Linguistic System

System, Linguistic


(1) A set of units at a given linguistic level, such as the phonological, morphological, or syntactic level, taken in their unity and interrelatedness; the classes of units and the rules for the formation, transformation, and combination of such units. In this sense, one may speak of the phonological, morphological, derivational, syntactic, lexical, and semantic systems of a given language or, more narrowly, of the systems or subsystems of declension and conjugation, verb and noun, aspect and tense, gender and case, and so on. The definition of a language as a system is credited to F. de Saussure and was grounded in the writings of W. von Humboldt and I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay.

A distinction is made between a system’s core, which contains basic linguistic units and rules, and the periphery, which comprises little-used items, such as archaisms, slang, and dialectalisms on the border between the literary and the nonliterary language. A distinction is also made between the core and the periphery of a grammatical system. A language is sometimes defined as a system of systems (or of subsystems) with regard to the functional-stylistic stratification of a language into colloquial, official, journalistic, scholarly, and other strata and with regard to the fundamental acceptability of the noncoincidence of norms in the language’s various styles.

(2) A set of oppositions at a given linguistic level. Phonological facts may be described by means of distinctive features. More complicated metalanguages are required to describe morphological, syntactic, and lexical-semantic facts. Therefore, modern linguistics also uses a more general concept and defines a linguistic system as the property of the set of facts on a given level that permits the exhaustive and nonredundant description of all essential facts, preferably by means of a metalanguage that is simpler and more economical than the natural language being studied. The higher the degree of systematic organization of facts, the greater the dependence of the facts on each other. In well-organized systems, a substantial change in one fact, whether it be a lexical unit or a rule, entails a change in many other facts or even a fundamental reorganization of the entire set of facts.


Saussure, F. de. Kurs obshchei lingvistiki. Moscow, 1933. (Translated from French.)
Hjelmslev, L. “Iazyk i rech’.” In V. A. Zvegintsev, Istoriia iazykoznaniia 19–20 vv. v ocherkakh i izvlecheniiakh, 3rd ed., part 2. Moscow, 1965.
Bondarko, A. V. Grammaticheskaia kategoriia i kontekst. Leningrad, 1971.
References in periodicals archive ?
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