Structuralism in Linguistics

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STRUCTURALISM IN LINGUISTICS

Introduction
It is not my purpose here to give a historical treatment of linguistic ideas, nor it to distinguish and analyze the various approaches and schools of thought generally subsumed under the heading of Structuralism. Rather, I propose to look at the general features characterizing structuralism as seen and treated by structuralists and further to see how it has come to be viewed by Chomsky and other transformationalists. Structuralism in linguistics has come to be used to mean various things, from the capacity for abstraction in organizing a model for ‘the cataloguing of languages structures and … the comparing of structural types’ (Harris, 1951:3) to what the transformationalists have come to label as ‘taxonomic’ model with its ‘reliance on procedures of segmentation and classification, and on statements of syntagmatic and paradigmatic distribution’ (Chomsky, 1964: 11). In a first step, it is useful to talk about the general features of structuralism rather than the details elaborated by various structuralist practitioners, for the latter ‘are talking about the same thing, and struggling toward the same goal’ (Haugen, 1951: 214).

Structure and system
The idea of structure presupposes the reduction or breaking down of linguistic segments or features. Also, to speak of a structure presupposes a notion of unity existing above particular segments or features, of a whole above the composing and functioning elements. The latter, connected with each other and their regular occurrences arranged on distributional grounds and relations, are ordered in a system. The notion of system here is to be contrasted with the idea of inventory – a non-ordered list of elements – that was important and prevalent at one stage in the development of linguistics (e.g. Neogrammarians, followers of Darwinian theory, or even in the introspective and normative approach so much in use in traditional linguistics during the Renaissance and after). It is expedient, when speaking of structuralism, to assess de Saussure’s and Bloomfield’s views and conceptions, and then see the development from there to newer directions in modern linguistics. In fact, the origin of the tendency towards a scientific linguistics is frequently seen in ‘une double influence : celle de Saussure en Europe, celle de Bloomfield en Amérique. Les voies de leur influence respective sont d’ailleurs aussi différentes que les œuvres dont elles procèdent’ (Benveniste ; 1966 : 7).

De Saussure
De Saussure did not explicitly use the notion of “structure”; for him the essential notion was that of “system”. He was, however, a pioneer in making explicit some fundamental and indispensable dimensions in linguistic study. One important foundation is the double distinction ‘synchronic/diachronic’ and ‘langue/parole’. The first distinction points the necessity of studying linguistic phenomena either from the synchronic point of view (axis of simultaneities) or from the diachronic point of view (axis of successions). Both studies can be said to be important and scientific but, de Saussure says, ‘the basic difference between successive and coexisting terms, between partial facts and facts that affect the system, precludes making both classes of fact the subject matter of a single science’ (De Saussure, 1959: 87). Thus, ‘the synchronic and diachronic “phenomenon” … have nothing in common. One is a relation between simultaneous elements, the other the substitution of one element for another in time, an event’ (De Saussure, 1959: 91). The comment to make here is that this requirement need no longer be of necessity, or as one linguist explains, “that structural dialectology need

not be restricted to historical problems … Consequences of partial differences between varieties can be synchronic as well as synchronic’ (Weinreich, 1954: 390). The second distinction is between “langue” – the whole set of linguistic signs and habits ‘deposited’ within each...
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