The Consequences of Language Chapter 3: How Does One Examine Language Structure Synchronically?

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The Consequences of Language

Chapter 3: How Does One Examine Language Structure Synchronically?

How does one approach the synchronic study of language? The three major sign systems of language: lexical (morphology); the phonemic (phonology); and syntactic syntax). Phonetics versus Phonemics; allophones and allomorphs; distinctive features and natural; parts of speech; syntactic units; semantic relationships class. Language universals. Saussure’s semiological approach to language: closed systems and signs; signifiers and signifieds; simple and complex signs; and how the lexical, phonological and syntactic systems are semiological.

Note, this chapter is not intended to prepare the student to be able to do a synchronic analysis of a language, but give the student an understanding and an appreciation for what is involved in the process.

1. Background

The beginning of the 20th Century marked a shift in focus in European linguistics from the discovery of the historical relationships between languages to the description of languages as self-contained sign systems. At the center of this transition was a Swiss linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure. In fact, Saussure coined the terms diachronic and synchronc. A diachronic approach has to do with the historical study of language. Saussure was beginning to see, as others were to at that time, that in addition to the historical approach an entirely new approach was possible. With the synchronic approach, Saussure proposed to look at language as a system, or rather a set of related systems.

In this chapter, I present a description of the three basic sign systems of natural human languages and their study (phonology, morphology and syntax). The reader should bear in mind that there are numerous approaches to the study of each of these subsystems of human language. This characterization attempts to present a picture with which most linguists will generally agree.

2. The Three Subsystems of Language

In chapter 2, we distinguished two approaches to linguistic study (synchronic and diachronic), based on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. In addition, Saussure divided language (French = language) into two areas: langue (language structure) and parole (language use). Furthermore, he argued, as a linguist, he was primarily concerned with language structure for in its study, one could find the workings of organized and integrated (sign) system that could support a science of language. Today, we commonly term these sign systems the phonemic, the morphological (or lexemic) and the syntactic.

It is important to point out that there is a good deal of disagreement as to how to approach these systems in general and individually. Not all schools agree on whether the basic unit is a distinctive feature (see below) or a phoneme; some schools treat morphology and syntax as a single system, and not all schools agree on the analysis of semantics (the study of meaning), whether it is part of each of the other systems or a separate system.

In this book, our goal is to present the reader with a general overview of those systems and how they fit together and how one would approach them in the structural study of language.

3. Phonetic Transcriptions.

When linguists encounter a previously unwritten language, they begin with a phonetic transcription of what speakers say. Phonetic transcriptions are based on a widely accepted convention for writing the sounds of language called the International Phonetic Alphabet (the IPA). The IPA differs from an ordinary writing system, called orthography, in several ways.

  1. Uppercase letters are not used for marking the beginning of the sentence or for proper nouns (names).

  2. One symbol represents one sound. For example, the English words: cat; kite; and queue all begin with the same contrastive sound, even though the sound is represented with different letters in these three words. The IPA operates under a principle of using a single, unique character to represent a single, unique sound. In this example, the IPA uses the character k to represent the first sound of all three words. Also the English words: cat and city begin with different sounds even though they are spelled with the same letter. The IPA would use different characters, k and s to begin these words.

  3. The IPA also uses diacritics, special markings added to the basic character, to mark finer distinctions in the sounds of different languages. For example, we show below that the k of the English words: skin and kin are slightly different. Unlike the k of skin, the k of kin is
    aspirated, which means that the k sound is followed by a puff of air and a delay of the beginning of the vowel.1 The IPA uses a superscript h to mark this aspiration. Thus the phonetic distinction between the two ks in skin and kin would be: skin = [skIn] and kin = [khIn].

  4. The use of diacritics allows for a greater amount of precision about an utterance. Depending on the needs for such precision, linguists may use a broad (low precision with few diacritics) or a narrow (high precision with many diacritics) transcription. In this book, we will follow the general practice of showing phonetic detail when it is relevant to the example at hand. In this book, we follow the practice of showing phonetic detail only where it is relevant to the example.

Why use phonetic transcriptions, especially when learning phonetic transcriptions is a difficult and demanding task, especially for even a beginning linguistics student can fully master? The answer is that because of the properties described above, a phonetic transcription more accurately and clearly presents the situation. However, with regard to phonetic transcriptions used in this book, we do not expect the reader to be able to read them, but 1) to know what a phonetic transcription is and 2) to be able to compare two transcriptions and find differences.2 For example, in the following comes from Mende, a language of Sierra Leone, in West Africa.

Phonetic transcription Gloss

(1a) Mende: [ŋgíkàlìígùláŋgàà.] ‘I dropped the snake’.

(1b) Mende: [ŋgìkálìígùláŋgàà.] ‘I dropped the hoe.’

If you look at the phonetic transcriptions carefully, you will see exactly one difference. This difference is marked by the diacritics on the fifth letter of each string, that is, the second syllable: [à] versus [á]. The marks over the vowels are termed accents, the first ([à]) is termed a grave accent and the second ([á]) is termed an acute accent. These accents mark a difference in tone, which refers to the musical pitch of the syllable. Thus, the acute accent marks a higher pitch than the grave accent.

Phonetic versus Phonemic

Corresponding to the phonetic difference is a difference in meaning, ‘snake’ versus ‘hoe’ as shown by the gloss. Linguists use the word gloss to mean an approximate working meaning, rather than a complete definition as one would find in a dictionary entry. To show the tentative nature of the definition they always place their glosses in single quotes.

When a phonetic difference has the capacity to signal a difference in meaning, it is also a phonemic difference. A phonemic difference is a property of a given language. Different languages have different phonemic contrasts, and the whole set of phonemic contrasts of a language is called its phonemic system. The study of phonemic differences and systems is the topic of phonology, which we discuss more fully below, following a discussion of morphology. We return to the phonemic principle in section 5.

Lexical Tone

All languages use tone, though not necessarily in the same way. Many languages, including English, use changes in tone to mark the difference between statements and yes-no questions.

(2a) He went to the store.

