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linguistics, scientific study of language, covering the structure (morphology and syntax; see grammar), sounds (phonology), and meaning (semantics), as well as the history of the relations of languages to each other and the cultural place of language in human behavior. Phonetics, the study of the sounds of speech, is generally considered a separate (but closely related to) field from linguistics.

Early Linguistics

Before the 19th cent., language was studied mainly as a field of philosophy. Among the philosophers interested in language was Wilhelm von Humboldt, who considered language an activity that arises spontaneously from the human spirit; thus, he felt, languages are different just as the characteristics of individuals are different. In 1786 the English scholar Sir William Jones suggested the possible affinity of Sanskrit and Persian with Greek and Latin, for the first time bringing to light genetic relations between languages. With Jones's revelation the school of comparative historical linguistics began. Through the comparison of language structures, such 19th-century European linguists as Jakob Grimm, Rasmus Rask, Karl Brugmann, and Antoine Meillet, as well as the American William Dwight Whitney, did much to establish the existence of the Indo-European family of languages.

Structural Linguistics

In the 20th cent. the structural or descriptive linguistics school emerged. It dealt with languages at particular points in time (synchronic) rather than throughout their historical development (diachronic). The father of modern structural linguistics was Ferdinand de Saussure, who believed in language as a systematic structure serving as a link between thought and sound; he thought of language sounds as a series of linguistic signs that are purely arbitrary, as can be seen in the linguistic signs or words for horse: German Pferd, Turkish at, French cheval, and Russian loshad'. In America, a structural approach was continued through the efforts of Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, who worked primarily with Native American languages, and Leonard Bloomfield, whose methodology required that nonlinguistic criteria must not enter a structural description. Rigorous procedures for determining language structure were developed by Kenneth Pike, Bernard Bloch, Charles Hockett, and others.

See also structuralism.

Transformational-Generative Grammar

In the 1950s the school of linguistic thought known as transformational-generative grammar received wide acclaim through the works of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky postulated a syntactic base of language (called deep structure), which consists of a series of phrase-structure rewrite rules, i.e., a series of (possibly universal) rules that generates the underlying phrase-structure of a sentence, and a series of rules (called transformations) that act upon the phrase-structure to form more complex sentences. The end result of a transformational-generative grammar is a surface structure that, after the addition of words and pronunciations, is identical to an actual sentence of a language. All languages have the same deep structure, but they differ from each other in surface structure because of the application of different rules for transformations, pronunciation, and word insertion. Another important distinction made in transformational-generative grammar is the difference between language competence (the subconscious control of a linguistic system) and language performance (the speaker's actual use of language). Although the first work done in transformational-generative grammar was syntactic, later studies have applied the theory to the phonological and semantic components of language.

Other Areas of Linguistic Study

In contrast to theoretical schools of linguistics, workers in applied linguistics in the latter part of the 20th cent. have produced much work in the areas of foreign-language teaching and of bilingual education in the public schools (in the United States this has primarily involved Spanish and, in the Southwest, some Native American languages in addition to English). In addition, such subfields as pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics have gained importance.


See F. de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (tr. 1966); J. Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (1968), and Language and Linguistics (1981); N. Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1969); A. Radford, Transformational Syntax (1982); F. J. Newmeyer, Linguistics (4 vol., 1988); W. J. Frawley, ed., International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2d ed., 4 vol., 2003).

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The science, that is, the general and universal properties, of language. The middle of the twentieth century saw a shift in the principal direction of linguistic inquiry from one of data collection and classification to the formulation of a theory of generative grammar, which focuses on the biological basis for the acquisition and use of human language and the universal principles that constrain the class of all languages. Generative grammar distinguishes between the knowledge of language (linguistic competence), which is represented by mental grammar, and the production and comprehension of speech (linguistic performance).

If grammar is defined as the mental representation of linguistic knowledge, then a general theory of language is a theory of grammar. A grammar includes everything one knows about a language; its phonetics and phonology (the sounds and the sound system), its morphology (the structure of words), its lexicon (the words or vocabulary), its syntax (the structure of sentences and the constraints on well-formed sentences), and its semantics (the meaning of words and sentences). See Psychoacoustics, Speech, Speech perception

