Structural linguists make the influential argument that the elements of a language have no intrinsic character. They take on a character only in relation to each other.
For example, human beings can make a certain range of noises, but the sound of "m" is not really the sound of "m" outside of a language that uses an "m." Within that language, a certain range ofnoises gets classified together as equivalent versions of the "m" sound, and there is no useful way to describe this classification except by referring to the language. The boundaries are imprecise--people who hear an "m" are not measuring waveforms and rejecting the ones beyond a certain cutoff point. Furthermore, there is change through time, local variation, and a good deal of overlap between therange of noises that can be classified as "m" and those that can be classified as something else. If there is an "m" sound that exists in the language, it must be thought of as something persisting through the welter of possible variations.
The phoneme has some essential character, apart from all its manifestations. Furthermore, the language defines this essential character partly bydifferentiating it from other phonemes. What makes an "m" is partly its distinction from "n." But what makes an "n" is partly its distinction from "m."
Continuing this line of analysis, it must be the case that the "m" sound in one language is not the same as the "m" sound in another, even if the same range of vocal noise is classified as "m" in each. The classification is being made by contrasts within twodifferent systems.
Saussure believed that the meanings expressed in a language were determined by an analogous system of differences.
This way of thinking has several obvious characteristics.
It defines the boundaries of a language by reference to its internal structure.
It portrays the workings of a language solely in terms of the internal structure, rather than seeking a set of causes,functions, or patterns that could underlie several different structures. If generalized from phonetics to meaning, the approach obviously raises the possibility that what's expressed in one language cannot be expressed in any other.
Most pervasively, it depends on a notion of purely abstract structure underlying all the particular manifestations of a language. Language is not the sound, it is theclassification of sounds; it is not the question, it is the comparison with other sentence types that define what a question is; it is not the idea, it is the set of underlying distinctions that make the idea possible.
This idealism, if that is the term, has a somewhat surprising result. Sign and meaning tend to merge. A word means just what it means in the language that uses it, and only that wordexpresses it.
So, implicitly, languages are not translatable into each other. This is a possibility taken up by deconstructionism.
Ferdinand de Saussure
Let's start by talking about structuralism in general as a philosophical stance or worldview. Structuralists are interested in the interrelationship between UNITS, also called "surface phenomena," and RULES, which are the ways that unitscan be put together. An example is Tinkertoys. The "units" in a tinkertoy set are all the parts in the box: the various colored rods of different lengths, the various kinds of connectors and wheels and attachments; the "rules" of tinkertoy construction is that rods go into holes. That's the structure of tinkertoys: everything you can make out of tinkertoys, whatever that may be, is made by using theunits according to the rules. A structuralist analysis of tinkertoys wouldn't look at what you made (a building, a race car, a windmill, etc.) but would look only at the structure governing every possible combination of tinkertoy elements. And that structure is that rods go into holes.
That's what structuralist analysis does, whatever it's analyzing: looks at the units of a system, and the...