A brief history of twentieth-century linguistics. An introduction to the different ways that language can be studied, and the contributions of Saussure and Jakobson in context.


Linguistics is the study of language, sometimes called the science of language. {1} The subject has become a very technical, splitting into separate fields: sound (phonetics and phonology), sentence structure (syntax, structuralism, deep grammar), meaning (semantics), practical psychology (psycholinguistics) and contexts of language choice (pragmatics). {2} But originally, as practised in the nineteenth century, linguistics was philology: the history of words. {3} Philologists tried to understand how words had changed and by what principle. Why had the proto-European consonants changed in the Germanic branch: Grimm's Law? Voiceless stops went to voiceless fricatives, voiced stops to voiceless stops, and voiced aspirates to voiced stops. What social phenomenon was responsible? None could be found. Worse, such changes were not general. Lines of descent could be constructed, but words did not evolve in any Darwinian sense of simple to elaborate. One could group languages as isolating (words had a single, unchanging root), agglutinizing (root adds affixes but remains clear) and inflecting (word cannot be split into recurring units), but attempts to show how one group developed into another broke down in hopeless disagreement.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

So linguistics might have ended: documenting random changes in random directions. But that was hardly a science, only a taxonomy. When therefore Ferdinand de Saussure tentatively suggested that language be seen as a game of chess, where the history of past moves is irrelevant to the players, a way though the impasse was quickly recognized. Saussure sketched some possibilities. If the word high-handed falls out of use, then synonyms like arrogant and presumptuous will extend their uses. If we drop the final f or v the results in English are not momentous (we might still recognize belie as belief from the context), but not if the final s is dropped (we should then have to find some new way of indicating plurals).

Saussure's suggestion was very notional: his ideas were put together by students from lecture notes and published posthumously in 1915. But they did prove immensely fruitful, even in such concepts as langue (the whole language which no one speaker entirely masters) and parole (an individual's use of language). Words are signs, and in linguistics we are studying the science of signs: semiology. And signs took on a value depending on words adjacent in use or meaning. English has sheep and mutton but French has only mouton for both uses. Above all (extending the picture of a chess game) we should understand that language was a totality of linguistic possibilities, where the "move" of each word depended on the possible moves of others.

Saussure had a theory of meaning. He envisaged language as a series of contiguous subdivisions marked off on the indefinite planes of ideas and sounds. A word (sign) was a fusion of concept (signified) and sound-image (signifier) the two being somehow linked as meaning in the mind. Both signifieds and signifiers independently played on their own chess board of possibilities — i.e. they took up positions with regard to other pieces, indeed owed their existence to them. Though championed by the Structuralists, this theory of semantics was a disastrous one, raising the problems recognized by linguistic philosophy. But that was not Saussure's fault. He was not a philosopher, but a philologist, one whose simple idea, though much anticipated by Michel Bréal and perhaps Franz Boas, largely recast linguistics in its present form. {3}

The Structuralists

Saussure's ideas spread first to Russia, being brought there and developed by Ramon Jacobson (1896-1982). Strictly speaking, the product was not Structuralism, which dates from Jakobson's acquaintance with Lévi-Strauss in the 1960's, but formalism: study of the devices by which literary language makes itself distinctive. Poetry was the great love of the Russian formalists (who knew personally the revolutionary poets) and they looked intensively and dispassionately at the structures and devices that literature employs, whether Pushkin or seemingly artless fairy stories. But as Marxist ideology tightened its grip, the member of the Russian school, never a very tightly knit group, either recanted or fled abroad. Jakobson went to Czechoslovakia and then to the USA, but took with him the very speculative nature of Russian formalism: brilliant theories, but poor documentation and few laboratory studies.