Linguistics is not limited to grammatical theory. Descriptive linguistics analyzes the grammars of individual languages; anthropological linguistics, or ethnolinguistics, and sociolinguistics focus on languages in relation to culture, social class, race, and gender; dialectologists investigate how these factors fragment one language into many. In addition, sociolinguists and applied linguists examine language planning, literacy, bilingualism, and second-language acquisition. Computational linguistics encompasses automatic parsing, machine processing, and computer simulation of grammatical models for the generation and parsing of sentences. If viewed as a branch of artificial intelligence, computational linguistics has as its goal the modeling of human language as a cognitive system. A branch of linguistics concerned with the biological basis of language development is neurolinguistics. The form of language representation in the mind, that is, linguistic competence and the structure and components of the mental grammar, is the concern of theoretical linguistics. The branch of linguistics concerned with linguistic performance, that is, the production and comprehension of speech (or of sign language by the deaf), is called psycholinguistics. Psycholinguists also investigate how children acquire the complex grammar that underlies language use. See Information processing, Psycholinguistics

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the academic study of LANGUAGE. Its centre is the possibility of GRAMMAR, i.e. describing language in terms of rules of abstract elements and their combinations. For example, sentences may be seen as made up of a subject and a predicate, with the predicate composed of a verb and an object. It includes descriptions of the sounds of a language,phonology, again attempted, with great success, in terms of the identification of simple elements and their combination.

Linguistics as so described has been a part of the classical education, with the systematic description of Latin and Greek grammars an important paradigm. In each intellectual era these possibilities are taken up in terms of broader interests: the 18th century investigated what appear to be relatively universal features of grammar, as aspects of a universal rationality; the 19th century investigated the history transformation and ‘evolution’ of linguistic forms and patterns; and the 20th century sought a linguistic psychological and sociological science. Given that grammar and phonology do provide successful systematic descriptions, rare in the human disciplines, the scientized form of linguistics has been extremely influential in the social sciences. De SAUSSURE put forward a striking and plausible metatheory for a scientific linguistics, suggesting that it is the study of an autonomous subject matter, i.e. one conceptually separable from outside relationships. The linguistic system is composed of a system of contrasting elements existing on different levels of structure. Thus simple sound elements combine to make up minimal elements for the structural level above phonology, that of words and word parts (morphology). This kind of analysis was contrasted with the evolutionary views that preceded it, now regarded as a secondary study The construction of an abstract system by linguists, attributed to people who ‘use’ language but cannot readily describe this use, has become a powerful model for social science (see also COMPETENCE AND PERFORMANCE). CHOMSKY gave it a psychological interpretation, arguing that a readiness for the system was a feature of human biological being, innate, and not learned. The underlying shape of the system would then be universal. Scientizing grammar led to the specification and investigation of further levels, e.g. SEMANTICS and PRAGMATICS.

In the French philosophical tradition, the Saussurean metatheory was extensively applied as a paradigm for the other social sciences, the doctrine of STRUCTURALISM. Society is seen as generally semiotic, i.e. sign-constituted. Controversy over this, in POSTSTRUCTURALISM and elsewhere, has been a substantial aspect of intellectual life in the human sciences in the late 20th-century Can linguistics be extended to meaning and action? Is it a 'S cience’, or some other kind of description? Is language describable in strict rules, or does it evade such formulation? Is human rationality the product of non-rational, unconscious systems? Do the uncertainties associated with reference and DIFFERENCE undermine the very conceptions of the individual and individual IDENTITY? These disputed questions are the legacy of the long tradition of linguistics for other social studies. Linguistics itself continues regardless of. their outcomes.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the science of language. Linguistics studies the structure, functioning, and historical development of language— the entire scope of the properties and functions of language. At various times, however, different aspects of language have been interpreted as the immediate subject of linguistics. From classical antiquity until the late 18th century, linguistics was not yet distinguished from logic, and the subject of linguistics, as a part of logic and philosophy, was the unified, universal means of expressing thought.

In the 19th century, linguistics became a separate discipline, and an evolutionary view of language was developed. Linguistics at this time came to be concerned with various languages and their histories. In the 20th century, linguistics has studied language as a universal, integral property of man, Homo sapiens, and has investigated languages in their various historical forms. The dual subject of linguistics may be explained by the duality of its object—language.

The system of linguistic disciplines. Modern linguistics is divided into two areas according to the nature of its subject matter: general linguistics, which is concerned with human language per se; and specific branches of linguistics, which study individual languages and their groups, such as Russian linguistics and Romance linguistics. Linguistic study often encompasses both areas.