(2b) He went to the store?

Note that the first English sentence ends with a falling pitch, while the second sentence ends with a rising pitch. This difference in pitch is not a property of the word, but a property of the sentence. An English sentence with a falling intonation, regardless of the words it contains, is a statement, while a sentence with a rising intonation is a question. Unlike English, Mende uses tone to distinguish words. In the example above the acute and grave accents, mark the difference between the words hoe and snake.3

Learning a phonetic difference not present in one’s native language is difficult, especially when learning a language as an adult. This is why we can recognize “foreign accents” in others. Accordingly, learning the tone distinction used in Mende is difficulty to foreigners, and why their speech is often the source of amusement to native speakers. The story goes that a foreign worker in Sierra Leone woke up and heard something that sounded a lot like a snake under his bed. Because he had not learned the distinction between hoe and snake, he ran out of his house saying (2a) instead of (2b).

(2a) [kálìí l nyáwεεíbù] There’s a hoe in my house.

(2b) [kàlìí l nyáwεεíbù] There’s a snake in my house.

Neighbors were surprised that someone would announce the obvious in the middle of the night, for under the bed is where hoes are often kept. The worker went on to point out that this hoe hissed and wiggled and he thought that it was poisonous. With this added information, the neighbors went into the house and dealt with the problem.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story about the missionary father who had a similar problem. The poisonwood tree has properties similar to poison ivy. In Lingala, a language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the word poisonwood and savior differ in only one feature, tone. When the missionary preached in Lingala, he was heard to say, “Jesus Christ is poisonwood.” Ironically this had the effect of increasing interest in the subject by his listeners who where thinking, if this person is poisonwood, he must possess great powers and we should learn more.

As mentioned in the beginning of this section, a phonetic transcription is just the beginning of linguistic analysis. It provides the linguist with a graphic representation of what can be said in the language. To understand how language works as a system, or rather a set of systems, one has to undertake an analysis of the lexical, phonological and syntax systems.

4. Morphology And Words.

Morphology is the study of the structure of the word. While there has been a good deal of discussion of what constitutes the word, the word is, nevertheless, the most salient linguistic unit to the casual observer and linguist alike. In writing, we define a word as a string of letters between spaces. In the written sentence (3a) I, like, and apples are thus words.

(3a) I like apples. Written in Standard English orthography.

(3b) [aylykæplz]4 Phonetic transcription of (1a).

The decision to insert spaces in the text to separate words marks an important stage in the development of a writing system, or orthography. One can imagine the difficulty of reading an early text that had no spaces between the words. Sentence (3b) is a (broad) phonetic transcription of the way I would say (3a). One of the main tasks confronting a linguist working on a language for the first time is how to divide such phonetic string into one or more words. To do this, the linguist uses a definition of the word that can guide this process. One such definition proposes that the word is “the smallest string of sounds unit that can be said by itself and still have a consistent meaning.” 5 Using sentence (3b) we see that the strings [ay], [lyk] and [æplz] all conform to this definition, for they all can be said in isolation and they all have a consistent meaning. By isolation, we mean responses to questions like:

What do you like to do? Answers: ‘eat’, fish, walk.

How would you describe your cat: Answers: big, yellow, old.

What is this? Answers: a dog; the window, a man.6

Thus, by this definition, these strings would be considered words. Note that we can put these words into other sentences (4) and retain their meaning.

Phonetic string with word divisions gloss

(4a) [aysiyδkæt]  ay siy δ kæt ‘I see the cat’

(4b) [wiylykfrεnz]  wi ylyk frεnz ‘We like friends.

(4c) [æplzargUd]  æplz ar gUd ‘Apples are good.’

(4d) [aylykæplz]  *ayl y kæplz ‘I like apples.’

Note also that parsing7 shown in (3d) is possible, but that it doesn’t conform to our definition of word given above. While [ayl] ‘aisle’ or ‘isle’ and ay ‘I’ are words the remainder [kæplz] has no identifiable meaning, nor can it be parsed in such a way as to conform to the definition. Thus, the parsing in (1d) must be rejected.

Mende Example

Returning to Mende, we can now identify the Mende words for ‘hoe’ and ‘snake (5).

Phonetic transcription Gloss

(5a) Mende: [ŋgíkàlìígùláŋgàà]  ‘I dropped the snake.’ (repeated from (1a))

(5b) Mende: [ŋgìkálìígùláŋgàà]  ‘I dropped the hoe.’ (repeated from (1b))

(5c) Mende [bíkàlìígùláŋgàà]  ‘You dropped the snake.

This involves the identification of a recurring sound sequence with a recurring meaning.

  • The first two sentences (5a and 5b) contain the meaning ‘I’ as the doer of action. The third sentence contains the meaning ‘you’. The first two sentences contain the Mende sequence [ŋgí] while the third sentence contains the sequence [bí]. This leads us to conclude that [ŋgí] is the word for I and [bí] is the word for you.

  • The first and the third sentence contain the meaning ‘the snake’ and the second sentence contains the meaning ‘the hoe’. In addition, the first and third sentences contain the sequence [kàlìí] and the second sentences contain the sequence [kálìí]. Thus, we can associate the sequence [kàlìí] with ‘the snake’ and [kálìí] with ‘the hoe’.

  • We also see that all three sentences contain the meaning ‘dropped’ and the phonetic string [gùláŋgàà].

Finally, note that the glosses ‘the hoe’, ‘the snake’, and ‘dropped’ are semantically complex, that is that ‘the hoe’ contains the meaning ‘hoe’ and the meaning ‘the’. Likewise, the gloss ‘dropped’ contains both the ‘drop’ and ‘past’ (that the event of dropping took place in the past. This may mean that these words are morphologically complex, which means that some words may contain even smaller units of meaning.

In addition, the reader may have noticed that the word order of Mende is different from that of English. English has a Subject Verb Object (SVO) word order, while Mende has a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) word order. We will return to this topic in our discussion of syntax.


