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The tower of Babel (oil on wood, 1563)

“Everyone made use of the same language and same words”

Linguistics is, according to Ferdinand de Saussure, science having for object “the language under consideration in itself and for itself”. If this definition were used as framework with the development of structural linguistics, the study of the language and the languages knows today many prolongations which escape to him. 

Grammar with linguistics

The oldest known theories of the language appear there is nearly twenty-five centuries in India and Greece. Panini writes in IVe century before our era a grammar of the Sanskrit which constitutes at the same time an excellent description of its language and an acute reflection on its operation. In Greece, the study of the language is related to the philosophy which studies the bond between language and logic - the two words coming from the Greek logos. Plato (Ve-IVe front century J. - J.) and Aristote (IV E front century J. - C.) are interested in it.


The Grammar of Port-Royal (1660) of Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) and Claude Lancelot (v. 1615-1695) is the first modern attempt at formulation of a theory of the language. It leaves the idea that there exists a bond between language and logic and thus that the language is a representation of the thought. The various categories of words corresponding to logical categories, the differences between the languages are analyzed like variations of “surface”.


At the beginning of the XIX E century appears in Europe the compared grammar, which tries to rebuild the original languages whose the various languages come from the world. Since the remarks of William Jones in 1786, one knows the analogies between the Sanskrit and the majority of the languages of Europe, and it is a question of understanding how all these languages are related. Work of Franz Bop, the Grimm brothers and Friedrich von Schlegel will lead initially to the development of sound laws giving an account of the evolution of the sounds through time. While applying these laws to the problem of the mother language, one will thus manage to rebuild a hypothetical language, baptized Indo-European.

The Course of general linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure

Switzerland Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is the first to carry out an analysis of the language of the structural type, the elements of the system being defined on the basis of their function and not on those their phonic characteristics. Its theory is presented in its Cours de general linguistics (1916), which will revolutionize the study of the facts of language.


One finds there distinctions which will be in the center of the designs of the linguistics of the XX E century: distinction between the language (general faculty that have the human beings to speak), the language (each particular linguistic instrument) and the word (the whole of the individual achievements); distinction between the syntagmatic relations (relations that a linguistic unit maintains with other units present in the chain the speech) and the paradigmatic relations (relations that it maintains with units absent and which could occupy its place); distinction between meaning (i.e. the form concretes acoustic or phonic) and meant (the concept, semantic contents, the whole of realities to what returns meaning it). Moreover, the synchronic study is to be distinguished from the diachronic study, i.e., in the first case, linguistics studies states of language at a given time and, in the other, linguistic evolution.


For Saussure, all the facts of language are to be studied and linguistics must thus give up any normative point of view. This principle also implies that all the languages are worthy to become object of study, any not being higher than another or more interesting than another. 

Leonard Bloomfield and American structuralism
It is with Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) that American linguistics will take its particular characteristics. E. Sapir is especially known by its work on the relationship between language and vision of the world (in particular, “the Sapir-Whorf assumption” according to which the language organizes the culture of a community). L. Bloomfield works out a linguistic theory behaviorist who refuses to take into account the direction of the statements to work only on the behaviors associated with the use of these statements, the communication being brought back to the model stimulus-answer. In its work the Language (1933), L. Bloomfield insists especially on the segmentation of the linguistic statement in units (the sentence is segmented in immediate constituents, then in morphemes), of which he studies the distribution and classifies the alternatives
The circle of Prague and phonology

In 1926, a team of young Russian researchers (Roman Jakobson, Nikolaï Troubetzkoï) and Czech (Vilem Mathesius, B. Trnka, J. Vachek) founds the linguistic circle of Prague. Distinguishing phonetics from phonology, the first studying the sounds of the word and the second the sounds of the language, these researchers found the structural phonology which conceives the language like a system answering a function (the communication) and implementing the means necessary to take up this duty. In the Principles of phonology (publ. posth., 1939), NR. Troubetzkoï define the phoneme as the smallest functional unit, and the phonological opposition as the phonic opposition which makes it possible to distinguish two semantic units.