General linguistics studies the universal properties of language, primarily the most general rules of its structural-systematic and semiotic organization, including the linguistic sign; the semantics and syntax of natural and machine languages; and the phonetics of natural languages. The universality of the structural-systematic and semiotic properties of language results from the existence of language as a special type of sign system. The universality of semantics is a condition of the unity of the objective world, the reflection of the world in consciousness, and the transformation of the world in social practice. The universality of syntax is a condition of the purpose of language—to serve the goals of communication—which determines the common features of the structure of utterances in all languages. The universality of phonetics results mainly from the singular structure and functioning of the human speech apparatus. The common rules of semiotic organization, structure, semantics, syntax, and phonetics are studied mainly by means of various forms of the hypothetical-deductive method, including logical and psychological modeling. Such rules usually become the subjects of special disciplines: theoretical (or general) semantics, syntax, and phonetics; the theory of language systems and structures; and the theory of generative grammars.

The special branches of linguistics study specific languages and their manifestations in speech. National and historical distinctions among languages are associated primarily with the specific rules of phonetics, semantics, and syntax as well as with the various ways in which the basic rules of these categories are formed, that is, with the phonology, morphology, lexicon, and stylistics of each individual language or group of related languages. Phonology, morphology, the lexicon, and stylistics are also governed by more specific historical rules (as opposed to the universal rules of semantics, syntax, and phonetics) and constitute the primary subject of special linguistics.

Modern linguistics has preserved the traditional division into the following disciplines:

(1) Disciplines dealing with the internal structure of language, or microlinguistics: phonetics and phonology (with a separate category for prosody); grammar, with subdivisions into morphology and syntax (sometimes with a separate category for morphophonemics); lexicology (with a separate category for phraseology); semantics (sometimes with a separate category for semasiology); stylistics; and typology.

(2) Disciplines dealing with the historical development of language: the history of language; historical grammar, which is sometimes synonymous with the history of language in the broad sense; comparative-historical grammar; the history of literary languages; and etymology.

(3) Disciplines dealing with the function of language in society, or metalinguistics: dialectology, linguistic geography, areal linguistics, and sociolinguistics.

(4) Disciplines dealing with multifaceted problems and involving more than one branch of science: psycholinguistics; mathematical linguistics; computational linguistics, which is sometimes understood as an applied discipline; and the disciplines of applied linguistics proper, which include experimental phonetics, lexicography, statistical linguistics, paleography, the history of writing systems, and the decipherment of unknown writing systems (seeAPPLIED LINGUISTICS).

Depending on the object of study (language as a universal property of man or languages in their various historical forms), 20th-century linguistics has at its disposal two types of methods. The first type are the deductive-logical methods used in studying any kind of system, particularly information transmission systems, which include language systems in general. In addition to various structural methods, deductive-logical methods include the following: the generative, or constructive, method; logical calculation methods; algorithmic methods; and modeling, or simulation, methods. The second type are historical methods and methods of observation and experimentation, including the comparative-historical method, field observation, and methods used in studying specific historical languages, including the interrogation of informants. The two types of methods can be related on the basis of regular rules in accordance with the empirical and theoretical levels of cognition.

An intermediate group between the two main types of methods consists of psycholinguistic methods, which are used in studying the properties of language in general as well as specific historical languages. Some linguistic methods, including logical calculation and psychological experimentation, are borrowed from other sciences, and other sciences in turn borrow methods from linguistics. The structural methods of distribution and opposition, for example, are used in cultural anthropology and literary theory and criticism and, in generalized form, serve as the basis for semiotics and several special branches of mathematics. Owing to the particular features of its subject and methods, in particular, the universal features of language, linguistics exerts an influence on literary theory and criticism, cultural anthropology, psychology, mathematics, cybernetics, and philosophy.

Particular features of general scientific concepts. The particulars of the subject and methods of linguistics and the intersection in linguistics of features of the social, deductive, and natural sciences account for the distinctive nature of such concepts as laws, rules, types, evolution, determinism, and proof. Two concepts of the linguistic law, or rule, may be distinguished, depending on whether the concept is formed relative to language as a whole or to individual languages. The first type of linguistic law, which concerns language in general, states general principles of sign systems that are constant over time and general principles of semantics, syntax, and phonetics, which are usually termed universals. These laws serve as givens in the formulation of various theories and models (particularly those that are formalized) by means of which language is studied. A law, therefore, is any universal, most often one that is dynamic or historical, such as the laws of the establishment of phonemes, of the transformation of phonological systems, of stress shift, and of transformations of meanings. General laws, including those that are formalized, permit verification and refutation by means of experimental data obtained from observation of specific languages. An empirical selection of examples is insufficient, however, for proof of a general proposition; a corresponding well-constructed theory is essential.

