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Structuralism in linguistics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term structural linguistics can be used to refer to two movements which developed independently of each other. The first is European and can be characterized as post-Saussurean, since Saussure is generally regarded as its inspiration. The central claim of this movement is that terms of a language of all kinds (sounds, words, meanings) present themselves in Saussure’s phrase ‘as a system’, and can only be identified by describing their relations to other terms of the same language; one cannot first identify the terms of a language and then ask which system they belong to. Moreover, because a language is a system of signs, one cannot identify expression-elements (sounds, words) independently of the content-elements (meanings), so that a study of language cannot be divorced from one of meaning. The second movement is an American one, which developed from the work of Leonard Bloomfield and dominated American linguistics in the 1940s and 1950s. It attached great importance to methodological rigour and, influenced by behaviourist psychology, was hostile to mentalism (any theory which posits an independent category of mental events and processes). As a result, unlike the first movement, it excluded the study of meaning from that of grammar, and tried to develop a methodology to describe any corpus in terms of the distribution of its expression-elements relative to each other. Whereas the first movement provided a model for structuralist thought in general, and had a significant impact on such thinkers as Barthes, Lacan and Lévi-Strauss, the second made a major contribution to the development of formal models of language, however inadequate they may seem now in the light of Chomsky’s criticisms.

Citing this article:
Holdcroft, David. Structuralism in linguistics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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