Structural Linguistics

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Structural Linguistics


an approach to language and language study based on a concept of language as a system of signs that has such clearly defined structural elements as linguistic units and their classes. Structural linguistics seeks to describe language with a precision approaching that of the exact sciences.

The term “structural linguistics” became current owing to the focusing of some scholars on the structure of language, which is a system of relations (oppositions) between the elements of a linguistic system. These oppositions occur in an orderly, hierarchical dependence within fixed levels. The structural description of a language presupposes the analysis of an actual text. This analysis makes it possible to identify such generalized invariant units as sentence patterns, morphemes, and phonemes and to correlate them with speech segments according to strict rules. These rules determine the extent to which linguistic units in speech may vary while maintaining their identity; that is, the rules determine the number of permissible synonymous transformations of a linguistic unit. Depending on the desired level of analysis, these rules are formulated as rules of the positional distribution of the variants of a linguistic unit. An example is the functioning of the principle of complementary distribution in phonology and morphology. This principle is also applied to transformational analysis in the form of transformational syntactic rules, which regulate the transition from the invariant deep-seated structure of a sentence to the multiplicity of this structure’s possible forms (the surface representation).

Structural linguistics was the source of generative grammar, and the ideas of structural linguistic analysis were instrumental in the formulation and resolution of many problems of machine translation. The combination of structural linguistics and typology gave rise to structural typology, which investigates the structural laws of the elements of linguistic systems and of language as a whole. Structural linguistics also facilitated the large-scale introduction of mathematical research methods into linguistics.

Structural linguistics was established in the 1920’s and 1930’s as an approach distinct from that of the neogrammarian school, which predominated in the late 19th century and focused exclusively on the history of linguistic elements. Structural linguistics was also distinct from traditional descriptive grammar, with its flexible concepts and its bias in favor of describing all languages, whatever their structure, with the grammatical formulations of Latin and the European languages. Structural linguistics emerged from the quest for a more consistent system of linguistic concepts and for methods that could be as rigorously applied to the synchronic description of modern languages as the comparative method was applied to comparative linguistics.

The first attempt to describe a language with exactitude was made by the ancient Indian scholar Panini (fifth-fourth centuries B.C). In the Middle Ages, similar attempts resulted in the formulation of a universal rational grammar, the Port-Royal grammar, and in the philosophical and linguistic works of Descartes and Leibniz. The development of structural linguistics was considerably influenced by I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay, F. F. Fortuna-tov, E. Sapir, and L. Bloomfield and particularly by F. de Saussure and the work of the Linguistic Circle of Moscow, founded in 1915.

From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, the Prague, Copenhagen, and American schools further developed the concepts and methodology of structural linguistics. However, important contributions to structural linguistic theory were also made by such scholars as A. Martinet, E. Benveniste, A. W. de Groot, J. Kuryłowicz, and A. Sommerfelt, who did not belong to any school. The concepts of a structural approach to the description of language, first formulated as a theory based on phonological material, were developed by N. S. Trubetskoi, R. Jakobson, E. D. Polivanov, and the Czech members of the Linguistic Circle of Prague.

During the first stage in the development of structural linguistics, which lasted approximately until the 1950’s, the school’s theoreticians devoted considerable, and sometimes exclusive, attention to the formal description of language. They ignored the content of language and asserted that a linguistic system should be mathematically precise and regular. As a consequence, structural linguistics came under attack by both its opponents and its adherents. During the 1950’s, the investigation of linguistic meaning and the elaboration of such structural methods for describing meaning as componential analysis, generative semantics, and interpretative semantics developed intensively. The concepts and methodology of structural linguistics have been used in the comparative studies of Jakobson, Martinet, H. Hoenigswald, and P. Kiparsky on diachronic phonology.

As of the 1970’s, structural linguistics is apparently disappearing as a distinct school. The research methods developed for structural linguistics are used in conjunction with other methods in such linguistic disciplines as psycholinguistics and sociolinguis-tics. Structural linguistics has also influenced the development of structurally oriented research methods in such other areas of the humanities as literary theory and criticism, anthropology, ethnology, and sociology.


Saussure, F. de. Kurs obshchei lingvistiki. Moscow, 1933. (Translated from French.)
Osnovnye napravleniia strukturalizma. Moscow, 1964.
Novoe v lingvistike, fascs. 1–4. Moscow, 1960–65. (Translated from English and French.)
Apresian, Iu. D. Idei i metody sovremennoi strukturnoi lingvistiki [Kratkii ocherk]. Moscow, 1966.
Harris, Z. S. Structural Linguistics. Chicago, 1960.


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In this context, structural linguistics as an objective scientific method but at the same time being concerned with man, provides an opportunity for the method of social sciences regarding (relatively) objective knowledge (Levi-Strauss,1963a: 5657).
Since the author, who until a few years ago was professor of linguistics at Cambridge University, conceives of structural linguistics as largely a thing of the past, the treatment had, of necessity, to be colored by some historical perspective, but that is all there is in the way of historiography.
Thus, if the reader is seeking a statement about natural theories of language or universal theories of grammar and semantics or new developments in structural linguistics, he/she will not find them in Becker's work, for they are not what Becker seeks to generate.
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Which branch of linguistics is on the right path, structural linguistics or generative grammar?

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