Jakobson made little impact in Prague, which had its own traditions, but in America was able to draw on and develop the ideas of structural anthropology: that the behaviour of societies is governed by deep, scarcely visible rules and understandings. As such, Jakobson's views merged with those of continental philosophy and sociology — with Althusser's reinterpretation of Marx, that language was ideology, a hidden reality, an alternative source of state power. Also with Barthes's attempt to explain the multiplicity of French society from a few underlying suppositions. And with Foucault's genealogy. Meanwhile, Emile Benaviste had rewritten Saussure (as most Structuralists and Post-structuralists were to do) to conceive the signified as not inside individual minds but part of any ever-present social reality. Gradually it is not the individual, nor the society, but language itself that becomes the defining reality: a view that leads on to Postmodernism.

Jakobson had some novel ideas of his own. There was, he proposed, a relatively simple, orderly and universal psychological system underlying the three to eight thousand odd languages in the world. Despite the many ways phonemes (basic units of sound) are produced by human mouths, all could be represented in binary structures (open-closed, back-front, etc.) governed by 12 levels of precedence. Binary structures are written into Lévi-Strauss's views, and these notions fitted with information theory and sound spectrography. But languages in fact use a good deal more than two of any"mouth settings", phonemes do not have an independent existence, and 12 levels will not serve. Chomsky and Halle (1968) proposed 43 such rules, often complex, before abandoning the approach. Jakobson also defined poetic language as the projection onto the horizon syntagmatic axis (how words fit together in a sentence) of the vertical paradigmatic (how word are associated and can replace each other), another audacious theory that proved largely vacuous. {4}.


The besetting sin of Structuralism (as of current literary theory) is its want of evidence: theories are dreamt up in the study rather than fashioned to meet field observations or laboratory experiment. That criticism cannot be laid at the door of Boas, Bloomfield and other American researchers who in the first half of this century went out to closely observe languages as native speakers use them. Indeed, so concerned were they to avoid the strictures of Logical Positivism, that they adopted a behaviourist approach, excluding mind altogether. Language was simply inputs and outputs: how the brain handled its data was not something one could observe, and was therefore not science. Huge dossiers of information were built up, particularly on native American languages, but little that resolved itself into laws or general principles. {5}

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

One exception was an hypothesis of Edward Sapir (1884-1934) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941). Man's language, they argued, moulds his perception of reality. The Hopi Indians of Arizona plurialize clouds as though they were animate objects, do not use spatial metaphors for time, and have no past tense as such. Do they not view the world in these terms? And there were more spectacular examples. The Bororó of northern Brazil believe they are red parakeets — evidence, said anthropologists, that primitive societies were not aware of logical contradictions. Modern Europeans have words for the seven basic colours of the rainbow, whereas other societies have from two to eleven.

The matter is still debated. {6} The Hopi Indians do not seem to be poor timekeepers, and the Romance languages have a feminine gender for objects not seen as animate: la cerveza for beer, etc. Parakeets is no doubt used metaphorically by the Bororó. Even the evidence of colours, subject of a massive study by Berlin and Kay, {7} seems now not so clear-cut, since language may reflect purpose more than perception. Lakoff, however, (see below) has indeed resurrected Whorf's hypothesis through the concept of commensurability, adducing some striking if limited experimental evidence. Understanding, our ability to translate between diverse languages, is not the only factor. Equally important are use, framing and organization {8}, and behaviour here can be governed by different conceptual systems. Languages widely employ spatial conceptions, for example, and these conceptions differ between cultures.

Functional Linguistics: The Prague School

As early as 1911 in Czechoslovakia, and independently of Saussure and Jakobson, Vilém Mathesius (1882- 1945) founded a non-historical approach to linguistics. The Prague School looked at the structural components as they contributed to the entire language. There was a need for a standard language once Czechoslovakia had acquired independence, and Czech had the curiosity of being very different in its colloquial and literary forms. Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) investigated paradigmatic relations between phonemes and classified functions on the purposes they served — keeping words apart, signalling stress, etc.