We often find that we can break words down into smaller units in which a phonetic string (form) still corresponds to a meaning. For example, we can parse the word singing in to sing and -ing. We see the recurrence of form and meaning of both sing and -ing, for sing can occur as a word by itself and ing can be attached to different words, e.g., have, cut and run, and adding the same meaning. Note also that neither of these two can be broken down any further and retain their sound-meaning correspondence. Sound meaning forms that we cannot break down into smaller form-meaning units are called morphemes.8 Linguists classify morphemes in several ways.

  • Free and bound morphemes. A free form is a morpheme that is also a word. For example, the word mother is both a morpheme (because it cannot be broken down any further and because it is a word. A bound form is a morpheme that is not a word.

  • Affixes and stems. Stems, also called roots, are bases to which affixes can be added. In the example singing, sing is the stem to which the affix ing is added. All affixes are bound, because they cannot be words by themselves. Some stems, like sing are free, because they can also be words, while others like fix in affix is bound, because it cannot appear by itself with the same meaning.

  • Prefixes and suffixes9. Prefixes are affixes that precede the stem while suffixes follow the stem. In the word prefix, pre is a prefix and fix is the (bound) stem.10

  • Inflection and derivation. This distinction has been the subject of much discussion in the linguistic literature. Both terms refer to what the affix does to the stem. Generally, inflection doesn’t change the part of speech of the stem, but it does extend the meaning. In English, inflectional affixes include: –ed (worked); -ing (worked); -en (broken); -s (sings); -s (books); and -s (the man’s) are considered Derivation, on the other hand, changes the part of speech of the word. In English, the suffixes –ly (motherly), -ness (motherliness), un- (unhappy) are all derivational affixes.

Another Mende Example.

In the section on phonetics, we noted that the Mende word, [gùláŋgàà] ‘dropped may be morphologically complex (has more than one morpheme), although we did not have the evidence to prove it. However, when we add sentence (6a), we can see that [gùláŋgàà] consists of two morphemes: the stem [gùlá] ‘drop’ and the suffix [-ŋgàà] ‘past tense’. The suffix [-mà] indicates that action is taking place in the present.

(6a) Mende: /Bíà kàlìí gùlámà/ ‘You are dropping the snake.’

(6b) Mende: /Bí kàlìí gùláŋgàà/ ‘You dropped the snake’ (repeated from (1a)

The reader may have noticed that there is a second difference between (6a) and (6b) which has to do with the first word. Bí-à is a different form of the subject pronoun [bí]’you’. Unfortunately, time does not permit the further analysis of morphology, but it is clear that this form is also involved in marking the tense. Because two different words are involved in marking a particular meaning, it is clear that syntax is also involved. Because of phenomena like this, many linguists like to deal with morphology and syntax (morphosyntax) as a single domain of investigation.

Allomorphs – variants of morphemes.

Most morphemes, like those in the above examples, exist in just one form. Nevertheless, morphemes often have more than one form; these are termed allomorphs. One of the clearest examples is the variation between ‘a’ and ‘an’ in English. Note the following examples:

An apple, an elephant, an ice-cube, an ocean.

A pin, a fork, a wish, a lobster, a horse.

We consider ‘a’ and ‘an’ to be allomorphs of a single morpheme which we shall call {an} because 1) they share the same meaning; 2) their alternation is predictable (an occurs before vowels and ‘a’ occurs before consonants. Thus, they are in complimentary distribution, meaning that the two variants can never occur in the same linguistic environment.

Another example involves the formation of the plural in English. In writing, we generally form plurals by adding the letter s. However, phonetically, as is shown below, there are three types.

Singular Plural Gloss Singular Plural Gloss Singular Plural Gloss

[pIn] [pIn-z] pins [kt] [kt-s] cats [bs] [bs-z] busses

[dg] [dg-z] dogs [pp] [pp-s] pups [wI] [wI-z] wishes

[kol] [kol-z] coals [stIk] [stik-s] sticks [kz] [kz-z] causes

[bd] [bd-z] buds [lf] [lf-s] laughs [bn] [bn-z] bunches

Here we can see three different allomorphs of the plural morpheme: [-z, -s and -z]. As in the case of the allomorphs ‘a’ and ‘an’, these plural allomorphs are in complementary distribution. The plural allomorph -z always follows an [s, z,  and ].11 The –s allomorph always follows [t, p, k and f], and the allomorph –z always follows [n, g, l and d]. In both examples, we say that the variation is phonologically conditioned, because the phonological nature of the morpheme determines the allophone. Actually, we can state the conditioning factor more easily stated after we introduce the concept of distinctive features (section 5). Then we will be able to say that the allophone -z follows sibilants [s, š,  j, z, ž and j]. The –s allophone follows voiceless consonants (see table in section 5) and the –z allophone follows voiced consonant.

Some allomorphs are morphologically conditioned, rather than phonologically conditioned. This means that it the particular morpheme rather than the sounds of the word that determine the plural. The following plurals are morphologically conditioned: indices, children, syllabi, and alumnae.


While this brief presentation gives the reader an idea of the nature of morphology, there are numerous intricacies, controversies and approaches that engage the professional linguist. Such discussions are the topic of professional papers and even books and clearly beyond the scope of this brief introduction.

Exercise at the end of the chapter.

5. Phonology

As mentioned above, phonology is the study of sound contrasts. These phonemic contrasts always occur within the phonological system of a given language. Phonology involves both the study of the phonemic system of a given language and how that system relates to the phonemic system of other languages.

Distinctive Features

As mentioned above, a phonemic system consists of a set of contrastive units called phonemes.12 Phonemes ‘spell out’ individual morphemes. Thus, a given string of phonemes represents a given morpheme. Each language has its own system of contrast. In the table below, I have juxtaposed the vowel systems of English and Mende.




Palatal/ Front

Velar/Back Unrounded


Back Rounded











Stops: Voiceless










Fricatives: Voiced














Liquids and







High Vowels: Close






Mid Vowels: Close





Low Vowels





Palatal/ Front

Velar/Back Unrounded


Back Rounded











Stops: Voiceless
















Fricatives: Voiced











Liquids and






High Vowels: Close




Mid Vowels: Close Open)




Low Vowels


An appendix showing how these are pronounced.

