What is the difference between Structuralism and Functionalism in linguistics?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

ezanovitch-86 | Student

Structuralism began with Ferdinand de Saussure a Swiss linguist. It incorporated a body of remarks and categorized them into different grammatical themes. Functionalism has more to do with the language of the text. It is how the reader relates to the passage's mood and literary themes.

Structuralism focuses on the basics: beginning of language. It is the very meaning of each word and dissecting the root of each word and how it fits within the context of the sentence. For example, verb phrases, morphemes, and nouns all fit into this particular way of linguistically thinking. This is a clear, systematic approach to understanding language.

Functionalism is the contentedness between words. It digs deeper by finding the hidden meaning, metaphors and overall theme of the passage. An example includes figurative language and theme. This is a deeper understanding of associations between words and text.