Structuralism - Structuralism in Linguistics

Structuralism in Linguistics

See also: Structural linguistics

In Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (written by Saussure's colleagues after his death and based on student notes), the analysis focuses not on the use of language (called "parole", or speech), but rather on the underlying system of language (called "langue"). This approach examines how the elements of language relate to each other in the present, synchronically rather than diachronically. Saussure argued that linguistic signs were composed of two parts:

  1. a "signifier" (the "sound pattern" of a word, either in mental projection—as when one silently recites lines from a poem to one's self—or in actual, physical realization as part of a speech act)
  2. a "signified" (the concept or meaning of the word)

This was quite different from previous approaches that focused on the relationship between words and the things in the world that they designate. Other key notions in structural linguistics include paradigm, syntagm, and value (though these notions were not fully developed in Saussure's thought). A structural "idealism" is a class of linguistic units (lexemes, morphemes or even constructions) that are possible in a certain position in a given linguistic environment (such as a given sentence), which is called the "syntagm". The different functional role of each of these members of the paradigm is called "value" (valeur in French).

Saussure's Course influenced many linguists between World War I and World War II. In the United States, for instance, Leonard Bloomfield developed his own version of structural linguistics, as did Louis Hjelmslev in Denmark and Alf Sommerfelt in Norway. In France Antoine Meillet and Émile Benveniste continued Saussure's project. Most importantly, however, members of the Prague school of linguistics such as Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy conducted research that would be greatly influential. However, by the 1950s Saussure's linguistic concepts were under heavy criticism and were soon largely abandoned by practicing linguists:

"Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics and the occasional philosopher. has elicited wrong film and literary theory on a grand scale. One can find dozens of books of literary theory bogged down in signifiers and signifieds, but only a handful that refer to Chomsky."

The clearest and most important example of Prague school structuralism lies in phonemics. Rather than simply compiling a list of which sounds occur in a language, the Prague school sought to examine how they were related. They determined that the inventory of sounds in a language could be analyzed in terms of a series of contrasts. Thus in English the sounds /p/ and /b/ represent distinct phonemes because there are cases (minimal pairs) where the contrast between the two is the only difference between two distinct words (e.g. 'pat' and 'bat'). Analyzing sounds in terms of contrastive features also opens up comparative scope—it makes clear, for instance, that the difficulty Japanese speakers have differentiating /r/ and /l/ in English is because these sounds are not contrastive in Japanese. Phonology would become the paradigmatic basis for structuralism in a number of different fields.

Read more about this topic:  Structuralism