Types of Distinctive Features

Major Class Features

  • Consonantal/Vocalic

  • Syllabic/Nonsyllabic

  • Sonorant/Nonsonorant

Manner Features

  • Oral/Nasal

  • Stop/Continuant

  • Voiceless/Voiced

Point of Articulation

  • Labial

  • Apical

  • Palatal

  • Velar
A comparison of these two tables shows that the two tables are laid out in the same way. This table represents a system of classification has been developed from the analysis of hundreds languages. At the heart of this system is the concept of distinctive features. Distinctive features represent a universal system of classifying the sound contrasts in human language. Although linguists favor more technical definitions of these distinctive features, those given here represent the kind of distinctions that are used (sidebar).14 Below, we will show the usefulness of these features in characterizing phonological processes. One of the reasons for the existence of a universal pool of the sounds available for use in human language is that they are limited by the design or the vocal tract (chapter 5). Many of the cells are filled in both languages, but some sounds occur in one language and not another. English has voiced fricatives, the interdental consonants /th/ and /dh/, and open high vowels. Mende has labiovelars and prenasal stops. Thus while all languages draw from a universal pool of potential contrasts no language takes advantage of all the contrasts.


As mentioned above, phonemes represent contrasts that have the capacity to distinguish morphemes (and words). One of the best tests for this distinctiveness is termed the minimal pair. A minimal pair is a set of words that differs by a single phonemic contrast. Below are some examples from English, showing the phonemic contrast, the phonemic transcription and the orthographic equivalent.

English Mende

/t v θ/ /tIn v θIn/ ‘tin v thin p v kp/ /panda v kpanda/ ‘well v bed’

/i v I/ /pit v pIt/ ‘peat v pit’ /tone/ / kàlìí v kálìí/ ‘the snake v. the hoe’.
Interestingly, speakers of English will have difficulty in hearing and pronouncing the unfamiliar contrasts in Mende. This is why the speaker confused the word how and snake in the earlier example. Likewise, Mende speakers have difficulty with the /i v I / and the /t v θ/.

Phonemic v. Phonetic.

The reader will note that in the phonetic section we marked transcriptions using square [ ] brackets, and in this section we have used angled / / brackets. This is because a phonetic transcription and a phonemic transcription are not the same. The difference is that not all differences that appear in a phonetic transcription represent phonemic contrasts in a given language. Phonetic differences that do not represent significant or phonemic differences are termed allophones.’ Native speakers are usually not consciously aware of differences between allophones, unless they have been pointed out to them. In fact, the reader, if a native speaker of English, will probably have difficulty hearing the examples of allophonic variations presented here.

In the section 3 we introduced one such allophonic difference, that between the two ks in ‘skin’ [skIn] and ‘kin’ [khIn]. Even though these two ks are different, they cannot signal different morphemes in English and therefore the difference is not phonemic. However, there are languages, such as Marathi, a language of South Asia, where this difference is phonemic and therefore can signal different morphemes. One of the major tasks of phonology is to determine from the phonetic data for a given language, which differences are contrastive, phonemic, and which are not. Thus we conclude that [k] and [kh] are allophones of the phoneme /k/.

A phonemic transcription differs from a phonetic one in that it represents only the essential, contrastive differences.

Phonetic transcription Phonemic Transcription Orthographic Transcription

[skIn] /skin/ skin

[khIn] /kIn/ kin

Most frequently, we find allophonic variation to be determined by the surrounding phonetic environment. In the above example, [kh] appears at the beginning (and end) of words and [k] always follows [s]. When can find a consistent pattern like this we say that the allophonic variation is conditioned.

Actually, the variation between [k] and [kh] also occurs with the other phonemes as well.

Phonetic transcription Phonemic Transcription Orthographic Transcription

[spIn] /spin/ ‘spin’

[phIn] /pIn/ ‘pin’

[stInth] /stin/ ‘stint’

[thInth] /tInt/ ‘tint’

This enables us to make the more general statement that in English, voiceless stops are aspirated at the beginning and end of words, but not after [s]. This example also reinforces the usefulness of the system of distinctive features introduced earlier in this section, for it enables us to make more general statements about the phonology of English and other languages.

We briefly introduce a second example. The difference in the vowels of the English word ‘write’ and ‘ride’ is allophonic, which means that it doesn’t signal a distinctive (phonemic) contrast, as the following examples attest.

Phonetic transcription Phonemic Transcription Orthographic Transcription

[rayd] /rayd/ ride

[ryth] /rayt/ wright

[layzd] /layz/ lies

[lys] /lays/ lice

[bay] /bay/ by or buy

[taym] /taym/ time

[layf] /lyf/ life

[layv] /layv/ live

The difference between [ay] and [y] is a conditioned allophonic variation. The [y] allophone occurs before the consonants [t, x and f] and the [ay] allophone occurs before the consonants [d, z, m, v] and at the end of the words. With a few more examples, the linguist would discover that the [y] allophone occurs before voiceless consonants (see chart) and the [ay] allophone occurs elsewhere. This generalization again points out the usefulness of the classification of sounds with distinctive features.


The main concepts introduced in this section include: the phoneme, the allophone, conditioned (allophonic) variation, the difference between a phonetic and phonemic transcription, and the usefulness of distinctive features.

6. Syntax

While numerous definitions of syntax exist, the one offered here is that syntax is the study of the structure of the sentence. This involves breaking down (parsing) sentences into constituent units. In sentence (7), we immediately see that the constituents at one level are words.15

(7) The boy sees the dog.

Det Noun Verb Det Noun (Det = Determiner16)

Actually, the units of syntax are not words, but parts of speech they represent. In the example, ‘the’ is a determiner, ‘boy’ and ‘dog’ are nouns, and ‘see’ is a verb. Determiners, nouns and verbs are parts of speech. In English, as in all languages, a word is assigned to one or more parts of speech. Some parts of speech are universal, that is, nouns and verbs occur in all languages. Others, like adjective and adverb, are found in many languages but not all.

