Language and Linguistics

Principles and Major Concepts of Linguistics

Major Concepts of Linguistics

Before dealing with the details of phonetics, it is important that we consider some major concepts in linguistics. An idea of them helps us come to grips with more complex issues. One must get a sound footing in these concepts and have a clear understanding. Mostly they are described in pairs of terms denoting sets of distinctions, such as synchrony and diachrony; form and substance; description and prescription; competence and performance, and so on.

1-Synchrony and Diachrony

The distinction synchrony and diachrony refers to the difference in treating language from different points of view. When we take a synchronic point of view, we are looking at a language as we find it at a given period in time. The diachronic point of view, on the other hand, gives us the historical angle; we look at a language over a period of time along with changes that occurred in it. The principles that introduce this dichotomy enable us to obtain ‘particularly accurate information about a language in its current usage’ (Wilkins). The synchronic linguistics studies how a language works at a given time, regardless of its past history or future blueprint. This has also been called descriptive linguistics. 

Though the historical character of a language cannot be ignored, its present form being the result of definite historical processes, changes and transformations, it is necessary for a complete understanding of it to concentrate on the units of its structure at the present moment. Some scholars donot see the two approaches apart : “It is a mistake to think of descriptive and historical linguistics as two separate compartments, each bit of information belonging exclusively in the one or in the other”.

However, on the whole the two areas are kept apart and one is studied to the exclusion of the other. Synchronic statements make no reference to the previous stages in the language.

Linguistic studies in the nineteenth century were historical in character; they originated as part of the general historical investigations into the origins and development of cultures and communities, especially West Asia, Egypt, etc. Such philological researches viewed language at different stages of its progress and attempted to understand relations among different languages. Language families were discovered and genetic affinities identified. Diachronic linguistics was a great discovery of the 19th century, ‘which developed so powerfully and fruitfully from the 1820s to the 1880s. This discovery enabled linguists to explain modern languages as a result of law-governed historical development. (Zhirmunsky)

On a closer look one realises that without a good synchronic (descriptive) work, valid historical (diachronic) postulations are not possible; in other words, a good historical linguist needs to be thorough descriptive scholar too.

Figure 2 shows that diachronic axis (x-y) has been considered as moving and the synchronic axis (A-B) as static. It was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Sassure who first coined these terms and established the distinctions. As the Russian linguist V.M. Zhirmunsky observes, ‘In de Saussure’s conception, synchrony is language considered as a system of static oppositions resting on a single temporal plane, a static two dimensional cross-section”.

The discoveries and theories of the synchronic studies offer particularly accurate information about a language in its current usage. ‘The first of these principles distinguishes clearly between descriptions of the language in its contemporary form and descriptions of its historical development’ (Wilkins)

2-Form and Substance

This destinction refers to the system, on the one hand, that is devised, arid the actual data which is used or worked upon. The system explains the data, it is a theoretical construct. Phonemes /b/, /d/, /g/ exemplify this. The actual sounds produced in certain distinctive manner that differentiates each from the other comprise the substance. These are accounted for by the concept of phoneme.

Sounds produced by the human speech organs can be said to comprise the substance (phonic substance) or content. Its shaping into different functional configurations can be called forms or expressions. Thus the same substance is realized in different forms. Drink (content) is used as both noun and verb. Form can be analysed without taking into account the meaning. But semantics, a branch of linguistics, deals only with the content or the substance. Form can be studied from different angles : phonological, morphological, grammatical, syntactical, etc.

Saussure had used the terms ‘Significant’ for the external form of a linguistic element, and signific for the meaning or content aspect of it. This duality is an essential attribute of any human activity and highly relevant to linguistic study as well.

