Structuralism, Formalism and Functionalism

Differences and Similarities Between Three Linguistic Schools

Term Paper, 2010

9 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. An Overview of Three Linguistic Theories and Their Progress

2. Comparison between structuralism, formalism and functionalism

3. References

1. An Overview of Three Linguistic Theories and Their Progress

The linguistic schools structuralism, formalism and functionalism are not as homogenous as they are presented in the following text. Many philosophies, grammars or seminars of linguists are put together as a mainstream in linguistics because of their similarities. As a consequence of their diversity and complexity, neither functionalism nor generative linguistics can be explained in detail: This essay wants to give a very small outline on philological schools and attempts to express their differences and their development.

The most influential school in linguistics of the twentieth century is of course structuralism. This theory, founded by Ferdinand de Saussure, has been posthumously published in Cours de linguistique generale (1916). In this essay, only the conclusions which are considered as Saussurean structuralism are described whereas other approaches like Prague school or American structuralism are left out. It is important to note that both functionalism and formalism developed from the basis of this linguistic school.
A hallmark of structuralism is that linguistic phenomena are regarded “as systems or the product of systems” and not as “collections of isolated items or in terms of their history”[1]. Within the system of language, the value (valeur) of each sign is determined by its place in this scheme. Consequently, linguistic signs have no existence out of this structure and “every language system needs to be considered by itself”[2].The way of studying a language system is synchronic (contemplation of language at one specific point in time) and not diachronic (contemplation of linguistic change through time), to make sure that just one scheme of language is analyzed. Another primacy in structuralism is langue, the set of rules of a language, in contrast to parole, the usage of a language by an individual speaker. Due to this, it is possible for structuralists to describe the regularities of a language.

Equally important is the model of the linguistic sign. According to Saussure, each sign has two sides which cannot be separated: The signifier is the sound image of a sign, whereas the signified is the concept of a sign. Both of them are connected by a reciprocal relationship, which means that the sound image of a sign evokes its concept and the other way around. Further, there is no motivated bond between signifier and signified. In fact, the link between the two sides of a sign is “based on an agreement, a kind of contract, as it were, between the members of a speech community”[3]. This kind of liaison is called relationship of arbitrariness and conventionality.

While structural linguistics rather deals with langue, functionalism wants to explain how the concrete usage of a language in a given context shapes its structure, and tries to describe the communicative aspects of a language[4]. Therefore, language is considered to be a “tool”[5] with external functions (usage in communication) and internal functions (various set of communicative functions).

A phenomenon of internal functions is organic embedding. In accordance to Butler, it means that “morphosyntax of a language is motivated by the meanings that it conveys”[6]. In other words, a speaker of a given language has to make a choice between structural options, which is determined by information he has given before or which he might gives later within a conversation or a text. This leads to the assumption that syntax is not considered as an autonomous branch of linguistics, but as influenced by semantics and pragmatics[7].

Another important feature of functional linguistics is the idea of a motivated relationship between the concept and the sound image of a sign, and that external functions shape the grammar of a language. As an illustration, the concept of iconicity describes a motivated link or a similarity, which can be found among the two sides of an onomatopoetic sign or cognitive and structural difficulties[8].


[1] Clark 2006: p.165

[2] Kortmann p.14

[3] Kortmann p.16

[4] Smirnova 2010: 13

[5] Smirnova 2010: 13

[6] Butler 2006: 698

[7] Butler 2006: 698

[8] Kortmann2005: 26

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Structuralism, Formalism and Functionalism
Differences and Similarities Between Three Linguistic Schools
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
Levels of Linguistic Analysis: Theorie and Grammar
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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structuralism, formalism, functionalism, differences, similarities, between, three, linguistic, schools
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Franz Kröber (Author), 2010, Structuralism, Formalism and Functionalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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