One of the things that syntax does is show us how the parts of speech relate to each other. For example, we know that in the above sentence ‘boy’ is doing the seeing, and ‘dog’ is getting seen. To understand how this works we need to introduce some additional syntactic units: the sentence (S); the verb phrase (VP) and the noun phrase (NP).

  • A noun phrase is composed of an optional determiner, and optional adjective and a noun. Semantically the N is an entity that can be modified by the Det. NP == (Det) N. (note that the parentheses mark optional members or constituents.)

  • A Verb Phrase is composed of a Verb and an optional Noun Phrase. Semantically the V represents an action and the NP, if present, is the object or recipient of the action. VP == V (NP)

  • A sentence is composed of a noun phrase and a verb phrase. Semantically the NP is the agent or doer of the action and the VP represents the action. S == NP VP. Both the NP and VP are obligatory elements of the S.

Technically, we consider the syntactic units: S, NP and VP to be non-terminal units. They are non-terminal because there can be nodes below them. Parts of speech, on the other hand are considered to be terminal because they have no syntactic nodes below them, but rather have words, drawn from the lexicon. Note also that associated with each sign is a statement of the semantic relationship for the syntactic unit.

Tree Diagrams.

The above definitions can be represented as a tree diagram as shown on the right. Tree diagrams are useful because they shows how a sentenced is parsed. Other sentences like: I run; The book excited the reader; He is a doctor, can be parsed in the same way. Although full grammars are more complex than the one presented here, this grammar is quite powerful for it allows the generation of a huge, but not infinite, number of sentences. Note also, that the semantic definitions are missing from the tree diagrams. This, linguists argue, is because they are not only a property of English but a universal, that is common to all languages and therefore do not need to be specified for each language.

A more powerful grammar.

Chomsky pointed out that unlike the grammar above) the syntax of any human language was capable of producing an infinite number of sentences. This observation is remarkable in a number of ways.

  • The grammar capable of producing an infinite number of sentences is finite.

  • It is quite likely that every day one will hear new sentences that have never been said before. Not only is the speaker capable of producing them, but the listener is capable of understanding them.

How is this possible? The answer to this question involves the reintroduction of the Sentence into the tree diagram. This is made possible by the addition of a simple rule NP == S. This allows more complex sentences like ‘He knows you like money’, as shown in the adjacent diagram. Note, first of all that one S has been embedded in the other. Note also, that this could go on indefinitely. ‘We know that you know that we know . . . the secret.’

In addition to the rule NP == S, there are two other such rules in human language that embed units within units and add to the generativity of the sentence.:

  • NP == NP S (in which the S semantically modifies the NP; and

  • NP = NP conj NP. (conj = conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor)).

The first of these rules allows for relative clauses (e.g., ‘the man who lives down the street.’) and other modifications of the NP (e.g., ‘the big man.’ These too can go on indefinitely. The use of conjunctions allow for multiple NPs (and hence Ss) to be used in the same sentence (e.g., ‘The man and his son say a bird and a fox’).

The discussion of syntax clarifies the concept of word that we defined earlier as the smallest string of sounds unit that can be said by itself and still have a consistent meaning.”

To this meaning, we can add that the word is a lexical unit that is assigned to a part of speech.

Both components of this definition allow for words to include a string of one or more morphemes (section 3).

Language Universals and the Analysis of Language.

In this section, we have made several references to language universals. Language universals are properties of the structure of all adult human languages. These include:

  1. Syntax: the syntactic categories (S, NP, VP, conj); many parts of speech (Noun, Verb, Determiner); the semantic interpretation of these categories.

  2. Morphology: The concepts of the word and morpheme; types of affixes;

  3. Phonology, distinctive features and the concept of the phoneme.

These universals play an important roe in the study of language in two ways:

The analysis of a language on internal grounds involves examining language based on evidence drawn from the language. In this chapter, we have already encountered several examples of this approach:

  1. Phonology: a) the analysis of [t] and [th] as allophones in English and the analysis of high and low tone as phonemic contrasts in Mende;

  2. Morphology: the analysis of the morphemes in English and Mende; and

  3. Syntax: the parsing of English sentence structure.

The analysis of a language on external grounds involves determining the fit of the internal analysis with the language universals. In this chapter, we have made several references to language universals in the process of analysis.

Note that if the internal analysis is at odds with the universals then either the internal analysis needs or the universals needs to be revised. For example, if we find a part of speech or a distinctive feature needed for the analysis of a particular language that is not a universal, then we either have to add this feature to the inventory of universals or revise our analysis of the language.

Needless to say, there is a lot more to the study of syntax than presented here, but this introduction should give the reader a good idea of what the study of syntax is all about.

7. Language Typology

Many properties are widely spread, but not universal. For example, we saw above that while the word order of English is Subject– Verb, – Object (SVO), the word order is in Mende is Subject - Object – Verb (SOV). Very frequently, one finds additional properties that are associated with the type of word order. For example, it is common for SVO language to have adjectives and prepositions that precede the head (‘the old house ; in the house) and adjectives and prepositions (actually postpositions) to follow the head (p εl εi wovεi; p εl εi bu) in SOV languages. While it is common for closely related languages to share the same typology, it is quite common to find related languages with different typologies. It is also quite common to find unrelated languages with the same typologies. Mende, Japanese and ZuI (spoken in the American southwest) are all SOV languages.

Simply put, language typology involves searching for similarities, as opposed to universals among languages be they phonological, morphological or syntactic.

8. Saussure’s Approach to Language Structure.

At the beginning of the chapter, we noted that the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, had introduced a synchronic approach to language. However, his approach to synchronic analysis differs from that introduced earlier in this chapter. I find that Saussure’s perspective offers important his insights about the nature of language structure.

Properties of a Sign System

Saussure introduced the concept of semiology, which he defined as “a science that studies the life of signs within society (1966:16). Having done this, he noted that while human language is an excellent example of such a system, other systems such as codes, traffic signals, dress codes are also amenable to semiological analysis.