The second type of linguistic law concerns specific languages. Since every language changes over time, these laws are formulated as historical laws that apply to a specific geographical area during a specific period of time. Examples are the conditions for the disappearance of nasal sounds in the Slavic languages, the appearance of nasal sounds in French, and the rules of verbal and prepositional government in Russian. Inductive generalization of these rules leads to probabilistic formulations rather than to general language laws.

Every language is characterized by a certain set of historical laws. On the basis of similarity of such laws, languages may be grouped into types that do not depend on genetic relationships. Several types are formulated on the basis of grammatical constructions. They include the active type, which includes several American Indian languages; the ergative type, which includes several other American Indian languages and the Ab-khazo-Adyg languages; and the nominative type, which includes the Indo-European languages. There also exist more specific language groupings, for example, those languages that exhibit a tendency toward open syllables. At the same time, a historical law in modern linguistics may sometimes be formulated as a special case of a law that is constant over time. The existence of two types of linguistic laws gives rise to the unique principle of determinism, which holds that any general rule of language determines the rule of a specific language, but not necessarily vice versa; the same rule may produce different results in another specific language, depending on the particular system of that language.

This division of linguistic laws became possible with the recognition of the duality of the subject of linguistics: language in general and specific languages. Until this division was made, there were varied and contradictory interpretations of linguistic laws. The neogrammarians, for example, initially defined phonetic laws as historical, universal (for a given dialect), and imperative, that is, similar to the laws of nature. Having subsequently recognized as the sole reality only the language of the individual, the neogrammarians came to regard as a phonetic law only the law of change of separate words in individual speech, and they regarded the application of laws to an entire given language as the application of habits and norms.

Historical survey. The oldest stage of linguistics, which emerged in ancient Greece and India, was dominated by the exercise of logic. The analysis of language was only an auxiliary tool of logic, and language was regarded as a means of formulating and expressing thought. The dialogue Cratylus by Plato (fifth-fourth centuries B.C.) was the first work on linguistics in European science to contain a system of suppositions (“models”) of the transformation of ideas into text. Plato held that the essence of things (“objective ideas”) is reflected in subjective human cognition in various aspects and, correspondingly, is represented by various names. As each name is uttered, it becomes even more precisely defined and forms a communication intelligible to another person. The importance of Plato for linguistics, however, consists not so much in his specific arguments as in the constructive method of the organization of his philosophical system, which is linked with linguistic modeling. Examples of his constructive method may be seen in the dialogues Sophist and Parmenides.

Like Plato, Aristotle (fourth century B.C.) considered the study of language to be only an auxiliary part of logic, but he attached greater importance to language than did Plato. The integral ideas of Aristotle’s logicolinguistic conception are set forth in his Categories, On Interpretation, and Topics. The starting point for this conception is the system of word-concepts, or logoi, which are broken down into categories; the end point is an analysis of various types of utterances and judgments and their connections. Aristotle introduced into his philosophical system ten categories, which, in his opinion, represented the highest orders of objective being. These categories, which included essence, quantity, quality, and relation, constituted a strict hierarchical list of all the forms of the predicate that can be found in a simple sentence in Ancient Greek—from noun forms to verb forms and from more independent to more dependent forms.

Aristotle was the first of the classical thinkers to approach the problem of grammatical form and to develop a doctrine of the parts of speech as grammatically distinct classes of words. He considered the principal form of judgment to be an utterance of the form “noun-subject—noun-predicate,” for example, “a horse is an animal.” He regarded other forms of judgment-utterances as transformations of the principal type. Aristotle’s concept was further developed in medieval European logic and grammar (seeREALISM, NOMINALISM, and CONCEPTUALISM). His logical grammar has retained its importance in the 20th century and, in particular, is used in the teaching of language. Several terms in Russian grammar are caiques of terms introduced by Aristotle.

Unlike Plato and Aristotle, who formulated general philosophical systems of views, the ancient Indian grammarian Panini (fifth-fourth centuries B.C.) examined language as an end in itself and for itself, although he did so for the most part formally, without a system of semantics. His normative grammar Astadhyayi (Book of Eight Chapters) exhaustively describes the phonetics, morphology, word formation, and syntactic elements of Old Indie. In a manner completely consistent with the principles of linguistics, Panini was the first to introduce the concepts of the root, affix, and stem of a word and the concept of the generation of word forms. He was also the first to use an arbitrary symbolic descriptive language. As an example of a systematic description of a language, Panini’s work surpasses the classical grammars, for example, those of the Alexandrian school, which did not contain the idea of the divisibility of words. In many ways, Panini’s grammar is on the level of 20th-century linguistic studies; like Plato’s system, it anticipated the constructive approach to language.