Other linguists unite with the circle of Prague, like Britrannique Daniel Jones and the French Emile Benveniste and André Martinet, which are the principal propagators of these theses. 

The school of Copenhagen and the glossématique one

Two Danish linguists, Louis Hjelmslev and Knud Togeby, took again teaching of F. of Saussure the idea that the language is a form and not a substance, creating the glossématique one (of the Greek annotated meaning “language”) and endeavouring to build a kind of algebra of the language considered as pure set of differences. On the model of the circle of Prague, L. Hjelmslev creates, in 1931, the linguistic circle of Copenhagen. The Prolegomena with a theory of the language (1941) remains its most important text. In this approach epistemological, only the presentation of the couple connotation/denotation, recovery and transformed by Roland Barthes, made school.

French linguistics

The two outstanding figures of modern French linguistics are Emile Benveniste and André Martinet. Benvenist systematized the concept of root (a vowel alternating between two consonants) and very quickly converted with a structural approach of the lexicon, studying the vocabulary of the Indo-European institutions in particular. Then it was devoted to general linguistics (Problems of general linguistics, 1966-1974), bringing important contributions to the theory of arbitrary of the sign and that of times and pronouns.


A. Trip hammer proposes a general theory of the language, known under the name of functionalism, structural approach which does not neglect therefore the historical dimension and which analyzes the facts of language in the light of the function - regarded as power station - of communication. On the basis of the asset of phonology - that it contributed to improve, in particular with regard to the theory of the archiphoneme and neutralization -, A. Martinet works out the concept of double articulation, posing that the language is segmented, on the one hand, in monems (units linguistic having at the same time form and direction, that it will classify starting from the way of which they mark their function) and, on the other hand, in phonemes (linguistic units having only one form and not direction); this vision enables him to show how a few tens of phonemes make it possible to form thousands of monems which, in their turn, are assembled in the linguistic statements.

Towards a generative grammar

Being located first of all in the line of the school bloomfieldienne, the American Zellig Harris formulates the principles of the distributionnelle analysis, in particular in Methods in Structural Linguistics (1951). He pushes back the use of the criterion of direction to base the linguistic description on the inventory of the distribution of the phonemes and the morphemes, i.e. on the sum of the environments of these units. He thus develops an analysis of the sentence in immediate constituents.


Z. Harris evolves then to a transformationnelle linguistics while leaving the problem of syntactic ambiguities primarily. If a sentence can have two directions, this difficulty can be explained while going back to the core from which, by transformation, this sentence is built. In another field, connect it identity of structure of two sentences - the carpenter works Sunday and the carpenter works wood - can be refuted by noting that they do not lend themselves to the same transformations.


Noam Chomsky, disciple of Z. Harris, will use this idea of transformation in very an other way. Wanting to exceed the classifying stage of linguistics, he wants to work out a model of the languages and language, and leaves the principle which a grammar is consisted a finished whole of rules making it possible to produce an infinite whole of sentences.


A syntactic description (or generative grammar) must thus be for NR. Chomsky the whole of the rules whose application makes it possible to produce all the correct sentences of the language.


Returning to the designs of the Grammar of Port-Royal, it distinguishes thus between the underlying structures and the surface structures, the seconds coming from the first by application of the rules of transformation. To raise the ambiguity of a sentence - phenomenon of “surface” -, it is enough to go up its generative history, i.e. to apply the rules of transformation to back, to find the underlying structure concerned.


The French Antoine Meillet (1866-1936) is the first to insist on the relationship between the language and the company. In an article entitled “How the words change direction”, it attempted to study the bonds between linguistic social environments and alternatives. In a more general way, A. Meillet considered that the language is a social fact and that the task of the linguist is to specify to which social structure corresponds a given linguistic structure.


After neglectbeing neglected a long time, the social analysis of the language will come from two very different horizons, that of linguists claiming Marxism and that of the American sociolinguistics.


