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a linguistic theory that arose among a group of Danish linguists at the University of Copenhagen in the mid-1930’s. Glossematics was devised by L. Hjelmslev in collaboration with V. Brøndal (1887-1942) and H. Uldall (1907-57). Refusing in principle to deal with epistemological problems (which shows the influence of the philosophy of logical positivism), the authors set for themselves the goal of devising a method whereby linguistic phenomena could be described without contradictions, exhaustively and with the utmost simplicity (the principle of empiricism). Glossematics also displays a similarity to the ideas of F. de Saussure. Adherents of glossematics take the subject of the study of linguistics to be the inherent structure of language, which is understood as a network of dependencies between linguistic elements on the levels of expression and content of language, as well as between both levels. Glossematics is oriented toward the structural-semiotic aspect of language and is abstracted from all of its other aspects—social, biological, physical, psychological, and so on—which are supposedly not associated with the “autonomous essence” of language. In addition, the material elements of language are held to be nonessential, the sound systems of natural human languages fall into the same category with such systems as nautical signaling and Morse code, differing from them only in their universality and wealth of combinational possibilities, and linguistics is taken to be a part of semiotics—the general science of sign systems.

The methodology of linguistic analysis as propounded by glossematics is characterized as deduction (movement from a class to a segment). It must lead to the establishment of a system that is the basis of the text being analyzed. For this purpose the initial data—a whole (undifferentiated) text—is successively broken down into smaller and smaller parts: periodic sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and phonemes. Commutation is the principal method of establishing the units at each stage of the analysis. Figurae of content and expression constitute the limit of analysis on each level of language. They are single-level units and nonsigns that cannot be divided further and from whose finite number is constructed an infinite number of signs having both content and expression aspects (Russian mal’chik “boy” includes six figurae of expression—[mal’ĉik]—and three figurae of content: animate being + masculine + youthfulness). The second and most important stage of analysis is the recording of functions among the units of language—that is, the determination of linguistic structure in the glossematic sense. Hjelmslev created a classification of functions based on the concept of constants, which do not depend on other values, and variables, which are conditioned by other values: interdependence (a function between two constants), determination (a function between a constant and a variable), and constellation (a function between two variables). After computing all possible relations and dependencies between units of a language by means of a mathematical operation and after verifying which of the possibilities permissible by a general calculation are realized in one or another concrete language, it is possible to construct a typological classification. Where a formal analysis and description of linguistic phenomena, which proceed from their interdependencies, are required, glossematics yields fruitful results. However, it by no means exhausts the essential features of language.


Hjelmslev, L. “Metod strukturnogo analiza v lingvistike.” In V. A. Zvegintsev, Istoriia iazykoznaniia XIX i XX vekov v ocherkakh i izvlecheniiakh, part 2, Moscow, 1960.
Hjelmslev, L. “Prolegomeny k teorii iazyka.” In the collection Novoe v lingvistike, issue 1. Moscow, 1960.
Uldall, H. “Osnovy glossematiki.” In the collection Novoe v lingvistike, issue 1. Moscow, 1960.
Spang-Hanssen, H. “Glossematika.” In the collection Novoe v lingvistike, issue 4. Moscow, 1965.