I recall hearing a lecture, I can't recall the exact context, in which the lecturer made the case that words are fundamentally contrastive - the only way that I can understand what the word "black" means is by understanding that it contrasts with "white", "blue", "green", etc. However, I can't recall the exact name of this theory or who it's attributed to. Can someone help me identify the correct term?

  • Certainly many words contrast in certain ways with other words, but basic color terms, especially, are not necessarily contrastive in languages of the world. There's a whole lot more going on than contrast.
    – jlawler
    Jun 23 at 21:18
  • @jlawler I think the idea is that ultimately because of inherent ambiguities in language things are defined and clarified by what they are not. The color "black" becomes clearer if you say "this, but not brown, red, yellow, etc." This is different from binary opposition, if that's what you're thinking of.
    – cmw
    Jun 23 at 21:49
  • Is this supposed to apply to just color terms, or does it apply to all words?
    – user6726
    Jun 23 at 23:05
  • 1
    I've heard this viewpoint, but not in linguistics.
    – user6726
    Jun 23 at 23:35
  • 1
    It's certainly more commonly expressed in philosophy of literature courses. That said, it is making a linguistic claim.
    – cmw
    Jun 24 at 1:07

1 Answer 1


This is almost certainly structuralism, as first proposed by Saussure, and expanded upon, especially as it relates to other fields, by a number of philosophers and other theorists (e.g. Lévi-Strauss, Barthes). The idea is that for any area (speech, thought, etc.) we start out with an undifferentiated mass, which we then divide into arbitrary parts. The meaning of any of these parts is ¬(the meaning of all other parts)[1]. Often, this sort of meaning is called negative meaning.
If you combine two arbitrary parts from different masses, these are the signifier and signified which together make up a sign.
This is where we originally get the idea of a phoneme (and emic units in general): It's only that we're contrasting it with all possible other phonemes/emic units that matters (within a given language), not which exact phone we're producing.

This may be one of the only cases where my knowledge of philosophy and my less complete knowledge of linguistics overlap, so feel free to ask for more details or clarification. Also, here is a video that goes into more detail, though from the perspective of wanting to explain the reaction to structuralism, poststructuralism.

[1] ¬ is the symbol for logical negation.

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