3-Competence and Performance

The famous American linguist Noam Chomsky first used these terms to specifically refer to a person’s intuitive knowledge of the rules and structure of his language as a native speaker (he called it competence), and his actual use of these (which he termed performance). Scholars of the earlier period were aware of this basic distinction but Chomsky precisely pointed out the inherent ability or knowledge in a native speaker of the structure of his language. It refers to the ability of the native speaker to ‘understand and produce utterances which he may never find the opportunity either to understand or to produce’. Competence is the tacit knowledge of the language, performance the use of the language in concrete situations. ‘Sentence’ is a concept that belongs to the theory of competence, while ‘utterance’ belongs to performance.

The native speaker of a language possesses an ‘internalised set of rules’ which is at the base of his ability to understand and speak. The actual utterances are only evidence of this competence. While reading a new book he comes across right from the start new expressions and sentences which he had never read before; but he doesnot find any difficulty in understanding them. Each sentence is a new construction but since he had mastered the rules of the language any number of new constructions is easily understood. As Ronald Wardaugh says, ‘The ability the reader has to understand novel sentences derives from his competence in English’. His competence also makes him reject the ungrammatical constructions, consider the sentence ‘flying planes can be dangerous’ as ambiguous, and utterances like I, well, have seen the captain, well, but it was raining, and ah, I had no raincoat, what a bad memory I have …,as indicating that the speaker has wandered off. Competence also makes him recognise an expression as command, request, politeness, rough order and so on.

Performance is what actually a speaker says. It is the substance, the actual manifestation of his competence. One can understand a speaker’s competence by studying his performance. In learning a new language also it is wiser to develop the basic competence rather than memorise pieces of sentences and phrases, as the latter activity is not a true language behaviour.

Chomsky characterised generative grammar of a language as an explicit description of the ‘ideal speaker-hearer’s intrinsic competence’.

The competence-performance distinction also helps us understand that there is no limit to the actual production of sentence, it is possible to produce an infinitely long sentence, but underlying the performance is the ability of the native speakers which is limited and can be described in terms of a set of principles.

4-Langue and Parole

The major contribution of Ferdinand de Saussure to linguistics can be summed up as providing the basic groundwork of fundamental concepts; his definition of the ‘linguistic sign’; his explanation of the distinction between concrete and abstract linguistic units; distinction between descriptive (synchronic) and historical (diachronic), study of language, and so on. He was under the influence of the new scientific temperament and followed the principles of Durkheim who said that ‘we have social facts that can be studied scientifically when we consider them from an aspect that is independent of their individual manifestations’. This attitude helped the shaping of the structuralist approach.

De Saussure put forward the concepts of La langue, La Parole and Le Language.

Le langage 

denotes a host of heterogenous traits that a speaker possesses, such as his ability to produce speech acquired through heredity, his inherent ability to speak and the external factors that trigger and stimulate speech. It encompasses such factors as physical, physiological and psychological. Most significantly, it belongs to both the individual and society. Speech occupies a less important place in Le Langage. The latter’ is, therefore, of greater interest to the anthropologist and the biologist.

La langue is more directly indicative of ability to produce speech, a kind of ‘institutionalized element’ of the community’s collective consciousness. Every member of the community shares it, and because of this they are in a position to understand each other. Through langue they share the common properties of speech. ‘If one took away what was idiosyncratic or innovational, langue would remain. Langue, by definition, is stable and systematic, society conveys the regularities of langue to the child so that he becomes able to function as a member of the speech community (Wilkins).

La langue is a collective pattern which exists as ‘a sum of impressions deposited in the brain of each individual.., like a dictionary of which identical copies have been distributed to each individual… it exists in each individual, yet it is common to all’.

La langue is a repository of signs which each speaker has received from the other speakers of the community. It is passive. It is a set of conventions received by us all, ready-made from the community.

La Parole : 

By contrast la parole is active and denotes the actual speech act of the individual. We can better understand it by considering each act of speaking as a unique event. It is unique because it reflects the unstable, changeable relationship between the language, the precise contextual elements triggering particular utterances, and personal factors. Thus each particular speech act is characterized by the personality, nature and several other external forces governing both the production and reception of a speech act. There is a great deal that is particular, individual, personal and idiosyncratic about la parole as opposed to la langue which emphasizes speech as the common act of behaviour, ‘given that there is a good deal that is idiosyncratic or not fully institutionalized, parole cannot be stable and systematic’ (Wilkins : 34). Parole gives the data from which statements about langue are made; parole is not collective but individual, momentary and heterogenous.