Saussure then defined a semiological system as a finite, of fixed, collection of signs within a closed system. By finite, Saussure meant that the number of signs was both limited and known. The statement that they participate in a closed system means that the signs operate in contrast to other signs. This property led Saussure to say, "there are no things, only relations in a semiological system" and that "within a semiological system, meaning is purely negative."17



Word for Animal

English Translation

Living Animal

Meat of Animal


cow (& beef)




sheep (& mutton)




pig (& pork)



For example, many languages have words for `sheep’, `pig’ and `cow’. In French, the meaning of these words (mouton, porc and boeuf) includes both the animal on the hoof and its meat form. English, on the other hand, has two different words for each of these semantic domains. Alongside `sheep’, `pig’ and `cow’, we have `mutton’, `pork’ and `beef’ standing for the butchered version of these animals. What is important here is that in English, the meanings of `sheep’, `pig’ and `cow’ refer only to the animal on the hoof and do not include the meat forms.18

This was not always the case, for the terms for meat were introduced into the language by the French-speaking Norman conquerors in (1066). However, as these words entered English, acquiring the "meat" meanings, the older terms yielded their "meat" meanings and came to stand for their live animal meanings only. This development is a natural consequence of signs standing in opposition to other signs in the system.

Secondly, Saussure viewed each sign as the arbitrary pairing of two elements: a signifier and a signified. As a first approximation, the signifier is the component that identifies the sign while the signified is that which the sign represents. For example if we take a standard stop sign, we see that it is a pairing of a signifier (a red octagon) and a signified (marking the presence of an intersection with a road of higher priority).

With respect to the sign, Saussure observed the following:

  • The unity of the sign. The sign is the unity of the signifier and the signified; either element alone cannot constitute a sign.

  • Idealized formations. Neither the signified nor the signifier is a thing, but idealized formations. Thus, in the above example, the signifier is not a red octagon, but the concept of a red octagon and the signified is the image of an intersection of roads of different priority. Unfortunately, Saussure did not really address the question of how these idealized images came to be connected with real stop signs and intersections and this omission (known as the problem of reference) represents one of the major weaknesses of his semiological theory.

  • The Arbitrariness of the sign. The relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary. In other words, there is no necessary connection between a signified and the signifier used to represent it. This is a fact that immediately confronts us when we encounter a foreign language for the first time. Before learning that in German a table is called Tisch and in Spanish it is called mesa, we are likely to say that a table is called a `table’ because we eat on it, write on it, etc., for if it were a chair, we would call it a `chair’. But by learning the German and Spanish signifiers, we discover that in English a table just happens to be labeled table.

Saussure’s use of the term "arbitrary" has caused some confusion for it occasionally we find in human language there are words for which a connection can be seen between the signifier and signified. For example, in Hmong the word for `cat’ is something like the sound a cat makes say [miaw]. This raises the question: isn’t this relationship between signifier something less than arbitrary? However, were the term `arbitrary’ to be understood as "non necessary,” that is, there is no necessary connection between the signifier and signified, the sense of Saussure’s condition is more accurately rendered, that is, in Hmong the signifier for `cat’ does not have to be [miaw]. We even discover when we attempt to imitate the sounds of nature, that different languages institutionalize these natural sounds differently. For example, in English a rooster goes: Cock-a-doodle-doo, where as in Yoruba, a language of Nigeria, it goes "Kukuruuku.”19

Other Sign Systems In Human Language

While the lexical (word level) sign system described above (see also section 4) is the most salient sign system in human language, it is not the only one. The syntactical and phonological levels also fit Saussure’s definition of a sign system, as is shown below.

The representational level of the human sign system

Saussure’s illustrated the concept of the lexical sign using the word tree (sidebar). Here the signified is the concept or mental image of ‘tree.’ The signifier is the string of phonemes: /t - r - i/. From the perspective of Saussure’s semiology, the phoneme (section 5) too is a sign for the phonemes of a language are finite and part of a closed system. But the important point here is that the word tree is a sign because it has a signifier and signified and that the signifier consists of a sting of phonemic signs. This means that the word is a complex sign, meaning that it consists of signs at two different levels.

In addition to the phonemic sign, the word can be signified using a writing system or the gestural system of American Sign Language. Because each of these sign systems can be used to represent words, I term them representational sign systems.

Each of these representational sign systems conforms to Saussure’s definition of sign. Taking the English alphabet for example, we see that the string of letters (t-r-e-e) can also serve as a signifier for the above sign. The English alphabet contains 26 letters, thus it consists of a finite number in a closed system. Furthermore, each of these letters consists of a signified and a signifier and thus conforms to Saussure’s definition of the sign. Using the letter t for example, we see that the signifier is the graphic shape of t. In keeping with the Saussure’s notion of signs, the signifier of t is not any real t but the mental image of t which is linked by the user to the various graphic manifestations of t which one finds in the real world, whether Gothic, roman, script or Germanic.

Having identified the graphic image of t as the signifier, we turn to the more difficult question of what is the signified of the sign t; what is its meaning? The answer to the question is that the signified of t is that it is "not any of the other 25 letters in the closed system of graphic images." That is, by its very presence in a graphic string, say tree, t prevents other letters from taking its place so that tree cannot be free, cree, gree, and so forth. Thus, by showing, that t has both a signifier and a signified within the closed system of English alphabet, we have shown that t is a sign.

A similar argument can be made for the gestures of ASL

Complex signs.

By recognizing that the signified of a lexical sign is a string of representational signs (graphic letters), we also recognize that lexical signs are complex signs consisting of signs from more than one sign system. In contrast to a complex sign, I consider simple signs to be "lexical" signs with unique and unitary signifiers that cannot be broken down into sequences of representational signs. For the most part, the signs of other animals are simple signs. The signifiers of a growl, a bark and a whimper have very little if any common components that might suggest the semblance of a representational system.

