Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Linguistics is concerned with the nature and structure of language.

explanatory context

Linguistics is sometimes referred to as the science of language.

Linguistics is an extensive discipline that can be broken down into the following areas: conventional linguistics, Saussurian linguistics, (linguistic) formalism, phonology, phonetics and sociolinguistics.

Conventional linguistics

Conventional linguistics presupposes that that language is constituted by a set of indicators that stand for the real objective world. That is, there is a direct relationship between elements of the real world and the elements of all languages. Linguistics is thus about analysing the nature of this relationship.

Conventional linguistics tends to concentrate on the form of language i.e. phonology, as opposed to speech which initially is the realm of phonetics.

Conventional linguistics does not consider that language shapes our understanding of the objective world.

There has been, and continues to be much debate about the essential conceptual entities in language, and the intrinsic relation between some signifiers and signifieds. There is a notion, for proponents of this view, of fundamental units of language.

Structuralist linguistics

Structuralist linguistics is usually assumed to have started with Saussure's pioneering work on sign systems, which radically transformed the approach to linguistics. Saussure argued that language is a system of signs.

A sign is any cultural symbol that conveys a meaning. The sign is made up of two elements, signifier and signified. The signifier is that element of a sign that indicates a signified. It is sound or image that signifies something. For example, the sound 'dog' is a signifier for a 'four-legged mammal that barks'. What is signified is the concept 'dog'. Thus the signified is that element of a sign that is referred to by the signifier. Hence the sign is the concrete relation between concept (signified) and sound/image (signifier).

Signs are arbitrary. They have no intrinsic meaning but take their meaning from the relationship to other signs. The 'value' of a sign is more than its signification, it derives from the reciprocal relationship it has with other signs. Because they are arbitrary signs are relational (in respect of other signs). This applies to both signifier and signified, both are purely relational or differential entities. The meaning of signs comes from their difference from other signs. In effect, signifieds are 'defined negatively' rather than positively. Concepts, because of their relational nature, are residuals. To illustrate this, Saussure points to the analogy of a train timetable. The 8.10 from Paris is a relational concept. It is defined not in a positive sense but negatively in relation to other trains and within the framework of a network of trains presented in abstract terms in the timetable. Nobody expects the 8.10 to comprise the same set of carriages each day, and it does not cease to be the 8.10 even if it leaves the station late everyday. Identity, in short, is a function of the difference between units in a system.

Thus, as Culler (1980) argues, languages are not isomorphic. There is no essential core of meaning. Concepts are not static elements existing within all languages. Each language arbitrarily organises the world into concepts. Concepts are not autonomous but are defined in relation to other concepts. In short, this denies the idea that each language arbitrarily appoints signs to pre-existing concepts. The key of semiological analysis is that signs do not have intrinsic meaning. Meaning is generated through the relationship of signs.

'The signified associated with a signifier can take any form; there is no essential core of meaning.... We then must ask, as Saussure does, what defines a signifier or a signified.' The result leads to the principle that 'both signifier and signified are purely relational or differential entities. Because they are arbitrary they are relational.' (Culler, 1980, p 23).

Languages actually mould concepts, languages evolve. This evolution is of both signifiers and signifieds.

Parole and langue

As signifier and signified are defined relationally, in order to define the units of a language it is necessary to distinguish between their substance and their abstract relational manifestations. The distinction is between 'parole' and 'langue'.

Parole is, in effect, language in use, or speech. It is an individual act of selection and actualisation.

Langue is a formal system of oppositions that underlies speech. In effect, langue is equivalent to language. Language is a system of unmotivated or arbitrary signs that are related to each other and take their meaning from their relationships. Language is therefore a system that knows only its own order: a system of synchronic solidarity.

Saussurian linguistics posits a relational meaning or value based on the linguistic system and another meaning or signification that involves the use of linguistic elements in actual situations of utterance.


Diachrony and synchrony

Saussurian linguistics like other structuralist approaches is concerned rather more with the synchronic analysis of form than the diachronic development of language.

The synchronic approach is important because there is no core to language by which to relate changes, all there is is one set of relational signs superceded by another, but devoid of teleological development. There is no goal to which language progresses, signs are purely arbitrary.

The Saussarian approach accepts that the synchronic perspective is a methodological convenience, (i.e., it is impossible to take a 'photographic still' of the entire language at any one point as its evolution is continuous and different among practitioners within the language boundary).

The Saussurian approach also appreciates the historical, diachronic evolution of language. Diachronic events throw up new forms through parole which, because of the interrelationship of signs becomes part of a new linguistic system.

The Saussurian approach is not simply concerned with a series of synchronic states, but does argue for the primacy of focus to be synchronic. Language changes through parole, but this is an unsystemmatic, individual-oriented activity. Changes are part of an independent evolutionary process to which the system adjusts because language is relational. In order to understand the nature of signs, however it is necessary to examine the structural relationships rather than the evolution of actual signifiers. Only through synchronic analysis may one set out the underlying system of relationships.


Paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships

In construing language as a system of relational units the Saussurian approach sees language systems as consisting of two types of relationships; the paradigmatic and syntagmatic.

Paradigmatic relationships (in Saussure's sense, accoding to Culler (1980)) refers to the analysis of relationships where the concern is on the opposition between elements that might replace one another. They are contrasts that produce meaning. Morse code is a limiting case of paradigmatic relationship, where short and long sound are the component parts.

Syntagmatic relationships are those relationships between elements that might combine in a sequence. Syntagmatic relations go to form higher level units. Traffic lights are an example of a limiting case of a syntagmatic relationship.

Thus in language, the rules of grammar are a syntagmatic relationship, while the rules of association of words are paradigmatic.

Saussure, in accentuating the notion of language as a system of signs (a perspective mooted, but underdeveloped, in the eighteenth century), reconceived language as an order of representation.

Saussure had a view of society as more than the sum total of the individuals in it (simialar to Durkheim) and similarly meanings available to social actors cannot be reduced to the sum of subjective perspectives. Linguistics, in effect, addresses itself to social facts and meaning is construed through differences of meaning. This has implications for the notion of the self. The self comes to appear as a product of conventions, constructed, as it is within a structure of trans-subjective components. The 'I' is not something given, rather it comes to exist mirroring society as the organism grows from infancy. Fundamental to this process of grasping meaning through differences is grasping language, such that being clearly inheres in language.

'Saussure, Durkheim and Freud, [agree that]... by internalising origins, removing them from a temporal history, one creates a new space of explanation which has come to be called the unconscious. It is not so much that the unconscious replaces the historical series; rather it becomes the space where any antecedents which have an explanatory function are located. Structural explanation relates actions to a system of norms - the rules of a language, the collective representations of a society, the mechanisms of a physical economy - and the concept of the unconscious is a way of explaining how they can be simultaneously unknown yet effectively present. If a description of a linguistic system counts as an analysis of language it is because the system is something not immediately given to consciousness yet deemed to be always present, alaways at work in the behaviour it structures and makes possible.' (Culler, 1980, p.76).


Russian formalism

see formalism in linguistics

analytical review

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 5


Culler, J., 1980, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, New York, Routledge.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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