actually used language from the historical question of how it had come to be used that way. This is the key distinction of the synchronic versus the diachronic. Synchronically, we might use a word like hysterical without being aware of its origin, and when we say someone is hysterical we're probably not claiming anything about their womb. Diachronic information is usually only available to specialists or in dictionaries, whereas the synchronic aspect of language is what's present to us as common speakers.

Langue and parole are usually left untranslated, as it would cause too much trouble to explain if we used heavily loaded terms like 'language' and 'speech' and tried to distinguish them consistently. Langue is how we do, in theory, know how to speak; parole is what actually comes out on a particular occasion: with a slip of the tongue, speech impediment, hesitation, false start, or whatever. In Chomsky's terms, these are similar to what are called competence and performance. But Saussure's langue is a social commonality, while Chomsky's competence is an I-language in an individual's brain.

The distinction between paradigm and syntagm is that a syntagm is an extended structural description, while a paradigm is a drop-down list of specific things that can go in each slot of the description. For example, The linguist saw the pelican has essentially the same syntagmatic structure as A møøse bit my sister, but different choices at each point. The paradigm of the first and fourth places is that of a determiner: a word from the closed set a, the, this, that, my, your, ..., whereas at the third slot there is a verb, a member of an open-ended class of words. The verb has its own paradigm of how its past tense is formed. All past tense verbs are syntagmatically V + Past, but there are different choices of realization of Past (-ed, -t, vowel change, a mixture) at that point.

Other aspects of Saussure's formulation given above are more semiotic, that is part of a general description of how signs refer to things, and he was building on the work of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. They are less specific to linguistics.

In America structuralism was taken up by anthropologists like Franz Boas and Edward Sapir who needed to analyse the very un-European structure of native American languages, and found that a structuralist approach helped them understand things like kinship systems. Other influential American linguists like Leonard Bloomfield, Zellig Harris, Kenneth Pike, and Joseph Greenberg found the structuralist approach extremely fruitful.

In Europe the main structuralist linguists included Roman Jakobson and Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, leaders of what is known as the Prague School. They disagreed with Saussure's complete severance of the synchronic and diachronic, and especially applied structuralist ideas to phonetics, showing how sound changes across time could be motivated by changes in structural paradigm. For instance, in Old English the sound V only occurred between vowels, and the F sound never did: both were written F because they couldn't contrast, they were the same phoneme. With the Norman Conquest, French words came in that did have this contrast, so the phonology of Middle English was restructured to treat F and V as separate sounds.

Chomsky's theories could be described as structuralist, but he was concerned with two interacting levels, deep structure and surface structure, and he attacked the older structuralist tradition as taxonomic, that is collecting information about languages without really trying to understand the workings. So, following him, the term 'structural linguistics' or 'structuralism' is usually confined to the other schools and methods mentioned above.

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