Structural linguistics

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The branch of linguistics in which considerable attention is paid to research into the structure of linguistic mechanisms and an exact description of this structure is attempted. The development of structural linguistics led to the creation of mathematical methods for studying the structure of language and to the appearance of mathematical linguistics. The general principles of structural linguistics were first expounded by F. de Saussure [1] in 1916.

Structural linguistics makes a distinction between language and speech, with the basic problem being the study of language. Language is a definite system of signs; each linguistic sign is a combination of the signifié — the meaning — and the signifiant — the acoustic appearance. For example, the signifié of the word "table" is the concept of a table, while the signifiant is the acoustic appearance aroused in the brain of the English speaker on hearing that particular sequence of sounds. A linguistic sign is arbitrary in the sense that the choice of the signifiant, except in rare cases, is not conditioned by any properties of the signifié. Generally, the "matter" of the sign is not essential to the language, but the relationship between the signs is. In this way language resembles abstract systems studied in mathematics, and it can therefore be studied using mathematical methods.

Since language is constantly changing, it can be studied on two levels: synchronic (the study of language at a given fixed moment of time) and diachronic (the study of the process of change in language). The fundamental advances in structural linguistics have been made in the area of the synchronic study of language.

Studies have been made into the phoneme — the minimal distinctive unit of language, which is characterized by a specific set of so-called distinguishing signs (see [2], [3]). For example, in English the sounds which are written as "m" , "a" and "ma" are distinctive, since for each of them there is a meaningful linguistic unit (word) which contains them and in which the substitution of one of these sounds by some other changes the meaning: If the sound "m" in the word "man" is replaced by "c" , one has "can" , if "a" is replaced by "i" in the word "ball" , one has "bill" , or if "ma" is replaced by "ti" in the word "many" , one has "tiny" . "Ma" is therefore not minimal, since it breaks down into the distinctive units "m" and "a" , which cannot be broken down further, and are therefore minimal. Of all the signs by which the sounds of a language can be characterized, only some are distinctive units, and the number of distinctive signs changes from language to language. Thus, the length of a vowel, which e.g. in Russian does not have distinctive value, does have distinctive value in Latin (e.g. pile — a drop, ple — a duck) and in other languages. Attempts have been made to produce a formal interpretation of a phoneme using the simplest mathematical methods (see, for example, [4], [5]), although there is as yet (1984) no sufficiently-complete formal theory of phonemes. Also, in the area of distinctive signs, the minimal meaningful units of language — morphemes — are also studied. For example, the English word "ashtrays" consists of the morphemes "ash" and "tray" , and the "s" is a word-changing morpheme (sometimes the "s" is not called a morpheme, but is only said to be a word-changing constituent).

Structural linguistics has seen the development of so-called descriptive procedures of research into language (see [6], [7]), based on work with an informant-speaker, whom the researcher asks questions of the type "Is this expression correct?" and "Do these two expressions have the same or a different meaning?" . Many systems used in mathematical linguistics are in essence a formalization of such procedures (see Analytic model of a language). Strictly formal, essentially mathematical methods of describing the structure of a proposition have been worked out (see Syntactic structure), and have made it possible to study a number of important problems in the theory of syntax. Structural semantics — the study of the structure of the relationship between the meaning of linguistic expressions and their form, and between the meanings of different expressions — is being developed (see, for example, [10], [11]).

The development of the ideas of structural linguistics has led to a new representation concerning language and the mechanism by which spoken expressions are generated, and by which the signifié (meaning) is turned into the signifiant (text) and vice versa (see [8][10]). This representation has formed the basis of the theory of formal grammars (cf. Grammar, formal).


[1] F. de Saussure, "Cours de linguistique générale" , Payot (1916)
[2] N.S. Trubetzkoy, "Grundzüge der Phonologie" , Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, reprint (1958)
[3] R. Jakobson, G.M. Fant, M. Halle, "Preliminaries to speech analysis: the distinctive features and their correlates" , M.I.T. (1963) (In Russian)
[4] V.A. Uspenskii, Vaprosy Yazikoznaniya , 6 (1964) pp. 39–53
[5] I.I. Revzin, "The structure of language as a modelling system" , Moscow (1978) (In Russian)
[6] L. Bloomfield, "Language" , Holt (1933)
[7] Z.S. Harris, "Methods in structural linguistics" , Univ. Chicago Press (1951)
[8] N. Chomsky, "Syntactic structures" , Mouton (1957)
[9] N. Chomsky, "Aspects of the theory of syntax" , M.I.T. (1965)
[10] I.A. Mel'chuk, "An experiment of the theory of linguistic "Meaning vs. Text" models" , Moscow (1974) (In Russian)
[11] Yu.D. Apresyan, "Lexical semantics" , Moscow (1974) (In Russian)
[12] Yu.D. Apresyan, "Ideas and methods of modern structural linguistics" , Moscow (1966) (In Russian)


Basic contributions to structural linguistics were made by L. Bloomfield and his school (cf. [6]) in the USA, and by the so-called "Prague school" in Europe (cf. [2], [3], [a2], [a3]).


[a1] B.H. Partee, A. ter Meulen, R.E. Wall, "Mathematical methods in linguistics" , Kluwer (1990)
[a2] J. Vachek (ed.) , A prague school reader in linguistics , Indiana Univ. Press (1964)
[a3] J. Vachek, "The linguistic school of Prague" , Indiana Univ. Press (1966)
[a4] E. Sapir, "Language: an introduction to the study of speech" , Harcourt & Brace (1921)
How to Cite This Entry:
Structural linguistics. A.V. Gladkii (originator), Encyclopedia of Mathematics. URL:
This text originally appeared in Encyclopedia of Mathematics - ISBN 1402006098