Structural linguistics  

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Signified (concept) and signifier (sound-image) as imagined by de Saussure
Signified (concept) and signifier (sound-image) as imagined by de Saussure

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Structural Linguistics is an approach to linguistics originating from the work of Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. In Course in General Linguistics, published posthumously in 1916, Saussure stressed examining language as a static system of interconnected units. He is thus renown as the father of modern linguistics for bringing about the shift from diachronic to synchronic analysis.

As an approach to linguistics, Structural Linguistics involves collecting a corpus of utterances and then applying discovery procedures to them in an attempt to classify all of the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: the phonemes, morphemes, word classes, noun phrases, verb phrases, and sentence types. One set of discovery procedures are Saussure's methods of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis that respectively define units syntatically and lexically, according to their contrast with all the other units in the system.



Structural Linguistics begins with the posthumous publication of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics in 1916. The book proved to be highly influential, providing the foundation for both modern linguistics and semiology.

After Saussure, the history of Structural Linguistics branches off in two separate directions. First, in America, linguist Leonard Bloomfield's reading of Saussure's course proved influential, bringing about the Bloomfieldean phase of 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 replaced by the paradigm of generative semantics with the publishing of Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures in 1957.

Second, in Europe, Saussure influenced the Prague School of Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy, whose work would prove hugely influential, particularly concerning phonology, and the Copenhagen School of Louis Hjelmslev. Structural Linguistics also had an influence on other disciplines in Europe, including Anthropology, Psychoanalysis and Marxism, bringing about the movement known as Structuralism.

Basic Theories and Methods

The foundation of Structural Linguistics is the idea that the identity of a sign is determined by its existence in a state of contrast with other signs that is either syntagmatic or paradigmatic. 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 are sets of units that exist in the mind, such as the phonological set cat, bat, hat, mat, fat, or the morphological 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 are temporal and consist of a row of units that contrast with one another, like “the man hit the ball” or “the ball was hit by the man”. What units can be used in each part of the row is determined by the units that surround them. There is therefore an interweaving effect between syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations. But whereas paradigms are always part of the langue, syntagma can belong to speech or langue, and so the linguist must determine how often they have been used before he can be assured that they belong to the latter.

Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic relations provide the Structural Linguist with a simple method of 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 sentence into a question.


Linguist Noam 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.

See also


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