Like the Russian Formalists, members of the Prague School were keenly concerned with literature, but they were not hermetic in their approach — i.e. did not see literature as a self-enclosed, stand-alone entity, but something reflecting social and cultural usage. That was also a view developed by the American anthropologist William Labov in investigating the colloquial language of New York. He found that listeners to tape recordings could very accurately place speakers by geography and social stratum. As both reflected social movement in the recent past — i.e. history: this was one rare exception to Saussure's assertion that language speakers do not take past usage into consideration. {9}

The London School

The London School of Harry Sweet (1845-1912) and David Jones (1881-1967) stressed the practical side of phonetics, and trained its students to perceive, transcribe and reproduce each minute sound distinction very precisely — far more than the American behaviourists, for example, and of course the Chomskians, who are extending models rather than testing them. And this phonetic competence was much needed when J.R. Firth (1891-1960) and others at the School of Oriental and African Studies helped to plan the national languages and their writing systems for the new Commonwealth countries. Overall, the School has been very far ranging — noting, for example how stress and tone co-occur with whole syllables, and developing a terminology to cope: a basis for poetic metre. Firthian analysis also finds a place for aesthetic considerations and develops a system of mutually exclusive options, somewhat like Saussure but more socially and purposively orientated.

Firth himself tried to base a theory of meaning on such choice-systems, but the approach has not been generally accepted. Not only was it rather simplistic, but confused the scientific invariance of linguistic rules with the unregimented and creative way that human beings get their meaning across. {10}

Noam Chomsky and Generative Grammar

Avram Noam Chomsky (1928- ) and his followers have transformed linguistics. Indeed, despite many difficulties and large claims later retracted, the school of deep or generative grammar still holds centre stage. Chomsky came to prominence in a 1972 criticism of the behavourist's B.F. Skinner's book Verbal Behaviour. Linguistic output was not simply related to input. Far from it, and a science which ignored what the brain did to create its novel outputs was no science at all. Chomsky was concerned to explain two striking features of language — the speed with which children acquire a language, and its astonishing fecundity, our ability to create a endless supply of grammatically correct sentences without apparently knowing the rules. How was that possible? Only by having a) an underlying syntax and b) rules to convert syntax to what we speak. The syntax was universal and simple. A great diversity of sentences can be constructed with six symbols. Take a cats sits on the mat. Older readers will remember their parsing exercises at school: indefinite article, noun, verb, preposition, definite article, noun. Chomsky uses a similar approach but his "parsing" applies to all languages. But how we convert to the mat was sat on by a cat? The answer, argued Chomsky, were innate transformation rules by which a fundamental deep structure is converted to the surface sentence. Matters are not usually so straightforward, of course, and the rules can be very complex indeed, but Chomsky and his coworkers have now provided them.

If many languages are now classified along Chomsky lines, why hasn't the approach entirely swept the board, bringing all linguists into the fold of orthodoxy? First there are procedural problems. The American behaviourists, and more so the London school, had a very thorough training in gathering field evidence. Speech was what native speakers actually spoke, not what the anthropologist thought they might accept as correct usage. The Chomskians use introspection (i.e. the linguists themselves decide whether a sentence is good grammar), an approach which can allow "facts" to be fitted to theory and which has somewhat restricted application to the European languages that Chomskians regard themselves as familiar with. Then there is the matter of laboratory testing. Surface sentences that are generated by the more convoluted transformation rules should take speakers longer to produce. The evidence is somewhat contradictory.

But more important than these are the theoretical issues. What are these deep structures and transformation rules — i.e. are they something "hardwired" into the brain or simply a propensity to perform in ways we can view along Chomskian lines? Chomsky is undecided. And, if the structures are real, is this the philosopher's goal: we can base semantics on deep grammar? Some have done so, though Chomsky himself has now abandoned these hopes. Chomsky is not a Structuralist, and there is more to understanding than the ability to recast sentences — an appreciation of the world outside, for example, which we perceive and judge on past experience. {11}

