What are the advantages and disadvantages of studying a language synchronically rather than diachronically?  

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wordprof | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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At the beginning of this choice, you have to ask, “Why am I studying this language?”  Of course, an ideal study would include both diachronic and synchronic study, but if your intention is to be an oral translator for, for example, the tourism trade, a synchronic approach is advantageous because it deals with the way a language works in a specific time period (here, the present).  But if you want to translate historical texts or literature from past centuries, you will want to know how the language formed and grew through many time periods—a diachronic study.  If you are, for example, a student from another culture seeking to learn English for a tourist guide occupation, you would want to concentrate on modern synonyms, modern slang, modern connotation, modern cognates, etc.; but if you wanted to be an English history scholar, you would want to study the Chaucerian contributions, the Elizabethan expansion, and the r-metathesis phenoma, etc., and in that case a synchronous approach would not be as fruitful.  Virtually all language scholars study both elements of a language.  The important difference is the question you ask – is it “What does that word mean?” or “Where did that word come from?” and it is easy to see that these two questions are inexorably linked.  That is why a good dictionary gives word origins as well as denotative definitions.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Traditionally, all linguistic study was diachronic: all language study focused on language's change over time. For example, a predominant question asked in diachronic study is how did Old English transition to the very different Middle English to the different, yet similar, Modern English of Queen Elizabeth's time. For example, see the progress of Old English gieddian to Middle English singan to the uninflected Modern English sing. Or see the progress of the modern representation of a sleep vision (for which we now have no single word other than "dream" {OE drēam; ME dreem}) from Old English mǣting to Middle English sweven. It is clear there is much of interest in diachronic study.

The one thing it leaves out, however, is the interaction between language and society: it never asks Why changes occurred from a social perspective nor How society uses language or is affected by changes in it. The answers to these and similar questions lies not in the progress of language over time (diachronic) but in language and society interacting in a given set time (synchronic). Synchronic study of language is the study of the interaction between language and society in a fixed time period. Therefore, synchronic language study answers these questions previously neglected by diachronic study. Therefore, the advantage to synchronic language study is that the social linguistic dynamics of a set time period may be discovered.

Additionally, the set time of synchronic study may be in the past or it may be in the present. Diachronic study can look only at the past. Consequently, while synchronic study may lead to attempts to predict future changes based on present dynamics, diachronic study can only poorly lend itself to attempts at predictions. A disadvantage of synchronic study is that perspective is lacking. With only synchronic language study, data may be misunderstood in its context and lead to conclusions that are faulty. For example, it may lead to predictions skewed by historic bias or it may lead to definition of sub-group dynamics skewed by inadequate background data.


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