Language and Linguistics

Difference between synchrony and diachrony by Saussure and Lyons

Synchronous and diachronic Linguistics

This new entry is dedicated to one of the basic concepts of the world of Language Sciences: the differences between Diachronic Linguistics and Synchronous Linguistics. More than two branches of this science, we could say that it is about two study perspectives that entirely respond to its etymological definition. In this article we will provide you the difference between synchrony and diachrony.

Diachronic Linguistics

from the Greek δια- “through” and χρόνος“Time” focuses on the study of the language system through history, so it will work on the origins and evolution of words and the other linguistic elements that form it (mainly morphemes). In this way, studies of phonetic, semantic and syntactic evolution will be carried out either by means of pre-established rules or by comparing the same term in more than one different time. Thanks to this type of study, nowadays neologisms can be created from some bases and processes of creation already founded and it is possible, in addition, to trace the path that a word has made both in form (writing and spelling) and background (connotations and meanings).

Thus, from the Greek καρδία «heart» together with other morphemes or other words (such as – λογία «science», πάθεια «disease», vasculum «vessel or vessel») the terms “cardiology” together with many other derivatives such as ” cardiovascular “,” heart disease “, etc.

Synchronic linguistics

from the Greek συν- “with” and χρόνος“Time”, on the contrary, is responsible for the study of the language system at a given moment in its history. So, following Saussure‘s line, we will say that the main purpose is to establish the fundamental principles of every idiosynchronous system, that is, the factors that constitute the language. In this way, traditional school grammar and, ultimately, all general grammar is essentially synchronous since it is studied how the language works today (or at a specific point in its history). For this reason, we will affirm that synchronous linguistics would be in charge of the study of a type of language at a certain moment, such as “The use of articles in the Middle Ages”,

Linguistic synchrony and diachrony, according to Saussure and Lyons

The Swiss academic born in 1857 is considered the father of the study of the modern language, while the British scholar born in 1932 further developed the field of semantics. However, the basic studies of both have contributed to a better understanding of the structures that humans build to communicate.

1- Ferdinand de Saussure

Switzerland, 1857- focused his research on language on its structure and internal organization. Thus, he determined that it is made up of basic units related to each other, such as the “concept” and the “mental imprint of the concept”, which are related in the individual’s brain.

These two facets constitute what comes to be the “meaning” -phonic image- and the “signifier” –iconic image- of the language. Their relationship is basically arbitrary and lacking in motivation , as Saussure explains, which gives stability to the signifier; but without actually immobilizing the relationship between the two concepts.

The language -set of signs that serve a linguistic community– as a social product, according to this academic, is acquired in the form of inheritance. Therefore, links to the past tend to be stronger than innovation. However, this does not prevent certain displacements from occurring. Hence, Saussure‘s study has two perspectives: one of a synchronic nature and the other of a diachronic nature.

Language – a set of signs that serve a linguistic community – as a social product is acquired in the form of inheritance

The synchronous approach observes the language from a static point of view, makes a temporal cut and determines which are the guidelines that structure the language at that moment, accepted by the linguistic community. For its part, the diachronic approach examines its evolution over time. It focuses on investigating how the signs of words are modified, new ones appear and others become archaic. This is how he explains it in his work: ” General Linguistics Course ” published in 1916, which this year celebrates its centenary.

2- John Lyons

a British linguist born in 1932, despite focusing his work in the field of semantics, also approached the study of the language from these two perspectives; introducing certain nuances.

He believed that, starting from the same differentiation that Saussure makes, it should also be understood that the synchronic study does not have to be subject to the study of a modern language, it can also be carried out on languages ​​considered “dead”, once the validity of the texts available.

The synchronic study does not have to be subject to the study of a modern language, it can also be carried out on languages ​​considered “dead”

Likewise, this academic assured that time is not the determining factor in all linguistic change, since there are many other factors  – internal or external to the language – that can determine its change.

In this sense, Lyons argued that it would be wrong to consider that linguistic progress is nothing more than the replacement of a homogeneous communication system by another equally homogeneous system at a specific “point” in time. Therefore, for this linguist it was impossible to establish a precise and clear distinction between diachronic “change” and synchronous “variation” of the language.

Saussure believes that it is not possible to fully describe a language if this is done in isolation from the community that uses it and in turn the effects that time has on language (its evolution).

Indeed, during the course of time, language evolves, which shows that the signs change. Consequently, Saussure states that a language can be studied both at a particular time and through its evolution over time. In this sense, it will differentiate two modalities regarding the use of language:

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