Langue versus parole
Saussure says there are two sides to language: langue and parole.
Langue is that part of language which ‘is not complete in any individual, but exists only in the collectivity’. Parole, on the other hand, is observable in the behavior of the individual. According to Saussure, it is not homogeneous.Saussure believes that linguistics is fundamentally the study of langue, although some later scholars have suggested that there might also be a linguistics of parole. Had corpus linguistics been a concept with which Saussure was familiar, he would no doubt have dismissed it as dealing with parole rather than with langue. In one of his celebrated images, he suggests that when an orchestra plays asymphony, the symphony exists externally to the way in which it is performed: that existence is comparable to langue in language study. The actual performance, which may contain idiosyncrasies or errors, is to be compared to parole.
The distinction between langue and parole has suffered two major changes in subsequent scholarship. First, a third level has been added, that of the NORM.
Ourlangue would allow us to say what the time is by saying It is ten minutes before four o’clock, or It wants ten minutes to be four o’clock, or In ten minutes it will be four o’clock, or It is five minutes after a quarter to four. We do not find such utterances attested in parole. Rather, we find multiple utterances of It is ten (minutes) to four. This cannot be related to vagaries of parole, becauseit is extremely homogeneous within relevant speech communities. Neither can it be a matter of langue, because langue allows us to say the same thing in many different ways.
The second thing that has happened to the langue/parole distinction is that it has been overtaken by other, similar distinctions. Chomsky (1965: 4) introduces the distinction between competence and performance. Performance isvery like Saussure’s parole. It is prone to error, to memory lapse and the like Competence, however, is unlike Saussure’s langue in that it has no social side to it; it is a mental construct in the individual. Although Saussure concedes that ‘It [langue] is something which exists in each individual’, he also adds ‘yet is common to all of them’ (Saussure 1969 : 38).
Chomsky also pointsout that for Saussure langue is ‘a system of signs’, while for Chomsky competence is a generative system.
In more recent work (Chomsky 1986), competence and performance have given way to a third distinction, that between internalized language and externalized language. For Saussure, linguistics deals with langue, for Chomsky linguistics deals with internalized language. Thus, for Saussure,linguistics involves studying the language of the community, while for Chomsky it involves studying the language potential of the individual.
Synchrony versus diachrony
We can study a given language in two ways. The first is that we can look at the language as it is at any particular point in time. We study the syntax of American English in the early twenty-first century, or the phonology ofseventeenth-century French or the patterns of compounding in Classical Chinese. These are all synchronic studies (syn ‘alike’, chronos ‘time’).
On the other hand, is to look at the way in which a language develops or changes over time. In this way, we have to consider the development of the English verb system, or changes in Arabic phonology fron the classical period until today. These are diachronic...