Concerning the Marxism, it is especially Paul Lafargue who, in an article devoted to with “the French language before and after the Revolution” (1894), analyzed the influence on the vocabulary of a political and social event outstanding. Between 1920 and 1950, linguistics Soviet official, centered on work of Nikolaï Marr - which affirms that the language of the workmen would have, in spite of the differences in languages, of the common characteristics - will not make more advance the things.


The innovation comes from the United States where develops, as from the years 1960, an ethnology of the word, around researchers like Dell Hymes or John Gumperz, which work on the interactions and the stakes that one can detect behind the use of the language. At the same time, in Great Britain, Basil Bernstein studies the relationship between linguistic forms and social classes.


More important is the contribution of William Labov, as well at the methodological level as on the theoretical level. Seizing the language in its social context, it comes from there to define a speech community as a group of speakers who share a set of social attitudes towards the language: not individuals who practice the same alternatives, but people who judge these alternatives in the same way.


Certain researchers wanted to stress the relations between the messages exchanged by the interlocutors and the mental state of these interlocutors: it is the field of psycholinguistics. This science shaped in the years 1950 around psychologists (E.C. Osgood, J.B. Caroll) and linguists (T.E. Sebeok, F.G. Lounsbury). The preliminary draft of psycholinguistics was to analyze the way in which the intentions of the speaker were transformed into messages that the interlocutor could interpret. Psychologist B.F. Skinner intervened in his turn in the debate, by proposing (the verbal Behavior, 1957) a psychology of the language based on the behaviorism. Other psychologists, like the Soviet Lev Vigotski or Switzerland Jean Piaget, will also contribute their share to the construction of the new discipline. The researchers influenced by the theories of NR. Chomsky go, for their part, to develop an approach psycholinguistics within the framework of the generative analysis.

Linguistics applied

Linguistics applied consists in the use of the methods of linguistics or the results of linguistic to solve various engineering problems or social descriptions.


The application of linguistics to teaching

Initially, linguistics brought much to the language teaching, which they is the native tongue or the foreign languages. One could, for example, to show that the difficulties encountered in the study of a foreign language were partly explainable by the differences in structure between the source language and the target language, and that it was possible to work out methods of foreign language instruction specific to a native tongue. Thus, the French word wood, which indicates at the same time the matter (“wood”) and a set of trees, is opposed to forest (“a set of trees wider”), whereas in Spanish leña indicates only the firewood, will madera indicates the structural timber, bosque indicates a small forest and selva a more important forest. A French learning Spanish will have thus evil to dominate this vocabulary. This approach, which bears the name of contrastive linguistics, share of the analysis of the faults made by the beginners, seeks their explanation in the differences in structure (syntactic, phonological, semantic) between the native tongue and the studied language, and leads to a suitable teaching methodology, proposing a progression and corrective exercises.


One as could show as certain difficulties of training of calculation, in particular in children of migrants, were not related to calculation itself, but with difficulties of comprehension of the language in which one taught this discipline, which paid the attention at the same time on the importance of the language of teaching and on the inequality of the children resulting from different social classes vis-a-vis the school. The linguistics applied to teaching is thus an important branch of the linguistics applied, which has today its place in the training of the teachers.


The application of linguistics to the translation

Another field in which linguistic research has an immediate application is that of the translation, in particular the automatic translation. The multiplication of the computers let hope for the possibility of replacing the human translator by a machine, which implied formal descriptions of syntax and semantics of the languages concerned. From this point of view, work of Noam Chomsky (who left the assumption that there are structures common to all the languages) appeared a promising time, but one realized that one could not transpose in an automatic way a language in another, and that it was necessary to pass by a kind of intermediate language, of universal nature. This work opened the way with research concerning mathematical linguistics and the universals of the language, but the results for the moment are limited.


In addition, the focusing of computer programming languages requires an interdisciplinary reflection between linguists and data processing specialists, while conversely work on the artificial intelligence implies that the linguists largely use data processing.