Panini’s system emerged from the traditions of preceding schools, including those of Aindra, Sakatayana, and Api-sala. Among the few works that have survived from these schools is the Nirukta (Etymology) by the grammarian Yaska. Panini, in turn, had an enormous influence in India. The Indian grammatical tradition after Panini was greatly developed by such scholars as Chandra Gomin, Nagesh Bhatta, Kunda Bhatta, Katyayana, Patanjali, and Bhartrihari. The theory of sphota, or ideal prototypes of concrete linguistic forms, was formulated in the tradition of Panini, as was the notion of language as a system of possibilities richer than the sum total of existing realizations.

One of the most complete logicolinguistic conceptions outside European culture comes from the Indian school of Navya-Nyaya, or New Nyaya, which began in the 13th century. The philosophy of the Navya-Nyaya school was similar to Aristotle’s conception of an approach based on categories. Unlike Aristotle, however, scholars of the school considered the initial categories, and not genders and forms, to be properties; they attached real, objective existence to the essences of language and to the meanings of names. In addition to purely linguistic analysis, scholars performed analyses of the relations among things; utterances, therefore, went virtually unexamined. Scholars examined jñana, or knowledge, which, if true, was accepted as objective fact. Like the system of Aristotle, the philosophical system of the Navya-Nyaya is directly dependent on a language, in this case, Sanskrit.

The Stoics, who emerged during the period known as the Early Stoa (third-second centuries B.C.) and whose founders included Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, established a logically consistent approach based on the utterance. They were the first to discover that an utterance has two subjects: the first is the telos, a thing or object of the real world (in 20th-century logic and linguistic terminology, the “object of denotation,” “denótate,” “meaning,” or “extensional”); the second is the lekton, a specific, abstract essence (in 20th-century semantics terminology, “meaning,” “signifier,” or “intentional”). In contrast to Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics came to examine logically the content of the utterance not as a combination of abstract concepts or of essences belonging to a type or species, but rather as a unit, as a confluence of concepts, perceived notions, and human emotions. The lekton was a special form of knowledge more general than negation and affirmation and is to some degree analogous to the Old Indie jñana. Thus, the Stoics founded the science of semantic syntax by arriving at a classification of the parts of speech. The grammatical studies of the Stoics were carried on in part in Hellenistic culture by the members of the Alexandrian school.

Out of the traditions of the Greek and Indian schools developed ancient Arabic linguistics, whose golden age, from the seventh to the 12th century, saw many advances in the development of lexicography and produced such works as Sibawiyyah’s grammar of the Arabic language, Al-Kitab (The Book), and the dictionaries of Firuzabadi. During the period, several features of Arabic and other Semitic languages were examined. Triliteral roots, which are specific to Arabic and other Semitic languages, were defined; the means of producing sounds were studied; and, for the first time in Arabic linguistics, a distinction was made between letters and sounds. The definitions of roots and affixes that were proposed by Arab scholars influenced studies by 19th-century linguists, particularly F. Bopp. The Arab linguists, unlike those of Greece and India, studied not only their native language but Turkish, Mongolian, and Persian as well.

The logical trend in linguistics continued until the late 17th century and the first half of the 18th century, although many ideas of the Stoics and some of Aristotle were forgotten. The trend reached its height in the theories of logic and grammar developed by the Port-Royal linguists in France. Ancient scholars used the forms of their native languages (Ancient Greek or Old Indie) as the basis for linguistic study. The Port-Royal linguists considered the logical forms of language, which had been established by Greek and Latin scholars as concept, judgment, and the nine parts of speech, to be universal forms common to all languages.

Within the general framework of the logical trend, an important step was taken toward the study of language as a universal property of man, toward the creation of a universal grammar, and toward the development of a general method of such studies. At the same time, however, the specific historical differences among the languages of the world were disregarded. The logical trend in linguistics continued in isolated manifestations until the late 19th century, when it was still being used as the basis for scholarly grammars of various languages. In the 20th century the influence of the trend can be seen in educational texts.

The next stage in the development of linguistics, beginning at the end of the 18th century, is characterized by the emergence of the comparative-historical trend. Comparative-historical linguistics was originally viewed as a completely independent science and was characterized by the following basic principles:

(1) Each language has its own particular features, which distinguish it from other languages.

(2) These particular features are identified through comparison.

(3) The comparison of languages reveals relationships among languages that originated from a common source, called the parent language, which may be a living language or a dead language. The genealogical classification of languages joins related languages in groups, for example, Germanic and Slavic, and further organizes the groups into larger families, such as the Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, and Semitic language families.

(4) The distinctions between related languages can be explained only by the continuous historical change of the languages; this change is recognized as the most important property of every language.

