Discuss synchronic and diachronic approaches to language. In opposition to the totally historical view of language of the previous hundred years, Ferdinand de Saussure emphasized the importance of seeing from two distinct and largely exclusive points of view, which he called “synchronic” and “diachronic”. The word “chronic” has been derived from Greek word “chronos” which means time. Synchronic linguistics sees language as a living whole, existing as a state at a particular point in time (an ital de langue, as Saussure put it, Greek “syn”-with, chronos – time).
Diachronic linguistics concerns language in its historical development (Greek dia through, chronos – time). Thus descriptive linguistics is known as “synchronic linguistics” and studies a language at one particular period of time. Historical linguistics is known as diachronic or temporal linguistics and deals with the development of language through time. For example, the way in which French or Italian have evolved from Latin, and Hindi from Sanskrit. It also investigates language change.
A study of the change from Old to Middle English is a diachronic study. Old English Middle English chint knight stan ston a o In the same way, the study of a writer’s development from youth to maturity is an example of diachronic study. The way in which Shakespeare’s style changes from youth to maturity is also an instance of diachronic study.
Saussure says: “Synchronic linguistics will concern the logical and psychological relations that bind together co-existing terms and from a system in the collective mind of speakers. Diachronic linguistics, on the contrary, will study relations that bind together successive terms, not perceived by the collective mind but substituted for each other without forming a system.
” Thus synchronic linguistics deals with systems whereas diachronic with units. The relationship between the both aspects of language study was diagrammatically represented by Saussure in the following way: C X–X1–X2–X3 B A D Here AB is the synchronic axis of simultaneities, CD is the diachronic axis of succession. AB is a language state at an arbitrarily chosen point in time on the line CD (at X); CD is the historical path the language has traveled, and the root which it is going to continue traveling. The point of intersection X indicates that neither excludes the other completely.
If CD represents evolution over a period (say 100 years from 1850 to 1950), X1, X2, X3… represent the successive state of language 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890 and so on. The difference between descriptive or synchronic and historical or diachronic linguistics can be illustrated by the diagram of Saussure itself, who was the first person to point out the necessity of distinguishing between the two approaches. We may think this is fairly obvious distinction if it had not been the case that some quite eminent 19th century scholars had failed to draw it. And it needs to be drawn.
Neither excludes the other completely, of course, there must be a point of intersection in terms of the above mentioned diagram. But being aware of, the distinction allows us to focus attention more answeringly on language from a given consistent angle. Moreover, due emphasis on the synchronic (which had been neglected dimension before Saussure) helps to clarify the important point that a diachronic investigation always pre-supposes, to some extent a synchronic study. It is impossible to consider the way a language has changed from one state to another without first knowing something about the two states to be compared.
This need not to be a pair of complete synchronic descriptions, of course, to complain that it would be a distortion of what linguists actually do in practice but some nonhistorical analysis is essential as a preliminary. Saussure rounds off his discussion with various analogies, of which his analogy with a game of chess is perhaps the most famous. If we walk into a room while a chess game is being played, it is possible to assess the state of the game by simply studying the position of the pieces on the board (as long as we know the rules): we do not normally need to know the previous moves from the beginning of the game.
And likewise the state of board at every move is implicit in any pattern of play we may wish to study. The synchronic/diachronic distinction, Saussure claims, is very much like this. And, without wanting to push the analogy too far, we can agree with him. Throughout the 19th century linguistic research was very strongly historical in character. One of the principal aims of the subject was to group language families on the basis of independent development from a common source, or to study language change.
The description of a particular language was made subsidiary to this general aim, and there was little interest in the study of a language of a given community without reference to historical consideration. Saussure’s distinction between diachronic and synchronic investigation of the language is a distinction between two opposing view points. Nevertheless, valid diachronic work has to be based on good synchronic work because no valid statement about linguistic change can be made unless good description of a language does exist. Similarly a synchronic statement may well reflect certain historical developments.
For example, two vowels of `reel’ and `real’ are described as being basically different because the historical facts show different sources for the `ee’ and the `ea’. On the other hand, we find statements like `ought’ is the past tense of `owe’ and `dice’ is the plural of `die’. One can point out that these statements are diachronically, but not synchronically, true. A synchronic approach is enough to gain mastery over a contemporary language, but it is necessary to have a diachronic description to understand the evolution of that language.
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