Social:Theory of language

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Theory of language or linguistic theory has the goal of answering the question “What is language?”[1][2] It is a central issue in theoretical linguistics and philosophy of language. While much of the research in the various fields of linguistics is descriptive, there exists an underlying assumption that terminological and methodological choices reflect the researcher's understanding of what language is in theoretical terms. Linguists are divided into different schools of thinking, with the nature–nurture debate as the main divide.[3] Some linguistics conferences and journals are focused on a favoured theory of language, while others remain neutral.[4]

Like in other human and social sciences, theories in linguistics can be divided into humanistic and sociobiological approaches.[5] Same terminology, including rationalism, functionalism, formalism and constructionism, is sometimes used with a different reference in humanist and sociobiological contexts.

Humanistic theories

Humanistic theories consider people as agentive in the construction of language. Language is primarily seen as a socio-cultural reality. This tradition emphasises culture, nurture and diversity.[3]

Classical humanism

A rationalist approach to language stems from the philosophy Age of Enlightenment. Antoine Arnauld believed that people created language in a step-by-step process by people to serve their psychological needs.[6] During the 19th century, when sociological questions remained under psychology,[7] languages and language change were considered as arising from human psychology and unconscious mind by Heymann Steinthal, Hermann Paul and William Dwight Whitney. Esa Itkonen is a defender of rational explanation of language.[8]


As a humanist reaction to social Darwinism in the late 19the century, Émile Durkheim modified Herbert Spencer's organic analogy to create a view of society which is not based on competition of cultures.[7] Ferdinand de Saussure made a successful adaptation of the structuralist approach where linguistic structures are assigned various functions. In the structuralist view, linguistics is the study of semiology, an interactive binary organisation which includes a conceptual system and a corresponding symbolic system. Language is located collectively in the speaker community, and not in the individual. Therefore, language is a social fact rather than a psychological phenomenon.[9] The legacy of Saussurian structuralism is today represented by various schools of structural and functional linguistics.[10][11]

American structuralism

American structuralists such as Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield remained more closely allied to German psychological approaches to linguistics, but others, such as Charles F. Hockett, studied the systemic organisation of language, adding to French structuralism. The Boasian school of cultural relativism remained highly influential until 1960s, reducing the importance of universalist approaches to theory of language in North America.


Continental structuralism was divided after the death of Saussure. Functionalists interpret the bilateral sign (concept—symbol) functionally. Functional explanation means that language and linguistic forms depend on their functional value. Language is seen as a tool for communication, and the shape of the tool is based on what it is needed for. Following a 1920s shift in sociology to functional explanation of social structures, the Prague school of linguistics was established for functional linguistics, with Vilém Mathesius, Jan Firbas and František Daneš developing Functional Sentence Perspective (FSP), a multi-layered model of text analysis. Praguian ideas were spread throughout Europe and overseas.

In France, André Martinet founded La Société internationale de Linguistique fonctionnelle (SILF). The Dutch school is today organised around Functional Discourse Grammar, and the legacy of the English school is carried by Systemic Functional Grammar; the last two are functional models of linguistic analysis.


Due to differences with functionalists, proponents of non-functional explanation including Louis Hjelmslev became known as the formalists, advocating the view of linguistics as a formal science. In structural-formal explanation linguistic structure is seen as following from the logical premises of the semiological system. Logical methods were adopted for explanation of linguistic universals by Theo Vennemann. Montague grammar became the basis of today's formal semantics.


While structuralists considered languages as ‘natural’ in a certain understanding, Coșeriu laid emphasis on the intentional construction of language.[8] In philosophy, a similar approach has been advocated by John Searle and other social constructionists.

Sociobiological theories

In contrast to humanist linguistics, sociobiological approaches consider languages as biologically-based phenomena.

Evolutionary linguistics

Steven Pinker and other advocates of evolutionary psychology see language, including grammatical phenomena, as being caused by the evolution of human physiology. The link between genes and linguistic forms remains unknown. Some evolutionary linguists support a version of a genetic Universal Grammar while others are more generally looking for answers in language processing or linguistic cognition.

