What is structuralism in linguistics ?Discuss the four major methodological principles put forward by Saussure giving examples where necessary .

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rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Structuralism posits that things cannot be understood outside of the context in which they appear. While at first glance this might seem self-evident, structuralism goes beyond mere historical insight and argues that context creates meaning. This is a notion that has its roots in structural linguistics. Saussure’s insight was that words are arbitrary; they have no direct connection to the thing they reference. More than that, their meaning is determined by context. Meaning in language is created by difference—the relationship of one word to all the other words around it. There is a certain kind of negativity in all this. We understand things by what they are not. 

In his book Beginning Theory, Peter Barry lays out three principles Saussure used to develop this idea. 

  • The meaning of words is arbitrary; the connection between the letters that form “DOG” and the actual animal is not inherent in the word itself. Rather, it is something that speakers of English agree on.
  • The meaning of words is relational and dependent on the meaning of other words.  Barry’s example uses the words “hut” and “shed.” Although they are similar in meaning, if there was no word for “shed,” then the meaning of “hut” (or some other word) would change to include and signify a small building used for storage.
  • It follows, then, that the meaning of words is not fixed. Meaning can change as the words around it change. 
  • Language constitutes our understanding of the world, which is to say that words mediate our ability to know reality. Barry mentions the difference between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters.” Each word has an arbitrary relationship to the actual person being referred to, but the political content of each term frames our understanding of that person.

Another way to think about structural linguistics is to understand Saussure’s terms “langue” and “parole.” “Parole“ refers to a particular utterance in a language, and “langue” refers to the entire system of language which that utterance belongs. The utterance only makes sense if you are able to place it in the larger linguistic structure it belongs to.

kristenfusaro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To first understand the major methodological principles of structuralism, one must first understand what structuralism is. "Structuralism," as a linguistic theory, is that words "have to be seen in the context of the larger structure they are part of" (Beginning Theory by Peter Barry). This means that a word is only a word because of the words that surround it, thus "structuralism."

1. Saussure stated that the meanings we give to words are arbitrary. The physicality, or structure of a word, holds no bearing to its connotation nor denotation. (The only exceptions may be onomatopoeia, however, because even these vary by language, it is not necessarily correct.)

2. Saussure stated that the meanings of words are relational. "No word can be defined in isolation from other words" (Barry). It is necessary to have other words frame a context to understand one word.

3. According to Saussure, there are no intrisic, or fixed meanings in words. If a group of people were asked to think of "dog," some people may mentally conjure a border collie, others a beagle, and others a labrador, etc. While these are all dogs, and would correctly fit under the category of "dog," this word would not accomplish simultaneous thought, or a fixed meaning.

4. And the fourth principle according to Saussure is that language constitues our world. Because language exists, thought exists (think 1984 and the removal of words from the dictionary). Because the word "freedom" exists, we understand the concept; however, if no such word existed, the thought would be vague or unclear, at the very least.