Relational Grammar

One interesting development from the London School was that of Sydney Lamb and Peter Reich. Lamb charted language as networks of relationships. By using a very simple set of "nodes" he was able to represent phonology, syntax and semantics, and to explain linguistic patterning at various levels. Reich used computer modelling to simulate this approach and explain the difficulties we experience with multiply embedded sentences — I spoke to the girl whose mother's cat which I didn't know was run over when she wasn't looking sort of thing. But neither approach coped properly with the prevailing Chomskian structural picture, and wasn't pursued. {12}

The Contemporary Scene

What's the scene today? A very lively but confused picture of new dimensions, difficulties and antagonisms. One comparatively new approach is that of brain physiology. Much, perhaps the greater part, remains to be understood of precisely how the brain functions. But it is clear that consciousness (being aware of the world, having mental images, and feelings and intentions) proceeds by a complex system of neural loops and feedbacks. Speech comes with the development of the mouth and larynx, concomitantly with the growth of the cortex and its networks through to the hippocampus, amygdala and brainstem. Sounds are linked by learning with concepts and gestures to give meaning. Syntax emerges to connect conceptual learning with lexical learning. Language allows us to elaborate, refine, connect, create and remember. All this happens together. {13} Animals learn as they need to. Dogs, for example, reared in total isolation, have no understanding of pain and will sniff repeatedly at a lighted match. And for human beings the sense of self comes through the joint development of social and linguistic behaviour, each operating on the other, so that attempts to study speech in narrow disciplines — physiology, psychology, linguistics, information theory, structuralism , etc. — are doomed to failure. {14}

What is to be done, given the mountain of complex and technical data each discipline brings to the total picture? One promising start is the hypothesis of Lakoff and Johnson, sometime students of Chomsky's but working more from their studies of metaphor. Human beings, they suppose, create models of cognition that reflect concepts developed in the interaction between brain, body and environment. These models, which they call schemas, operate through bodily activities prior to speech development, and are very various, if not amorphous. Very tentatively, they suggest that the schema may operate so as to provide our five different conceptual approaches — through images, metaphors, part for whole, propositional and symbolic. Linguistic functions are propositional and symbolic. Grammatical constructions are idealized schemas. And so on. The approach is technical and preliminary, but overcomes some of the difficulties noted above. {15}

Is this optimism widely shared? Not at present. Scientists and academics have invested too much in chosen disciplines to lightly abandon their positions. Nor perhaps should they. But what is emerging is the folly of believing that any one approach provides all the answers. Or that any simplistic, navel-gazing theory like Structuralism will serve. As with linguistic philosophy, more problems emerge the deeper we look, which is perhaps not surprising given the creative, ad-hoc way language develops and our use necessarily of one small part of it to investigate the whole.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. William O'Grady, Michael Dobrovolsky and Francis Katamba's Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction (1987) and R.H. Robins's A Short History of Linguistics (1994). Also Geoffrey Sampson's Schools of Linguistics: Competition and Evolution (1980) — on which this account is broadly modelled — and Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny's An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (1987).
2. F.R. Palmer's Semantics (1976, 1981), Simon Blackburn's Spreading the Word: Groundings in the Philosophy of Language (1984), Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (1994), Stephen Levinson's Pragmatics (1983), and Andrew Ellis and Geoffrey Beattie's The Psychology of Language and Communication (1986, 1992).
3. See, in addition to the above, Raymond Tallis's Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory (1988, 1995), Chapter 1 of J.G. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986), and Hans Arslef's From Locke to Saussure (1982). A contrary view is argued by Paul Thibault's Rereading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life (1997).
4. David Lodge's The Modes of Modern Writing (1977), Richard Harland's Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (1987) and Stephen Levinson's Pragmatics (1983). Also Sampson 1980.
5. Chapter 3 in Sampson 1980.
6. Chapter 4 of Sampson 1980, and Dale Pesmen's Reasonable and Unreasonable World: Some Expectation of Coherence in Culture Implied in the Prohibition of Mixed Metaphor in James Fernandez's Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology (1991).
7: pp. 95-102 in Sampson.
8. pp.304-337 in George Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (1987).
9. Chapter 5 of Sampson 1980.
10. Chapter 9 of Sampson 1980.
11. Chapter 6 of Sampson 1980.
12. Chapter 7 of Sampson 1980.
13. Edelman 1992.
14. pp 53- 54 in Ellis and Beattie 1988, 1992, and Gerald Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind (1992).
15. G. Lakoff and M. Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980), G. Lakoff's Woman, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (1987), and M. Johnson's The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Bias of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (1987).  