(5) In historical change, sounds change more quickly than other elements; the sound transformations within a single language family are strictly regular and can be clearly formulated according to phonetic laws. The main elements of a language—word roots, affixes, and grammatical endings (inflections)—remain stable for thousands of years.

(6) On the basis of historical changes, it is possible to reconstruct the general features of the preexisting common language. (It was previously supposed that the parent language could be reconstructed in toto.)

The concepts of reconstruction and of the parent language served as an important stimulus and tool for the study of both language in general and specific languages. The stability of the main elements of language subsequently led scholars to the idea of language as a special type of independent system. In the 19th century, however, the prevailing idea of the existence of language was not that of an integral system, but rather of the changing and unchanging elements of language. These elements were the objects of comparative-historical grammar, which was created by means of the comparative-historical method.

The comparative-historical ideas that served as the basis of a new trend in linguistics were first formulated by F. Bopp and R. K. Rask and were further developed by such scholars as F. von Schlegel, J. Grimm, and A. K. Vostokov. Bopp’s Comparative Grammar (1833) was the first work to crystallize the ideas in research. The second half of the 19th century was notable for the publication of comparative-historical grammars of various Indo-European language groups, including the Germanic by J. Grimm, the Romance by F. Diez, and the Slavic by F. Miklosich. Following the example of the Indo-European studies, grammars of other language groups and families were compiled, including the Semitic grammar published by J.-E. Renan. A new summarizing study, which was already based on the concept of a common Indo-European parent language, was A. Schleicher’s A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages (1861–62). Adopting the biological theories of Darwinism, Schleicher viewed language as somewhat similar to a developing organism. Such ideas were central to the short-lived school of biological naturalism in linguistics.

The views of the German scholar W. von Humboldt developed simultaneously with and from the point of view of the historical trend, which dominated the period. Humboldt regarded each language as a self-contained system that is not final but is perpetually and continuously being created as an “activity” expressing the “profound spirit of the people.” His ideas had a great influence in the 20th century, particularly on neo-Humboldtism and structuralism.

The psychological trend, which was developed by such linguists as the German scholar H. Steinthal, originated within the framework of comparative-historical linguistics. The new trend rejected any essential connections with logic; the unity of human language was explained by the unity of psychological laws, whereas the variety of languages was explained by the particular features of the psychologies of various peoples. The Ukrainian-Russian scholar A. A. Potebnia, the founder of one of the most influential schools in 19th-century linguistics, was an adherent of the psychological trend. According to Potebnia’s conception, the study of language reveals the unified principles of man’s recognition of the objective world in language, in the psyche, in thought, and in artistic creation. The trend holds that thought evolves in close conjunction with language according to specific semantic rules. The most important of these rules is sign substitution, which takes place both in words (the internal form of a word) and in semantic-syntactic transformations of the sentence (substitution of parts of speech). Research methods, particularly those pertaining to the reconstruction and study of the forms of language, were greatly advanced through the development of comparative-historical psychological linguistics.

The Russian scholar F. F. Fortunatov devoted particular attention to the study of the structural aspect of language. His works in the area were of great significance to the development of 19th-century linguistics.

Many of the ideas of the psychological trend served as the basis for a new trend in linguistics, neogrammarianism, which appeared in the late 19th century. The theoretical principles of neogrammarianism were summarized in the works of the German scholars H. Osthoff and K. Brugmann, who published a manifesto of neogrammarianism entitled Morphological Studies in the Indo-European Languages (parts 1–6, 1878–1910), and Principles of the History of Language (1880) by the German linguist H. Paul. In addition to developing a basis for the study of any language, particularly the reconstruction of its morphology, the neogrammarians promoted the ideas of the unity of psychological laws and the immutability of the phonetic laws of speech.

The main achievements of comparative-historical linguistics in the 19th century were the development of a rigorous method of comparing languages and reconstructing their extinct forms and rules; the use of comparison and reconstruction to study the history of large language families, in particular the Indo-European family; and the establishment of the principal phonetic and semantic rules of change of living languages. The basic inventory of linguistics was formed from the enormous amount of data collected and systematized during the period, particularly by the neogrammarians. Still in use as primary sources in linguistics are several of the most significant works produced in the 19th century, including the Compendium of Comparative Grammar of the Indo-Germanic Languages by K. Brugmann and B. Delbriick and the works of J. Wackernagel, H. Hirt, A. Meillet, and F. F. Fortunatov.

