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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Levi-Strauss, asserts that, all cultural phenomena, like linguistic phenomena, depends on the unconscious meaning-conveying structure of human mind, and the method of structural linguistics is suitable to analyze this unconscious process.
(5) But the god of structural linguistics required a sacrifice, and History was the allotted victim.
These, of course, are not the theorists that critical theory leans on (with the exception of Saussure, at the heart of structural linguistics, and Bakhtin), but they are the subjects of a most scrupulous and interesting analysis, examining their relationships to language, and to the creation of systems of thought within linguistics, and finding each, with the exception of Wittgenstein, about whom Quigley writes excellently, imprisoned in their own system, just at the moment of their maximum achievement.
But it relies heavily on the assumptions of the father of structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure.
For Goodman, this sort of thing would have been of "merely historical interest." He concentrated on the main task, a "general theory of symbols" that "ranges beyond the arts into matters pertaining to the sciences, technology, perception, and practice." One could feel in his text a convergence of the Barthian triad, "Image/Music/Text," staged as a dialogue between structural linguistics and theories of nonverbal representation.
The divergence between Harris's research and work such as that contained in this volume is explained by the particular linguistic and semiological framework within which Harris is working, for since the overall orientation of the above volume is post-structuralist, it seeks to extend the biplanarity of structural linguistics from the spoken sign to the written sign in an attempt to bridge the gap between the two, as can be seen in the Introduction: "Texts in any medium, transmitted or recorded in any form, are signifying entities or practices which operate through a system of differential relations between sounds or letters" (Fabb 8).
They should be ready to engage creatively and critically with a variety of theoretical and philosophical perspectives, particularly critical theory, structural linguistics and hermeneutics as they are mediated by many anthropologists and some historians, and appropriate their lexicons if they prove useful in the historiographic enterprise.
Indeed, Saussure's theories are considered fundamental to structuralism (especially structural linguistics) and to poststructuralism.
It details the rise of the theoretical revolution in France and the challenge presented by structural linguistics to the Cartesian cogito, the intellectual history behind France's humanist revolt, the reception of Heidegger in Anglo-American translations, Ricoeur's relationship to Derrida and his critique of the metaphysics of the classical rhetorical definition of metaphor, and the link between Ricoeur's philosophy of imagination and his later ethical philosophy.
He had adequate training in anthropological linguistics from Sapir and had exposure to structural linguistics from Bloomfield before his long trip to India.
For what clearly emerges from this book is the extent to which theories based on Saussure and structural linguistics have overlooked the contributions to the study of language made by Herder, Condillac, and others, and thus have ignored, with bewildering results, the historical debate about the significant/signifying function of the body that informs the main psychological, epistemological, and aesthetic commonplaces ofWestern European culture.
He points with justice to "a connection between structural linguistics and high-modernism on the one hand, and post-structural semiotics and postmodernism on the other," and asks, conscientiously enough, "But what makes these connections?" The problem is that once the question has been posed in these terms, those rashly volunteering to answer court one or other form of disqualification.

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