Internet Resources

1. Linguistics. 2001. Brief introduction in The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.
2. Boas, Franz. entry with brief listings.
3. Franz Boas. 2003. Wikipedia entry with in-text links.
4. Leonard Bloomfield, Language And Linguistics, Biographies. B/BloomfldL.html. Brief AllRefer Encyclopedia entry.
5. Structuralism and Saussure. Mary Klages. 2001. ENGL2012Klages/saussure.html. Simple introduction.
6. Ferdinand de Saussure. Dec. 2003. Wikipedia entry with in-text links.
7. Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1997. hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/ferdinand_de_saussure.html. Johns Hopkins Guide entry with links and bibliography.
8. Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure. Oct.1910.
. Excerpt from Saussure's Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics (1910-1911) Pergamon Press. 1993.
9. Russian Formalism. Dec. 2003. Brief Wikipedia entry, with many links.
10. Russian Formalism. Karen A. McCauley. 1997. hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/russian_formalism.html. Detailed account and bibliography.
11. Prague School Structuralism. Lubomír Dolezel. 1997.

hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/prague_school_structuralism.html. History of the school and its main ideas.
12. Jakobson, Roman. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. 1997. hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/roman_jakobson.html. Brief account, with bibliography.
13. Semiotics for Beginners. Daniel Chandler. Jun. 2002. A glossary of key terms, including note on Prague School.
14. Reminiscences by Pike on Early American Anthropological Linguistics. Ken Pike. May 2001.
SILEWP2001-001.html. Survey of key figures.
15. Bloomfield's "Meaningless" Science of Sounds. Spring 1998. Part of Univ. of Alberta PhD. thesis.
16. Noam Chomsky. Jan. 2004. Wikipedia entry: importance for linguistics, his criticism of Postmodernism, and his political activities, includes references and listings.
17. Universal Grammar in Prolog. Ray C. Dougherty. Computer modelling of Chomsky's concepts: has helpful diagrams.NNA
18. The Anatomy of a Revolution in the Social Sciences: Chomsky in 1962. E. F. Konrad Koerner. Winter. 1994. The politics of linguistics.
19. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Daniel Chandler. 1994. Introduction in terms of mould and cloak theories.
20. Regarding Benjamin Lee Whorf. Danny Alford. 1980. Argues for a reexamination.NNA
21. There is No Language Instinct. Geoffrey Sampson. 2000. Critique of Steven Pinker's arguments in 'The Language Instinct'.
22. We speak prosodies and we listen to them (J R Firth 1948). Nov. 2001. Firthian application presented as Uppsala conference paper.
23. Language and the Brain: Neurocognitive Linguistics. Rice University. Apr. 2002. Includes an interview with Sidney Lamb.
24. Sydney M. Lamb. Biography, bibliography and a few links.
25. "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Janice E. Patten. 2003. Review/summary of first four chapters of the book.
26. Cognitive Linguistics and the Marxist approach to ideology. Peter E Jones. Cognitive linguistics and a Marxist critique of ideologies.
27. Does Cognitive Linguistics live up to its name? Bert Peeters. Peeters/Peeters.html. Review of current work in cognitive linguistics.
28. George Lakoff: The Theory of Cognitive Models. Francis F. Steen. Apr. 1997. Critical review of Lakoff's work.
29. Semantics Web Resources. Kai von Fintel. Technical nature of current research.
30. Sounds of English. Sharon Widmayer and Holly Gray. Jul. 2002. Useful handouts, illustrations and links for linguistics in action.