As Francis P. Dinneen points out “when we hear la parole of another community, we perceive the noises made, but not the social fact of language. We cannot connect the sounds produced and the social facts with which the other speech associates the sounds. When we hear la parole within our own community we perceive the sounds as associated with social facts, according to a set of rules. These rules, which can be called the convention, or grammar, of the language are habits that education has imposed on us. They have the property of being general throughout the community. That is why all the speakers can understand each other.

The main points of distinction between La Langue and La Parole can be summed up as follows.

La Langue La Parole
1. It is stable and institutionalized. It is mobile and personal.
2. It is passive. It is active.
3. It is a social fact and general for the community. It is individual and idiosyncratic.
4. It contains the negative limits on what a speaker must say. It doesn’t put any such limits.
5. It is sum of properties shared by all speakers of a community. It contains infinite number of individual properties.
6. A scientific study can only be based on La langue It is not amenable to scientific study.
7. It is an abstraction. It is concrete manifestation.
8. It is a collective instrument. It is not a collective instrument.
9. It is a set of conventions and habits handed down to next generation readymade. It is diverse and variegated.
10. It is language as a speaker is expected to use. It is language in actual use.
11. It is not subject to social and individual pressure. It is susceptible to social and other pressure.
12. It is fixed. It is free.
13. It is a potential form of language. It is an actualized form of language.

5-Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic

Ferdinand de Saussure saw the linguistic sign at once as static and dynamic or developing. The pairing of terms, synchrony-diachrony; form-substance; langue-parole as sets of contrasting relations amply demonstrates this concept. The idea is to highlight and demonstrate two dominant properties of a linguistic sign, one linear and the other arbitrary. La langue is thus more stable and predictably organised than la parole which displays freedom and dynamism which is not rule-governed, therefore unpredictable.

Similarly, de Saussure put forward the concepts of syntagmatic and what he at that time called ‘associative relations’.

In Syntagmatic relations the syntagme is seen as any ‘combination of discrete successive units of which there arc at least two, with no limit on the possible number’. These segments range from the smallest construction units, i.e. phonemes, to phrases, and so on. The relations binding the successive units are called relation in praesentia. Thus the word read is a succession of phonemes /r/, /i:/, /d/; re-read a succession of bound morpheme and a free morphemes.

For Saussure sentence is the most obvious example of a syntagme. It is a combination of other linguistic units. They demonstrate chain relationship. The unit acquires its significance by its position of occurrence vis-a-vis other elements preceding and following it. We shall take an example.

She will come tomorrow. We see elements occurring in a linear order in this sentence : the pronoun + words cannot be charged. Syntagmatic relations function on the horizontal emphasizing the relational criteria a identifying or defining linguistic categories or units. The concept of syntagmatic relations underlines the structural potential of any item, under examination.


The Words that have something in common, are; associated in the memory, resulting in groups marked by diverse relations. For example, the English word learning will unconsciously call to mind a host of other words––study, knowledge, discipline, etc. All these words are re­lated in some way. This kind of relationship is called associative or para­digmatic relationship. Here the co-ordinations are outside discourse and are not supported by linearity. They are relations in absentia, and are vertical type relations. Their seat is in the brain; they are a part of the inner storehouse that makes up language of each speaker.” (Saussure)

We can visualize a word as the center of a constellation around which spring other words. These relations are unpredictable. Associations that are called up in one person may not occur in the mind of another. Since it is psychological, it is also subject to individual vagaries and governed by the specific factors governing the individual’s speech behaviour, Paradigmatic relations are unpredictable, free, dynamic and idiosyncratic, comparable to la parole.

It was the Danish linguist Lois Hjelmslev who suggested the term ‘paradigmatic’ for de Saussure’s’ ‘associative relations’.

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