Language – Synchrony and Diachrony (4/7)

Synchrony, as introduced and contrasted to diachrony by Saussure, is “the absence of a time element in linguistic description” and consequently “more directly evidential” than the diachronic study (Trask 287). In the nineteenth century, as described by Hale (8), when scholars had at their disposal only few sets of dead languages, it was assumed that language is corpora. However, living languages have many properties that dead do not, and vice versa.

Corpora have limited vocabulary and restricted number of utterances, and dead languages cannot be described and provide phonetic data (ibid). This limited evidence of languages from the past is only partial evidence of how languages once looked, or as Hale puts it, they are “accidentally preserved records” (9). This is why historical linguistics cannot achieve empirically valid conclusions, if the scholars assume language is a corpus: “we must not confuse the nature of the attestation of a language with what that language was when alive” (ibid). Linguists should focus on both synchronic and the diachronic aspect of the languages.

Ferdinand de Saussure [a photo portrait]
Ferdinand de Saussure (public domain image)
Saussure claimed, in citation given by Hale (6), that to examine language in a synchronic view means to focus on “reality of speakers”, while diachronic study implies not examining language, but “a series of events that modify it”. Put in another way, in synchronic examination linguists observe the snapshots of languages, i.e. the states of languages at a particular moment in history. Once this is accomplished, scholars are usually speaking about contemporary language. The diachronic examination then includes finding answers about what happens between two or more stages of a language during the time.

However, do we know what a synchronic definition of language is? It appears that throughout literature there has been a “clear mixing … between an empirically useful conception of ‘language’ (as the object of study of linguistics) and more everyday uses of this term” (Hale 6). Hale further informs us that he is going to use the word “language” as a predominantly sociopolitical term, while “grammar” will mean “the object of study of linguistics as a discipline” (ibid). He did this in order to focus on the linguistic domain of language and to reject the possible misinterpretation due to an overlap of sociopolitical meaning of the word “language”, with that of the linguistic meaning.

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