The advantage of a complex sign system is that it is possible for a finite number of representational signs (graphemes, phonemes or gesturemes) to provide through various combinations a virtually unlimited set of signifiers at the lexical level. For example, by representing English lexical signs using graphic representational signs, it is possible to represent all of the words in English using strings of graphic signs with an average length no greater than eight letters.

The tactic level of the human sign system

Syntax is the tactic sign system used in adult human language. Generally, tactic signs consist of sentences; sentences consist of a string of one or more words.20 In section 6, we defined syntax as the study of the structure of the sentence. This study led to the identification of syntactic units including parts of speech and non-terminal nodes. We also identified semantic relationships (agent, action, object).

  1. A sentence is composed of a noun phrase and a verb phrase.

  2. Semantically the noun phrase is the agent or doer of the action and the verb phrase represents the action.
From a semiological perspective, syntax can also be characterized as a semiological system consisting of a signified and a signifier. (Dwyer 1986). In section 6 we introduced two important concepts needed for the understanding of syntax: syntactic units including parts of speech (1) and semantic relationships (2).

From a semiological perspective, the syntactic units serve as the signifier of the syntactic sign and spell out the sign, while the semantic relationships serve as the signified of the sign, indicating the meaning of the sign. The graphic in the side bar shows the graphic representation of the sentence and the verb phrase as signs.

After we parse a sentence like (7) above, ‘The boy sees the dog.’ and assign it a tree diagram (sidebar), we can use these definitions of the sentence and sign to identify the left-most noun (boy) as the agent, the verb as the action and the right-most noun (dog) as the object. Thus, we know explicitly that the boy is doing the seeing and that the girl is being seen.

While this sketch is clearly not a full description of the semiological properties of syntax, we can appreciate that syntax represents an important sign system used in human language. Thus in a sentence, we see a level of syntactic signs whose signifiers are ultimately "spelled out" as parts of speech represented by lexical signs whose signifiers are "spelled out" by representational signs. In addition, we see that syntax makes it possible to know what semantic relationship lexical items have with to each other: whether a lexeme is an agent or an object or and action and so forth. That is, syntax enables the precision and expressiblity of human language, something incomparable to the "language" of the bees.

Section Summary

We introduced Saussure’s semiological approach to show that although the systems of phonology, morphology and syntax have distinctive properties, they also have common properties. Each is a closed system of signs and while the three types of signs have their own properties, they all consist of a signifier and signified. Second, the semiological perspective has allowed us to show that these systems are integrated, that is, a sentence consists of a string of grammatical units, which in turn are represented by words, which in turn are represented by phonemes (graphemes or gestures).

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, we introduced the “discourse of linguistic analysis.” The word discourse in this sense means the way one talks about something. As pointed out in chapter 2, discourses are associated with institutions, in this case, the institution of linguistics. Note also that linguistics is also embedded within the academic institution and as a result shares many properties with it.

Like any discourse, linguistic discourse contains terms and topics. These terms enable the linguistic to talk about, that is, analyze, the topics. The topics define the areas of analysis. Discourses change over time with new terms replacing old terms and new topic replace old ones. For example, the use of the terms “distinctive features” and “semantic relationships” was not part of the pre-Chomskian discourse nor were the topics of linguistic universals and language typology. Part of the reason for showing the Saussurian approach was to introduce the concept of an alternative discourse. Furthermore, the discourse of linguistics is constantly undergoing change and in the future parts of the current discourse will be seen.

We also showed in this chapter how a linguist would approach the study of language (as grammar). Our goal here was to give the reader an appreciation of what is involved and not an ability to carry out a linguistic analysis. Thus, a successful reading of this chapter involves understanding this discourse and not applying it.

Questions for Study and Review
  1. Which of the following are phonetic differences and which are phonemic differences? 1) duck/tuck; 2) the ­ks in kin and skin; 3) the vowels in seat and sit; 4) the vowels in write and ride (note, this is also an allophonic difference); the last sound in ­pots and pods (note, this is also an allomorphic difference).

  2. Which of the following is an example of a) a lexical analysis, b) a phonological analysis or c) a syntactic analysis? 1) The parsing of the English word eventually; 2) the contrast between the French words feu and faux; 3) the parsing of the Spanish sentence Donde esta la lavandaria? (Note you do not have to understand the language to figure out what the study is.

  3. Can you identify the root and the affixes in the following words? a) fishing; b) trilateral, c) openness, d) inefficiency.

  4. The section on syntax gave a tree diagram for The boy sees the dog. has been given. Try drawing the diagram for 1) The dog sees the boy.; Frankie and Johnnie were lover’s; 3) I know that you know that I know.

  5. What are linguistic universals? Why are they important to the study of language structure?

  6. What are the two types of syntactic units?

  7. What is semiology? What are the two components of a sign?

  8. What is the difference between a simple and a complex sign?

  9. Using the table for either English or Mande in section 5 identify the common distinctive feature(s) in the following sets. 1) p, t, k, d; 2) m, n, n; 3) e, a, o, I; 4) p, b, m, v, g; 5) l, r, m, n; 6) p, t, s, k, f.

  10. Why are distinctive features for phonological analysis?

  11. Two word sequences like free speech and fire works are ambiguous. This ambiguity can be traced to one of the words in the sequence being associated with two different parts of speech. Using the concept of semantic relationship, can you explain how these two meanings arise?
  12. How does the fact that the Mende word for water is nji and that in Spanish is agua show that the linkage between the signifier and signified is arbitrary?

  13. Although Saussure noted that a signified (concept) without a signifier is not a sign, there are many concepts in English that exist that do not have signifiers. For example, what is the name for the icy stuff that collects behind the wheels of cars in the winter? Most English speakers do not have a name (signifier) for it and hence it is not a sign. Can you think of other examples?

  14. Why is it important for signs to belong to a closed system?

  15. A traffic light can also be described as a sign system. For each of the signs in a traffic light, identify the signifier and describe the signified.

  16. In section 7, we noted that unlike many languages, English draws a distinction between cow and beef. Can you think of other examples of for which the name of the animal and its meat are different?