Applications of psycholinguistics

In the field of psycholinguistics, the applications are also numerous, that it is the study of the relationship and speech difficulties their with the cortical lesions or mental diseases: phoniatry, the neurolinguistics, the psychopathology or the pathology of the language are thus privileged fields of application of the linguistics, which is an invaluable help in the comprehension and the treatment of the disorders of the acquisition and the handling of the language.


Applications of the sociolinguistics

Lastly, the sociolinguistics have, inter alia outlets, a fundamental field of intervention in what is called linguistic planning, in particular in the countries having obtained their independence recently: analyzes plurilingualism, study of the emergence of common languages, proposal for languages of unification, schooling, standardization of the vocabulary, neology, etc the linguists thus play a central role in the description of the situations, the focusing of alphabets for the not written languages, the standardization of the dialectalized languages, the development of school handbooks, all things necessary when a government decides for example to promote with the statute of official language a local language to replace a language inherited the colonial time. But it is then necessary to choose, among the many involved languages, that which will be able to play this part, and “to equip it consequently”. One distinguishes here between the linguistic policy (i.e. great choices as regards intervention on the language or the linguistic situation, which concern the State) and the linguistic planning (the concrete application of these choices which require the intervention of the linguists).


The linguistic policies can seek to intervene on the language (when one wants to standardize, to fight against the loans with foreign languages, to modernize by creating new words) or on the languages (when one wants to change the relationship between the languages into presence). In the first case, one will note the example of Quebec, which fights against the influence of English on French, or of Turkey, which, at the time of Atatürk, modernized its language. In the second case, one will quote Indonesia which, after its independence, knew to raise a common language, the Malayan one, with the statute of national language, in spite of the great multiplicity of the involved languages on his territory.

Linguistics, model science

Phonology, by its methodological rigor, very quickly allured specialists in other social sciences. In 1942, Claude Lévi-Strauss discovers structuralism while taking the courses of R. Jakobson. The French anthropology, up to that point influenced by sciences of nature, consequently will borrow the step of the general linguistics, which will be applied to fields very far away from the language.


With the beginning of the year 1950, the Jacques Lacan psychoanalyst discovers in his turn linguistics. He will apply the model of it to the operation of unconscious, stating that this one is structured “like a language”.


Structuralism is then with the mode, and linguistics is structural science par excellence, the privileged application of this new approach. The historian Pierre Vilar, the economist François Perroux, the philosopher Henri Lefebvre, the psychologist Robert Pagès make, among others, a frequent use of the structural approach, and linguistics is admired for its procedures of description which, thinks one, escape psychologism. Thanks to linguistics, the social sciences appear to be able to compete in rigor with the exact sciences, in spite of the warning statements of certain linguists who protest against this metaphorical use of their concepts.

Linguistics, a science in crisis

Linguistics however will be found confronted with a whole series of questions which the structural approach cannot answer any more. Initially, it had been considered that there was a general linguistics, treating language considered as abstracted system, and articulated traditionally in three large branches: phonology, syntax and semantics. European linguistics undertook to be built starting from the phonological model of the school of Prague, while the generative grammar tried to subordinate semantics and phonology to the syntactic component, considered like the core of a theory of the language. But if it were relatively easy to analyze the sounds of the language in terms of structure, this approach less better seemed to adapt to syntax, while the universe of the direction resists the analysis even more. One realized that it was difficult to hold a theoretical speech including the whole of the facts of language.


Moreover, science burst in various directions, which one was going first of all to try to regard as subbranches of general linguistics: sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, linguistics applied. However each one of these branches raised theoretical questions which sometimes called into question the models up to that point used and the unit of linguistics.


Lastly, one saw the descriptive points of view and approaches to vary considerably. One thus realized that the unit of linguistic science rested on a kind of fiction, that the model inherited phonology and that all the social sciences had copied did not make it possible to federate the plurality of the directions of research and the centers of interest.

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