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An essential notion in structural linguistics which denies any necessary relationship between linguistic signs and their referents, e.g. objects in the outside world.



According to Chomsky in his Aspects of the theory of syntax (1965) this is the abstract ability of an individual to speak the language which he/she has learned as native language in his/her childhood. The competence of a speaker is unaffected by such factors as nervousness, temporary loss of memory, speech errors, etc. These latter phenomena are entirely within the domain of performance which refers to the process of applying one's competence in the act of speaking. Bear in mind that competence also refers to the ability to judge if a sentence is grammatically well-formed; it is an unconscious ability.



A term referring to the environment in which an element (sound, word, phrase) occurs. The context may determine what elements may be present, in which case one says that there are 'co-occurrence restrictions' for instance 1) /r/ may not occur after /s/ in a syllable in English, e.g. */sri:n/ is not phonotactically permissible in English; 2) the progressive form cannot occur with stative verbs, e.g. We are knowing German is not well-formed in English.



A difference between two linguistic items which can be exploited systematically. The distinction between the two forms arises from the fact that these can occupy one and the same slot in a syntagm, i.e. they alternate paradigmatically, e.g. the different inflectional forms of verbs contrast in both English and German. Forms which contrast are called distinctive. This can apply to sounds as well, for instance /p/ and /b/ contrast in English as minimal pairs such as pin /pɪn/ : bin /bɪn/ show.



An agreement, usually reached unconsciously by speakers in a community, that relationships are to apply between linguistic items, between these and the outside world or to apply in the use of rules in the grammar of their language.



An accepted feature of human language — deriving from the phenomenon of sentence generation — which accounts for speakers' ability to produce and to understand a theoretically infinite number of sentences.



An approach to linguistics which is concerned with saying what language is like and not what it should be like (prescriptivism).



Refers to language viewed over time and contrasts with synchronic which refers to a point in time. This is one of the major structural distinctions introduced by Saussure and which is used to characterise types of linguistic investigation.



One of the key characteristics of human language which enables it to refer to situations which are not here and now, e.g. I studied linguistics in London when I was in my twenties.


duality of patterning

A structural principle of human language whereby larger units consist of smaller building blocks, the number of such blocks being limited but the combinations being almost infinite. For instance all words consist of combinations of a limited number of sounds, say about 40 in either English or German. Equally all sentences consist of structures from a small set with different words occupying different points in the structures allowing for virtually unlimited variety.



A principle of linguistic analysis which demands that rules and units are to be kept to a minimum, i.e. every postulated rule or unit must be justified linguistically by capturing a generalisation about the language being analysed, if not about all languages.



Any phenomenon which lies outside of language. An extralinguistic reason for a linguistic feature would be one which is not to be found in the language itself.



Any use of a word in a non-literal sense, e.g. at the foot of the mountain where foot is employed figuratively to indicate the bottom of the mountain. Figurative usage is the source of the second meaning of polysemous words.



An adjective referring to linguistic analyses which lay emphasis on relatively abstract conceptions of language structure.


general linguistics

A broad term for investigations which are concerned with the nature of language, procedures of linguistic analysis, etc. without considering to what use these can be put. It contrasts explicitly with applied linguistics.



A reference to a type of linguistic analysis which relies heavily on the formulation of rules for the exhaustive description (generation) of the sentences of a language.



The centre of a phrase or sentence which is possibly qualified by further optional elements, in the phrase these bright new signs the head is signs as all other elements refer to it and are optional. The term is also used in lexicology to refer to the determining section of a compound; in family tree, the element tree is head and family is modifier. This has consequences for grammar, especially in synthetic languages, such as German where in a compound like Stammbuch the gender is neuter (with das) because the head Buch is although the modifying word is masculine (der Stamm).



Any order of elements from the most central or basic to the most peripheral, e.g. a hierarchy of word classes in English would include nouns and verbs at the top and elements like adjectives and adverbs further down with conjunctions and subordinators still further down. The notions of top and bottom are intended in a metaphorical sense



A situation where the linguist chooses to ignore details of language use for reasons of greater generalisation.



A system which consists of a set of symbols (sentences) — realised phonetically by sounds — which are used in a regular order to convey a certain meaning. Apart from these formal characteristics, definitions of languages tend to highlight other aspects such as the fact that language is used regularly by humans and that it has a powerful social function.


lay speaker

A general term to refer to an individual who does not possess linguistic training and who can be taken to be largely unaware of the structure of language.



A reference to a set of recognisible divisions in the structure of natural language. These divisions are largely independent of each other and are characterised by rules and regularities of organisation. Traditionally five levels are recognised: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics. Pragmatics may also be considered as a separate level from semantics. Furthermore levels may have subdivisions as is the case with morphology which falls into inflectional and derivational morphology (the former is concerned with grammatical endings and the latter with processes of word-formation). The term 'level' may also be taken to refer to divisions within syntax in generative grammar.



The study of language. As a scientific discipline built on objective principles, linguistics did not develop until the beginning of the 19th century. The approach then was historical as linguists were mainly concerned with the reconstruction of the Indo-European language. With the advent of structuralism at the beginning of the 20th century, it became oriented towards viewing language at one point in time. The middle of this century saw a radically new approach — known as generative grammar — which stressed our unconscious knowledge of language and underlying structures to be found in all languages.


linguistic determinism

Refers to the view, propounded by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, that language determines the way in which people think. Also termed the linguistic relativity hypothesis.



A term used to state that a particular form is statistically unusual or unexpected in a certain context. For instance zero plurals in English such as sheep or deer are marked.



The language which is used to discuss language; see also object language.



An application of a word to another with which it is figuratively but not literally associated, e.g. food for thought. This process is very common in the use of language and may lead to changes in grammar as with the verb go in English where its spatial meaning has come to be used metaphorically for temporal contexts as in He's going to learn Russian.



The linguistic study of names, both personal and place names. This field is particularly concerned with etymology and with the general historical value of the information which names offer the linguist.



The set of forms belonging to a particular word-class or member of a word-class. A paradigm can be thought of as a vertical list of forms which can occupy a slot in a syntagm. Pronounced [ˡpærədaim].



Any aspect of language which can obtain a specific value in a given language, e.g. canonical word-order which can have the verb in a declarative sentence either before the subject, after the subject or after both subject and object. Contrast principle in this respect.