Search For The Hidden Code At The Heart Of Language, Myth, Literature, History

The Diachronic Axis Of Language

The concept of “irreducibility” is a universal concern of all structuralist
thought. In Kant we witnessed his desire to identify the defining “universals”
of all human experience. In Saussure this desire becomes fulfilled in his
systematic and holistic interpretation of language. Shortly, we will be talking
about how Levi-Strauss, Piaget, and Foucault express this same idea. The
credibility of structuralism rests, I believe, on making the synchronic aspect
of nature intelligible and accountable to some form of empirical verification.
Saussure’s synchronic nature of language, at least in the form of linguistic
theory, moves us in that direction. Sensitive to this issue, Saussure believed
he was removing the mystery of language and placing it in the material world
with his concept of language’s synchronic aspect. And, indeed, this idea that
language can be understood synchronically, frozen in time, has inspired many
structural investigations into the “hidden code” that the proponents of
structuralism believe lies at the heart of language, myths, literature and history.
At the very least, after Saussure, there arose a new skepticism for any
investigation of language that had as its goal the disclosure of the “essence
of language.”

In addition to its synchronic component, language may also be characterized, in
the terminology of Saussure, along its diachronic axis. Language evolves as the
expression of a collectivity moving through time. Language is not invulnerable
to societal or cultural pressures. The institution of language, over time,
becomes violated by dialects and slang. Language changes, but it does so
according to its own inertia. According to Michael Lane, this evolution takes
place as a result of societal pressures and influences. Lane says:

“This is apparent from the way in which language evolves. Nothing could be more
complex. As it is a product of both the social force and time, no one can change
anything in it, and, on the other hand, the arbitrariness of its signs
theoretically entails the freedom of establishing just any relationship between
phonetic substance and ideas. The result is that each of the two elements united
in the sign maintains its own life to a degree unknown elsewhere, and that
language changes, or rather evolves, under the influence of all the forces which
can affect either sounds or meanings. The evolution is inevitable; there is no
example of a single language that resists it. After a certain period of time,
some obvious shifts can always be recorded.” [Michael Lane, Introduction to
Structuralism, 1970, p.51]

Language, at any given moment in time, may be investigated along its synchronic
or diachronic axis. Structuralism, for the most part, prefers to study language
in its synchronic aspect. It is for precisely this reason that structuralism
opens itself up to attack by those schools of thought which deny the possibility
of studying anything whatsoever independent of its social context, e.g., Marxism.
In general, structuralism, and Saussure’s structural linguistics in particular,
have also been criticized for its disregard for human creativity. Noam Chomsky,
a leading advocate of structural linguistics in today’s academic environment,
has responded to the latter criticism with his discovery and development of
transformational grammar.


About bwinwnbwi

About me: Marvin Gaye’s song, "What’s Going On" was playing on the jukebox when I went up to the counter and bought another cup of coffee. When I got back, the painting on the wall next to where I was sitting jumped out at me, the same way it had done many times before. On it was written a diatribe on creativity. It was the quote at the bottom, though, that brought me back to this seat time after time. The quote had to do with infinity; it went something like this: Think of yourself as being in that place where infinity comes together in a point; where the infinite past and the infinite future meet, where you are at right now. The quote was attributed to Hermann Hesse, but I didn’t remember reading it in any of the books that I had read by him, so I went out and bought Hesse’s last novel, Magister Ludi. I haven’t found the quote yet, but I haven't tired of looking for it either.
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