Reading Wikipedia on structural linguistics, you will bump into:

Structural linguistics is now regarded by some professional linguists as outdated and as superseded by developments such as cognitive linguistics and generative grammar: Jan Koster states, "Saussure, considered the most important linguist of the century in Europe until the 1950s, hardly plays a role in current theoretical thinking about language,"[3] while cognitive linguist Mark Turner[4] reports that many of Saussure's concepts were "wrong on a grand scale" and Norman N. Holland[5] notes that "Saussure's views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics, Lacanians, and the occasional philosopher;" others have made similar observations.[6][7]

What I take from this, is that structural linguistics no longer has any relevance in modern linguistics. Is this the full story, or are there fields which still consider structuralism important?

  • 2
    The only assured knowledge existing in linguistic are those brought by Saussure : System, sign, arbitrariness, social fact, immutability, synchrony/diachrony, paradigmatic/syntagmatic axis. It will be hard to believe that these concepts are not relevant today. Everything which has been proposed afterwards are disputable, even those referring to the structural linguistic as the Prague Circle, but concerning Sausurre's structuralism, it must be considered fundamental knowledge.
    – amegnunsen
    Oct 6 '18 at 15:08

The Wikipedia entry is both right and wrong on this account. Here are some perspectives.

  1. Few linguists would call themselves structuralists, today (although some still would admit that heritage when asked).
  2. Structuralism was an explicit theoretical framework (most cogently expressed by the Prague Circle in their Theses from 1929) in its most productive phase but for many it descended into a few random prescriptions.
  3. Saussure does not represent the entirety of structuralism. He is indeed probably wrong on most things, however, he still represents a good starting point to introducing people to the study of language and I find Mark Turner's comment very injudicious.
  4. Structural analysis of language is still the go to method for most language researchers even if they don't subscribe to the theoretical assumptions behind it. Indeed, Chomsky has been rightly called a structuralist (by Frederick Newmeyer) even if he started out in opposition to the structuralist establishment of his day.
  5. Many of Saussure's views are simply assumed by many modern linguists but it is important to understand they were formulated for the purpose of introductory lectures and published by his students from their notes.
  6. Many linguists would benefit greatly from engaging with many structuralist classics more deeply. I'd recommend Jakobson, Hjelmslev, even Saussure's course, itself. Definitely read the Prague Circle Theses. I found some of the most starkly formulated ideas about structuralism in Mukarovsky (although I'm not sure about the translation status). Of course, probably the most accessible (both in terms of language and ease of obtaining the text) would be Bloomfield's language, a founding text of American descriptivism. Combining it with Sapir's language will give you a pretty solid idea of how actual structuralists thought about language. [Although neither was an out and out structuralist, you can easily read them side by side with people from Prague, Copenhagen or Paris and see huge affinities.]
  7. Not only is structuralism still alive in much of modern analytic work, so is its precursor, Russian formalism. You could do a lot worse than read Propp's Morphology of the Fairytale.
  8. It is true that much of the structuralist agenda got mangled by incautious non-empiricist applications in other disciplines such as literary theory or philosophy. But I'd still recommend that good structuralist literary analysis is probably the best place to start.
  9. My tentative personal recommendation would be to start all undergrad students of linguistics on a dose of structuralism and slowly dismantle it over the course of their study. I find that going in the opposite direction does not necessarily work, as well.

PS: For those who read Czech, I wrote at some lengths about the Prague School and Cognitive Linguistics in the afterword to my translation of Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Full text here: http://cogling.info/node/30. My conclusion: There are many important connections in the idea of functional motivation of linguistic structures but when pressed Prague linguistics returned to formal analyses and never developed a cognitively realistic semantics.

  • Great reply, thank you! I have heard good things about Bloomfield before as well, so that could very well be my starting point in this summer's reading.
    – Jimmy C
    Apr 6 '14 at 19:51
  • 1
    I agree with the final recommendation. I always started my courses with strong dose of inflectional morphology, then moved on to phonetics and phonology after they realized why they needed to know them. The second half of the course was syntax and semantics, and that's where the English grammar came in. I used these texts: coursepack for part 1 here, and coursepack for part 2 here.
    – jlawler
    Apr 6 '14 at 20:52
  • At the São Paulo university we start linguistics courses with discussions of Sausurre, Hjelmslev (briefly!) and Jakobson. I was taught Propp but on lit courses, not linguistics. Oct 5 '18 at 14:24
  • Unfortunately, the link in the P.S. is dead.
    – Vladimir F
    Oct 6 '18 at 15:27

I can't see how anything we've done in linguistics in the modern era could have happened without some of the insights of structuralism. And if you think about the practical uses that linguistics has been put to since the early 20th century... How would you go about describing an uncodified language without it? It's no good asking naive informants what their cognitive structures are....


Yes, it is more relevant today than ever, due to distributional hypothesis of meaning in a following sense (quoted from https://doi.org/10.1080/03080188.2021.1890484)

If we agree to adopt Hjelmslev’s terminology and call process a complex of syntagmatic dependencies and system a complex of paradigmatic ones (Hjelmslev 1975, p. 5), then the following passage from Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena can be reasonably taken to express the essence of the structuralist hypothesis:

A priori it would seem to be a generally valid thesis that for every process there is a corresponding system, by which the process can be analyzed and described by means of a limited number of premisses. It must be assumed that any process, can be analyzed into a limited number of elements recurring in various combinations. Then, on the basis of this analysis, it should be possible to order these elements into classes according to their possibilities of combination. And it should be further possible to set up a general and exhaustive calculus of the possible combinations.

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