What is the difference between Structuralism and Functionalism in linguistics?

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Structuralism refers to the idea that the components of a thing must be understood in order to fully comprehend the entirety of the thing. As this applies to linguistics, it suggests that understanding structure is essential to understanding what language is meant to convey. It places heavy emphasis on understanding...

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Structuralism refers to the idea that the components of a thing must be understood in order to fully comprehend the entirety of the thing. As this applies to linguistics, it suggests that understanding structure is essential to understanding what language is meant to convey. It places heavy emphasis on understanding and categorizing parts of speech like noun phrases and verb phrases as well as other aspects of linguistic structure in order to determine meaning. Saussure, the person credited with the concept of structural linguistics, saw language as a system.

Functionalism emerged in contrast to these ideas. Functionalism prioritizes thinking about the reasoning that creates language and the intended meaning of communication rather than about strictly categorizing parts of language that create meaning. In functionalism, structures emerge organically from the intent to communicate, whereas structuralism divorces all functionality from its assessment of the makeup of language structure.

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Functional linguistics is concerned with the “function” of language. That is, it seeks to understand grammar and syntax by understanding how people actually use language. Briefly put, for functional linguists such as M.A.K. Halliday, the purpose of language is to make meaning, that any such meanings are socially determined (e.g., negotiated by speaker and listener), and always involve a choice (e.g., an utterance can have multiple meanings and language practitioners choose which meaning is relevant in a given context).

Structural linguistics, as developed by Ferdinand Saussure, on the other hand, seeks to understand language by breaking it up into a system of “signs” and “signifiers”—for instance, a “sign“ can be understood as the word “cat,” but there is a difference between the sign and the “signifier,” which is the animal itself. Contrary to the Functionalists, this decoupling of sign and signifier means that structural linguistics separates how the language works (the system of signs) from its actual use.

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Functionalism is a reaction against the "formal" linguistics theories that began with Saussurean Structuralism in the early 1900s. While Structuralism let go of diachronic language study (language change over time), in the 1970s Functionalism reopened diachronic study as a means of discovering the answer to how language change fits language function: change according to use. Functionalists focus on all categories of linguistics including phonology and syntax and grammar--though they do not separate these parts from the functional whole--in order to explain questions in linguistics, like "cross linguistic similarities of structure" (DeLancey). Conversely, Structuralists make no attempt to explain linguistics, "letting the structure simply be" (DeLancey).

Structuralism, begun by Saussure, focuses on structural interconnections in synchronic context (language at a synchronous, specifically selected, moment in time). It is synchronic interconnectedness that obviates the need for diachronic linguistic knowledge (language change overtime). Structuralists focus on signification in which the sign is isolated from the referent under the contention that meaning resides in the sign rather than in the objective referent (Abrams as cited in McManus). Structuralism's dominant question is different from Functionalism's: Structuralists seek to know, in an immediate synchronic context, the "workings of language" (Abrams in McManus) as in signification and difference.

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