A crisis in neogrammarianism, however, subsequently appeared with the emergence of a new trend—structuralism. Among the factors that contributed to the shift in trends was the continued division of the subject of linguistic study into two parts—language and the psyche, which resulted in such dualistic correspondences as sound and the psychic representation of sound, and meaning and the psychic representation of meaning. Other factors included linguists’ splintering of the system of language into a sea of “trivial” facts (sounds, word forms, and the like) and their exaggeration of the role of individual psychology and individual speech, which contributed to the acceptance of the speech of the individual as the only linguistic reality.

The new trend, called linguistic structuralism, or structural linguistics, arose in the early 20th century with the publication of F. de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (unauthorized posthumous edition, 1916). Structural linguistics was formed within the mainstream of structuralism, which was developing analogously and almost simultaneously in a variety of fields: in the general study of systems, in psychology (seeGESTALT PSYCHOLOGY), and in the theory of literature and art (seeFORMAL METHOD). The groundwork for structuralism in linguistics was laid by the Kazan school in Russia, mainly by N. V. Krushevskii and I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay, who, with Saussure, is considered the founder of structural linguistics. The main principles of structural linguistics may be stated as follows:

(1) The original and principal reality is not an isolated fact of a given language, but rather the language as a system. Each element of a language exists only in its relationships to other elements in the system. The system is not the sum of its elements but, on the contrary, defines them.

(2) The structural framework of the system is formed by extra-temporal relationships; relationships within the system govern the elements of the system.

(3) An extratemporal “algebraic” study of the system of language, based on relationships rather than on the individuality of elements or their materiality, is therefore possible; rigorous mathematical methods can also be adapted to linguistics.

(4) Language is a special type of system—a sign system that exists, on the one hand, objectively, outside the human psyche, in interpersonal interaction, and, on the other hand, inside the human psyche.

(5) Several other systems that function in human societies, including folklore, customs and rituals, and kinship relations, are organized similarly to language. All such systems, like language, lend themselves to linguistic study; in particular, they may be formalized “algebraically” or by other means (seeSEMIOTICS).

As the structural trend in linguistics developed in various directions within various national schools, the unity of linguistics was temporarily lost; the phenomenon attests to the known theoretical weakness of linguistics in the period. The various schools, however, complemented one another in the theoretical sense.

The sign doctrine of Saussure and, to a lesser extent, the algebraic line of structuralism were developed by the Swiss school and the closely related French sociological school. The main achievements of structuralism are associated with Saussure’s students, including A. Meillet, C. Bally, S. O. Kartsevskii, the Swiss scholar R. Godel, and the French scholar E. Benveniste. Principal among their achievements are the detailed study of the nature of the linguistic sign; the establishment, on the basis of this study, of the deep, or underlying, rules of the semantics and syntax of French, German, and Russian; the systematization and reconstruction of broad strata of the Indo-European grammar and lexicon; and the creation of a basis for etymological dictionaries of the Indo-European languages.

Structuralism was most fully developed in three schools: American structural linguistics, or descriptivism; the Prague linguistic school, also known as Eastern European structuralism; and the Copenhagen school.

American structural linguistics first developed in the 1920’s. The study of unwritten American Indian languages was the basis for the development of methods for the maximally objective primary description of a language. Such description, as developed by F. Boas, E. Sapir, and others, relied on the establishment of the phonemes, morphemes, and elementary syntactic constructions of a language. The study of American Indian languages also helped create a special method based on the concept of distribution, which was treated in L. Bloomfield’s Language (1933), in Z. S. Harris’ Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951), and in the works of such linguists as K. L. Pike and G. Trager. By the early 1960’s, however, it became apparent that this theory was weak in its explicatory capability and insufficiently applicable to semantics and syntax. The process of developing a system free of such shortcomings produced a new trend—generative linguistics.

The Prague linguistic school also emerged in the 1920’s. Its center was the Linguistic Circle of Prague, which existed until the beginning of World War II. (In 1946, Czech linguists renewed their work under the same name.) The circle brought together several Russian and Czech linguists, including N. S. Trubetskoi, V. Mathesius, R. Jakobson, B. Trnka, B. Havránek, J. Mukařovský, J. Vachek, and V. Skalička. The work of the Polish scholar J. Kurylowicz was affiliated with both the Prague school and the Copenhagen school. Many Soviet scholars, including L. V. Shcherba, P. V. Bogatyrev, and E. D. Polivanov, also greatly contributed to the development of the ideas of the Prague school. Unlike the descriptivists, the members of the Prague school followed the tradition of European philology, studying those European languages that have a rich cultural history. On this basis they developed the conception of language as a “system of systems,” defined the dynamics of development of such systems, and studied many problems of the utterance, including the functional division of a sentence. The main accomplishment of the Prague school was the creation of theoretical phonology, which has as its center the concept of opposition. This concept served as the example for formulating descriptions of other spheres of language. A weakness of the Prague school consisted in the insufficient attention it devoted to the logical aspect of theory and method.

