Langue And Parole

What is the difference between diachronic and synchronic linguistics? How can you explain this difference with clear examples?

Diachronic linguistics studies a language across time, while synchronic linguistics focuses on a language in a specific period of time. Someone could use diachronic linguistics to study how the language around historically marginalized groups has changed over time. Someone could use synchronic linguistics to specifically study the present and how language operates within the modern social media landscape.

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In his Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure identifies two aspects of linguistic study: the diachronic and the synchronic.

Diachronic linguistics seeks to explain the development of language through time, noting how sounds shift, how grammatical forms change, how syntax evolves, and how meanings expand and contract. Scholars of historical linguistics, for instance, might study how vowel and consonant sounds have changed from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language down through the reconstructed Proto-Germanic language into the various branches of ancient Germanic languages (like Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Old Saxon, and Old High German) and finally into modern forms of Germanic languages. Scholars of these sound shifts try to identify these changing patterns and determine reasons for them. Their study incorporates a long period of time all the way from prehistoric times to the modern day. Diachronic study does not always have to be this broad, however. Other scholars study shorter range topics like shifts in meaning and form between Old English, Middle English and Modern English or between the various periods of Greek.

Synchronic linguistics, on the other hand, examines a language (or a set of languages) at a particular period in time. Scholars might, for instance, focus on the Old English of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems, examining the sound structures, grammatical forms, syntactical considerations, and word meanings from this era. They might also explore dialectal differences in these poems, trying to determine the characteristics of the West Saxon, Northumbrian, Mercian, and Kentish dialects. Their studies focus on a one particular time period in the history of a language. Other scholars study modern languages with a synchronic focus, analyzing the phonetic and grammatical structures of languages used by oral cultures, for instance, or exploring the linguistic usage of particular sub-cultures.

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As other Educators have noted, diachronic and synchronic linguistics are two terms connected to the significant Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

The diachronic approach to language seems to have a greater scope. It studies a given language through multiple time periods. To better understand the language in question, a person using the diachronic approach will study differences across a large swath of years. "Dia" means “across” or “through.” "Chronic" comes from the Greek term khronos, which means “time.”

Someone could use diachronic linguistics to evaluate the way in which certain words have become offensive, problematic, or unutterable over time. They might use diachronic linguistics to look at the language around people of color, women, and people in the LGBTQ community to see how that language has, or hasn’t, changed.

A person undertaking the synchronic approach will not be going back in time and looking at the development of language. This person will be viewing language at a specific moment in time. In a way, synchronic linguistics takes a snapshot of a precise period. By restricting the area of study, synchronic scholars believe that the effects of language and how it operates become much clearer.

Someone could use the synchronic approach to evaluate the immediate present. They might study the way in which social media has impacted language and the way it functions.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 14, 2021
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Ferdinand de Saussure is often cited as the founder of modern linguistics, and his work Cours de linguistique générale (1916; Course in General Linguistics, 1959) is a seminal work in the field. In this work, Saussure examines language as a system of differences.

One can study differences in linguistics two ways: synchronically (in terms of differences between simultaneous features within a linguistic system) and diachronically (in terms of how a language changes over time).

A synchronic study might look at all the different color terms within a given language in a specific year. The range of meaning of "mauve," for example, could be seen as a set of differences between mauve and related colors such as maroon, violet, lavender, and purple. Saussure sees synchronic study as important for understanding how a language functions.

Diachronic or historical linguistics is the study of how languages change over time. This can include changes in the pronunciation of words, such as in the study of the Great Vowel Shift, or changes in their meanings.

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Diachronic linguistics is the same thing as historical linguistics. Diachronic linguistics is the study of the changes in language over time. Synchronic linguistics is the study of the linguistic elements and usage of a language at a particular moment. Diachronic analysis can be the general evolution of all languages or the evolution of a particular language or dialect

Think of a sychronic analysis as a single frame in a roll of film. The diachronic analysis would be the study of all the frames. 

In Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure discusses how an individual can contribute changes in a language but without the acknowledgment of this change by others in his/her social community, no change will have lasting value. In other words, he says "by himself the individual is incapable of fixing a single value." 

Saussure favored the synchronic approach. Each approach has its benefits. The diachronic approach might focus more on the interplay of historical events and language changes. The synchronic approach of English in America today would look at things like texting, e-mail, and all modes of expressing language in order to see how those manifestations of language reveal the structure of a language. 

The diachronic approach is historical (compare with Continental Philosophy) and the synchronic approach deals more with the system/structure of language (compare with Analytic Philosophy). If you were doing a diachronic analysis of American English in El Paso, you would want a length of time to make an historical analysis: from 10-100 years or more. If you were to do a synchronic analysis, you might pick one year or even less time. The point is that a diachronic analysis is not just doing more research; it is doing something different. 

Saussure believed that a good synchronic approach made a diachronic approach unnecessary. He used the analogy of chess. As a chess game progresses, the value of a piece changes (diachronic). But using a synchronic approach, one could determine how the pieces interact at a given time, which is an expression of the rules of chess (grammar or rules of language). Recent theorists acknowledge the benefits of this approach as well as the historical analysis of the diachronic approach. In other words, a diachronic analysis shows the evolution of the game, how the pieces interact and how their values change. The synchronic analysis focues more directly on how the pieces interact to reveal the rules of the game. 

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