Suggestions for Further Reading


This chapter contains many technical terms that the linguist has found useful in describing language. These terms have been included in our presentation to show the reader the nature of linguistic discourse. However, many of these terms are not needed by the beginning student or language and culture. Such terms appear with a smaller font.

Affixes and stems. Types of morphemes. Stems are bases on which affixes can be added. Affixes are either prefixes (occurring before the stem) or suffixes are affixes (occurring after the stem).

Allomorph: A variant of a morpheme with a different signifier. Complementary distribution is a method for showing how allomorphs differ.

Allophone: A variant of a phoneme with a different signifier. Complimentary distribution is a way of showing how allophones differ.

Alveolar: A place of articulation in which the front of the tongue meets the gum behind the teeth known as the alveolar ridge.

Analysis of a language: A language can be analyzed on internal grounds, based on evidence of the linguistic units in the closed system, and on external grounds, based on its relationship to linguistic universals.

Arbitrariness of the sign: Arbitrariness means that the link between the signifier and signifier is arbitrary, that is, that there is no necessary or logical basis for the linkage.

Aspiration: A manner articulation in which a consonant is followed by a puff of air. See text.

Complex sign: A complex sign involves signs from two different sign (semiological) systems. For example, the word cat consists of the lexical sign ‘cat’ and its signifier ‘cat’ consists of a string of alphabetic signs c-a-t or phonemic signs /k-æ-t/.

Complimentary distribution: A condition where two linguistic units do not exist in the same linguistic environment (surrounding). See the text for examples.

Conditioning. The situation that determines which allomorph or allophone occurs in which environment. They are usually morphologically conditioned or phonologically conditioned.

Dental A place of articulation where the front of the tongue meets the teeth.

Determiner: A part of speech. This class includes the English words: the, a, some, this, that…

Distinctive features: Phonemes can be analyzed in terms of their components or distinctive features and represent a universal system of classifying the sound contrasts in human language. (See text for details)

Embedded A syntactic capacity that gives human language the potential to generate an infinite number of sentences. The embedding of a sentence within a sentence provides this capacity

Free and bound morphemes: Morphemes that can stand as a word are termed ‘free,’ where as morphemes that must appear with other morphemes are termed ‘bound.’

Fricative Manner of articulation. See text.

Glide A nonsyllabic vowel.

Gloss: A brief definition of a meaning. Not to be confused with the dictionary meaning of the word that contains much more detailed information about meanings, usages, and pronunciation.

Inflection and derivation: Two types of affixes. (See text)

Interdental A place of articulation involving the tip of the tongue and the upper teeth. See chart in chapter 3.

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): A system used by linguist to make phonetic transcriptions. The principle characteristic of the IPA is that each different sound (can be) represented by a unique symbol

Labial Point of articulation. See text.

Language Typology involves searching for similarities, as opposed to universals among languages be they phonological, morphological or syntactic.

Lexical tone: The phonemic use of tone (pitch) to distinguish between words.

Liquid An oral, sonorant consonant. See text.

Minimal pair: A minimal pair is a set of words that differs by a single phonemic contrast

Morpheme: The smallest string of sounds unit that can be said by itself and still have a consistent meaning.”

Morphology: Morphology is the study of the structure of the word.

Nasal Manner of articulation. See text.

Non-Terminal Units: These indicate higher levels syntactic units. Examples include: sentence (S); verb phrase (VP); noun phrase (NP) and conjunction (conj). Many of these units are considered universal.

Nouns: A part of speech.

Orthography: The writing system of a language.

Palatal Point of articulation. See text.

Parsing: A process of analyzing utterances by breaking them down into their constituent units.

Parts of Speech: Parts of speech are the endpoint of syntax and indicate which types of words can be added. Examples include: nouns, verbs, conjunction and (pre)positions

Phoneme: The contrastive sign of the phonemic system.

Phonetic Transcription: The graphic (written) rendering of an utterance using the IPA. Transcriptions can be narrow (including a lot of detail) or broad (including very little detail).

Phonetic versus Phonemic: Phonetic refers to the sounds used in human languages, whereas phonemic refers to the contrastive nature of sounds within a specific language.

Phonologically conditioned An allophone is determined by the sounds that precede or follow it, that is, they are phonologically conditioned. Some allomorphs are also phonologically conditioned.

Phonology: The study of the sound systems including sound contrasts used in human language.

Prefixes and suffixes: Types of affixes.

Relative clauses: A sentence that serves to modify a noun, e.g., ‘The man who is sitting over there is my friend.

Representational Signs: Signs that combine to represent the signifiers of words. The signs of human language can be phonemic, graphic or gestural.

Semantic Relationships: These features define the semantic relationships between syntactic units. Examples include agent-action, action-object.

Semantically complex: A lexical item with a meaning that consists of more than one basic meaning, e.g., 1) ‘sow’ is contains the meanings ‘pig’ and female’; 2) ‘piglet’ contains the meanings ‘pig’ and ‘little or young.’ In some cases, additional analysis will show that the item can be broken down further. Piglet consists of the stem ‘pig’ and the suffix {-let}. Sow cannot be analyzed as two smaller morphemes.

Semantics: The study of grammatical meaning.

Semiology: is the study of signs and sign systems. Defined by Saussure as “a science that studies the life of signs within society.”

Sibilants The sounds [s, z, š, ž, č and j].

Signified: The aspect of the sign that is the concept or the value (meaning).

Signifier: The aspect of the sign that represents it, in contrast to the signified.

Signs: Signs consist of two elements: the signifier and the signified.

Sonorant See text.

Stems: See roots.

Stop Manner of articulation. See text.

Syntactic units: The units of syntactic structure of which there are two types: 1) parts of speech (sometimes called terminal nodes) and 2) non-terminal units.

Syntax: Syntax is the study of the structure of the sentence.

Tactic Types: Syntax is the tactic type of adult human language. Children under go other stages of development including ataxis (the one word stage) and parataxis (the two word stage). Note: Chapter 5 explains the differences in tactic types in more detail.

Terminal units See syntactic units.

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