Differential and Generative Structure of Language

An Analysis on Collocations

Seminar Paper, 2005

15 Pages


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Saussurean linguistic model
II.1. Structure and structuralism
II.2. The linguistic sign
II.3. Two – dimensional structure of language: syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes
II.4. Differential structure of language

III. Generative structure in Chomsky’s syntagmatic approach
III.1. Syntagmatic and paradigmatic approach in structural linguistics
III.2. Generative syntax

IV. Collocations
IV.1. Lexical collocations
IV.2. Grammatical collocations

V. Syntagmatic constraints and paradigmatic contrasts in collocations

VI. Conclusions

I. Introduction

The theory and methodology of early linguistics took the notion of structure as a key term and emphasized the idea that language needed to be organized. In the 70s, under the influence of pragmatics, language was no longer seen as an abstraction, but as a means of communication between people, and the primary purpose of language became the exchange of meaning. Since language essentially deals with naming of concepts, the importance of lexis replaced the role played by grammatical structure. The idea was that meaning is primarily carried by lexis, because focus on communication implies emphasis on lexis and decreased emphasis on structure.

In this paper, I will discuss the central ideas of Saussurean structuralism, in particular the notion of differential structure, then I will present the innovation brought in linguistics by Chomsky’s generative structure, namely the universal nature of language as opposed to Sassure’s idea about the uniqueness of language, and finally, I will analyze collocations in the light of these two structuralist theories.

This paper does not intend to show the differences and incompatibilities between the structural and lexical approaches, but the point of coincidence and agreement between the two, namely the way meaning is defined through difference under the exercise of choice.

II. The Saussurean linguistic model

II.1. Structure and structuralism

The founder of modern structural linguistics is Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist of the early part of the century. The notion of structure is the central term, under which language as a functional system is understood in the light of communication. Saussure’s assumption is that if language were not structured, if the use of language were not determined by rules, then it would be difficult to establish how speakers of language could share the same meaning in communication. The main feature in structural linguistics is that meaning requires structure.

The notion of structure depicts the way in which individual elements are arranged in relations of mutual dependence. The relations between terms are prior to considering the terms individually.

Structuralism encompasses the theories and methods of structural linguistics. The main approach consists in considering the reciprocal relations of different facts rather than regarding them in isolation.

There is an extrapolation from linguistics into other disciplines. Linguistics, the study of one particular system, namely the linguistic signs, was thought to provide methods for investigating any other symbolic system. The structuralist methods were applied in anthropology, philosophy, in all social phenomena and aspects of human culture.

Saussure affirms that every language displays a relational structure which consists of a unique pattern, and that the units which form utterances, are identified in terms of relationship with other units. Linguistic units are constituted from these interrelations. The meaning of a word is determined by the relationships with other words within the same language. Language has to be interpreted as a system of signs that express ideas, and the science of signs is semiology.

II.2. The linguistic sign

Saussure’s object of linguistic investigation is language rather than the speaking of it, langue rather than parole, and a language considered at a particular time, i.e. synchronically.

The linguistic sign is an entity constituted by the combination of two terms, a concept and a sound-image. Saussure tried to undermine the nominalist conception and objected that there exist no ideas before words, because thoughts are shapeless and indistinct before they are expressed in words.

Each word consists of a phonic element, the sound, and the element of thought, the concept. The linguistic sign combines not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound image. Saussure used later a different terminology for the two elements of a sign:

I propose to retain the word sign to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [signifier] and signifier [signifiant]. (Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in general linguistics. London: Owen. 1959:79)

Therefore, a sign consists of the union of a signified (a concept), and a signifier (a phonic element). The most important aspect of the relationship signified / signifier is that this union is arbitrary. Saussure explains it by showing that there is no connection between the two elements, no inner relationship between the succession of sounds of the phonic element and the concept. The linguistic sign is arbitrary.

II.3. Two-dimensional structure of language: syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes

The structure of language depends on the principles of selections and combination. Languages have two axes, namely syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes, and every element has its place in this two-dimensional structure. In order to describe a language it is necessary to reveal the systematic relating of terms on the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes and their possibilities of combinations in well-formed constructions.

The syntagmatic axis deals with the relations of an element which derives from combination with preceding and following elements of the same level.

Ex: In the syntagm the structural linguistics, structural is syntagmatically related to the article the and to the noun linguistics.

The paradigmatic dimension refers to the relation of an element that occurs in a construction to other elements of the same level, which might occur in its place.

Ex: In the previous example, s emantics might have occurred in the syntagm the structural linguistics, and replaced the noun linguistics; therefore, semantics is in a paradigmatic relationship with linguistics.

II.4. Differential structure of language

Saussure states that the structure of language is essentially differential. The systematic differentiation of any particular word gives it its distinctive form. The differences that separate a word from other words give the word its own identity. Language is a set of words which are differentiated from one another in sound and concept. Each term receives distinctness and identity only in the presence of the others. Saussure affirms:

Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not...The concept is only a value determined by its relationships with other similar values, and without them the signification would not exist. (Saussure. 1959:79, 80)


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Differential and Generative Structure of Language
An Analysis on Collocations
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
Teaching English Grammar and Lexis
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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language, structure, Saussure, sign, Chomsky, collocations
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Gabriela Bara (Author), 2005, Differential and Generative Structure of Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/144329


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