The Establishment of Synchronic Linguistics

The Establishment of Synchronic Linguistics

At the time of Saussure’s lectures, the study of language had been dominated for over 30 years by:

a) historical work on the language of written texts (work which had only gradually come to be distinguished from “philology”, inquiry aimed not at the language but at better understanding of the text itself;
b) dialectological work based on field investigation of local dialects;
c) phonetics which demanded increasingly minute observation in strong adherence to the positivistic spirit;
d) psychology, the principal domain of a global perspective on language, dominated by the ideas of W. von Humboldt (1767-1835) and his followers: H. Steintahl (1823-99) and W. Wundt (1832-1920).
A fifth approach existed — the study of language as a general phenomenon independent of historical or psychological considerations – but it had made little progress since the death of its principal exponent, the American scholar W. D. Whitney (1827-94).

F. de Saussurean problem was to delineate a study of language that would be neither historical nor ahistorical, neither psychological nor apsychological. His solution was to make a strong distinction between the study of language as a static system, which he called “synchronic” Linguistics and the study of language change, which he called “diachronic” Linguistics. Synchronic Linguistics designated the study of language systems divorced from external considerations of a historical or psychological sort, or any factor having to do with actual speech production.

The dichotomy synchrony – diachrony has taken the central position within Saussure’s conceptions and affected Linguistics in the following decades. Not all linguists have understood properly the real intention of F. de Saussure and argued against the rigorous separation of these two aspects of linguistic research. The misinterpretation of the idea leads some linguists to blame Saussure for turning his back against the history, and neglecting its importance. As a lecturer he was dealing mainly with diachrony but soon realized that mixing up facts of various periods meant mixing up and obscuring different systems.

The basic idea upon which Saussure’s conception of synchrony is based is the linguistic situation in the particular period specified by a consistent and functional system that – in each historical period – is different and closed. And since it is not possible to completely reconstruct any of previous states, the facts of several states merging together (diachrony is a number of subsequent states differing from one another by various changes), Saussure speaks of the distinction between diachrony as non-grammatical, and synchrony as grammatical.