Darwinian linguistics

Darwinian linguistics is the adaption of natural selection theory to the study of linguistics and language evolution. The idea of languages as species of living organisms competing for living space was advocated by Darwin[12] and his followers, especially the evolutionary linguist August Schleicher. Richard Dawkins's memetics and other cultural replicator[13] theories, such as David Hull's generalised Darwinism and CAS (Complex adaptive system) form the basis of modern Darwinian linguistics. These go under various names including (American) functionalism (not to be confused with structural functionalism), Usage-Based linguistics, constructionism (i.e. ‘Construction Grammar’, not to be confused with the humanist approach), and invisible-hand linguistics. In the Universal Darwinian model,[14] not only linguistic units are seen as fighting for survival, but even research traditions; and idea promoted in linguistics by William Croft.[15]

Non-adaptational evolution

There is also a non-adaptational view of language as having been caused by evolutionary mechanisms, but not through natural selection. As Schleicher compared languages to plants, animals and crystals,[16] the idea of grammatical structures as crystallised patterns were revived in Kenneth Lee Pike's tagmemics.[17] This idea is furtherst developed in generative grammar. Noam Chomsky and his advocates compare linguistic structures to snowflakes[18] and ferromagnetic droplets.[19] The crystallised patterns are caused by a hypothesised human language organ which is the result of a random mutation. Non-adaptational linguistics is also known as rationalism, formalism or structuralism (not to be confused with the similarly-named humanist approaches).


  1. Langdoen, D. Terence (1998). "Linguistic theory". in Bechtel, William; Graham, George. A Companion to Cognitive Science. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 235-244. ISBN 9781405164535. 
  2. Jackendoff, Ray (2010). "Your theory of language evolution depends on your theory of language". in Larson, Richard K.; Déprez, Viviane; Yamakido, Hiroko. The Evolution of Human Language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 63-72. ISBN 9780511817755. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Koster, Jan (2013). "Theories of language from a critical perspective". in Herschensohn, Julia; Young-Scholten, Martha. The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press. pp. 9-25. ISBN 9781139051729. 
  4. De Bot, Kees (2015). A History of Applied Llinguistics : From 1980 to the Present. Oxford: Francis. ISBN 9781138820661. 
  5. Lehmann, Winfred P. (1984). "Mellow glory: see language steadily and see it whole". in Copeland, James E.. New Directions in Linguistics and Semiotics. John Benjamins. pp. 17-34. ISBN 9789027286437. 
  6. Arnauld, Antoine; Lancelot, Claude (1975). General and Rational Grammar : The Port-Royal Grammar. The Hague: Mouton. ISBN 902793004X.,%20The%20Port-Royal%20Grammar.pdf. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Gane, M. (1983). "Durkheim: the sacred language". Economy and society 12 (1): 1-47. doi:10.1080/03085148300000006. Retrieved 2020-01-17. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Itkonen, Esa (2011). "On Coseriu’s legacy". Energeia (III): 1-29. Retrieved 2020-01-14. 
  9. de Saussure, Ferdinand (1959). Course in general linguistics. New York: Philosophy Library. ISBN 9780231157278. 
  10. Butler, Christopher S. (2003). Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major Structural-Functional Theories, part 1. John Benjamins. ISBN 9781588113580. Retrieved 2020-01-19. 
  11. Schäfer, Roland (2016). Einführung in die grammatische Beschreibung des Deutschen (2nd ed.). Berlin: Language Science Press. ISBN 978-1-537504-95-7. 
  12. Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man. London: Murray. p. 415 pages. 
  13. Lewens, Tim (2018). "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy". in Zalta, Edward N. (Summer ed.). Retrieved 2020-01-09. 
  14. Hull, David (1988). Science as Process. Chicago: CUP. 
  15. Croft, William (1993). "Functional-typological theory in its historical and intellectual context". STUF 46: 291-295. 
  16. Arbukle, John (1970). August Schleicher and the linguistics/philology dichotomy: a chapter in the history of linguistics. 26. pp. 17-31. 
  17. Pike, Kenneth L. (1960). "Nucleation". The Modern Language Journal 44 (7): 291-295. 
  18. Chomsky, Noam (2015). The Minimalist Program. 2nd edition.. MIT Press. 
  19. Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo; Vitiello, Giuseppe (2015). "Linguistics and some aspects of its underlying dynamics". Biolinguistics 9: 96-115. 

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