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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Linguistics and literary theory:

The revolution in modern linguistics consists in regarding language synchronically rather than diachronically. Classical philology undertakes to construct a historical evolution of a system of language, focusing on the study of linguistic change over a period of time (diachrony), whereas modern linguistics studies the system as a functioning totality, a signifying structure (synchrony). According to Ferdinand de Saussure, the pivotal distinction is between langue ("the whole set of linguistic habits which allow an individual to understand and to be understood") -- which Noam Chomsky calls competence ("what the speaker of a language knows implicitly") -- and parole (the individual speech act itself) -- which Chomsky calls performance (what the speaker does). The linguistic sign, Saussure contends, is composed of the union between a signifier (an acoustic image which differentiates the sign from all others) and a signified (a concept or meaning). Affirming the relation between signifier and signified to be arbitrary and conventional, Saussure deliberately ignores the referent, the extralinguistic object to which the sign may or may not point. For Saussure, language is a system of differences without any positive terms. It has a vertical axis -- the paradigmatic, associative, or metaphoric axis -- and a horizontal axis -- the syntagmatic, contiguous, or metonymic axis. The former concerns the relations between an individual word in a sentence and other, similar words that might be substituted for it; the latter concerns the possibilities of syntactic combinations of words so as to make a well-formed sentence. All of the oppositions that structural linguistics generates -- langue and parole, system and event, signifier and signified, code and message, metaphor and metonymy, paradigm and syntagm, selection and combination, substitution and context, similarity and contiguity -- are variations of the opposition between synchrony and diachrony. In each case, the first term is privileged.

The application of this linguistic model to the study of literature has been fruitful. Russian Formalism, semiotics, and structuralism analogically extend Saussure's terms into the analysis of literature. As Roland Barthes puts it, "Literature is simply a language, a system of signs. Its being [être] is not in its message, but in this 'system.' Similarly, it is not for criticism to reconstitute the message of a work, but only its system, exactly as the linguist does not decipher the meaning of a sentence, but establishes the formal structure which allows the meaning to be conveyed." Poststructuralism goes one step further, contending that if it is true, as structuralism maintains, that language is a system of differences without any positive terms, then the relational nature of signs produces a potentially infinite process of signification. Deconstruction, therefore, tries to demonstrate how structuralism's focus on the systematic undercuts itself and how its privileging of langue over parole can be upset or reversed, leaving a free play of signifiers and an elastic context that can be infinitely extended. By contrast, speech act theory privileges parole over langue, seeing meaning as a species of the genus intending-to-communicate, as something use-oriented and context-dependent. Rejecting the assumptions of theories based on the linguistic model. speech act criticism holds that the investigation of structure always presupposes something about meanings, language use, and extralinguistic functions. (See also Semiotics, Speech act theory, Structuralism.)

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
Hypertext and HTML by Christopher Douglas
University of Toronto English Library
Director: Ian Lancashire.
Last modified: March 31, 1997