Since the mid-1930’s, the center of structuralism has been the Copenhagen school (seeGLOSSEMATICS), headed by L. Hjelmslev, V. Brøndal, and H. Uldall. With the goal of developing a new basis for solving the problem of a universal grammar, the Copenhagen linguists found it necessary to reform the linguistic method completely. They based a new theory of language and the method of describing language on the absolute primacy of relations over elements; they interpreted language as a “system of pure relations.” The Copenhagen linguists did not succeed in creating a theory free from contradictions in form and content, but their work prepared the way for joining the abstract theory of language with mathematics.

The achievements of the main schools of structural linguistics are widely used in many areas of linguistics. It is not possible, however, for all problems in linguistics to be solved solely on the basis of the methods of structural linguistics.

By the mid-1960’s, a new trend—constructivism—had developed in linguistics and had as its underlying principle the requirement of constructivity of theoretical objects. This principle, which was initially formulated within the framework of mathematics and mathematical logic, had two main parts: first, an object may be taken as an object of theory only if it can be constructed; second, one may speak of the existence of objects and of the possibility of their cognition only if one can theoretically construct or simulate the objects. One of the principal concepts of the constructive method was based on the algorithm, which was first discussed by Plato and Panini and subsequently treated, in varying degrees, by many philosophers and scholars, including Aristotle, Spinoza, and Potebnia. The concepts derived from the algorithm formed a special variety of constructivism in linguistics and provided the basis for the theory of generative grammars (seeMATHEMATICAL LINGUISTICS). These theories, however, proved essentially limited when applied to specific linguistic data.

As structuralism developed, there arose other separate trends in linguistics that criticized both structuralism and neogrammarianism. Among these trends were linguistic geography; neolinguistics, whose proponents included M. Bartoli; areal linguistics; and the theory of “new studies of language,” which was founded by N. Ia. Marr. Such trends introduced into the general theory of language only isolated new elements.

After the October Revolution of 1917, Marxist linguistics developed in the USSR. Its theory is based on the states of language in the processes of socialization and the development of social labor practices of primitive man (F. Engels); on language as the direct reality .of cognition, which is realized in social intercourse (K. Marx and F. Engels); and according to V. I. Lenin’s theory of reflection, on the reflection of objective reality in the human consciousness and the content of language forms.

The first example of the use of historical materialism in the study of language was Engels’ The Frankish Dialect. Soviet Marxist scholars attempted to create a new trend, incorporating the achievements of previous trends and contemporary schools and, at the same time, overcoming their shortcomings. The attempt was facilitated by circumstances in the USSR that were exceptionally favorable to the gathering of data and the formulation of theories: the diversity of language types and families represented in the Soviet Union, the development of national cultures and languages, and the creation of writing systems for unwritten languages, which constitutes part of a linguistic policy. A basis for formulating theories was developed from the materialist tendencies of Russian linguistics of the 19th century, particularly those of the Kazan school, and, most importantly, from the main tenets of Marxism-Leninism, which in particular made possible the application of the achievements of various methods and methodologies while preserving the primacy of Marxist methodology. These principles provided the basis for the main subjects of Marxist linguistics in the USSR: language and society, developed by such scholars as R. O. Shor, E. D. Polivanov, L. P. Iakubinskii, and V. M. Zhirmunskii; and language and thought, which has been treated principally by I. I. Meshchaninov and the psychologist L. S. Vygotskii. The most important achievements of Marxist linguistics are connected with these two subject areas.

Soviet microlinguistics has created three of the most widely accepted conceptualizations in mid-20th-century linguistics: I. I. Meshchaninov’s typology; L. V. Shcherba’s theory of phonology, grammar, and lexicography; and V. V. Vinogradov’s theory of the Russian language, literary languages, stylistics, and poetics. Marxist linguistics is also developing in other socialist countries, as well as in several capitalist countries.

Linguistics in the second half of the 20th century has been characterized by close communication among linguists of various countries and schools. In their striving for a collective solution to problems in the field, linguists have taken part in debates and discussions that have evolved into regular international linguistic congresses and have produced a wealth of periodical literature that includes linguistic journals from many countries.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The study of human speech in its various aspects, especially units of language, phonetics, syntax, semantics, and grammar.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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