What is the Difference Between American and European Structuralism

The main difference between American and European Structuralism is that American structuralism was a movement greatly influenced by behaviourism, but European structuralism was directly influenced by Saussure’s notion of langue.

Structuralism refers to the heterogeneous school of structural linguistics that developed in Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century. The main aim of both movements was to describe and classify linguistic units; however, there are many differences between these two movements.

Key Areas Covered

1. What is Structuralism in Linguistics
     – Definition, Characteristics
2. What is American Structuralism
     – Definition, Characteristics
3. What is European Structuralism
     – Definition, Characteristics
4. What is the Difference Between American and European Structuralism
     – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms

Structuralism in Linguistics, American, Structuralism, European Structuralism

Difference Between American and European Structuralism - Comparison Summary

What is Structuralism in Linguistics

The term structuralism was used in many contexts across various disciplines in the 20th century. It originates from the basic concept that all phenomena occur in relation to each other, not independently, and that all phenomena are part of a whole with a definite structure. In linguistics, structuralism is based on the concept that language is a structured system of formal units, and linguistic study should involve exploring the nature of those units and their systematic arrangement, without reference to historical antecedents or comparison with other languages.

Difference Between American and European Structuralism

The field of structural linguistics originates from the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Furthermore, structural linguistics refers to two main movements that developed independently of each other. They are the American structuralism and European structuralism.

What is American Structuralism

American structuralism generally refers to the study of structural linguistics in North America from the 1920s to late 1950s. Franz Boas, Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir were some prominent American linguists in this movement. Leonard Bloomfield led the development of structural linguistics in the US during the 1930s and 40s. This time period is, in fact, called the Bloomfieldian era. Bloomfield and his fellow linguistics mainly focused on forms of linguistics items and the way they were structured, instead of focusing on semantics.

In this era, linguists focused mostly on writing descriptive grammars of unwritten languages, especially the Native American languages which were dying out. IT involved collecting sets of utterances from native speakers and analysing the corpus of collected data by studying the syntactic and phonological patterns of the language, as far as possible without reference to meaning. Moreover, this method identified and classified the linguistics items based on their distribution within the corpus. In this analysis, linguists found that those native languages couldn’t be described with categories established by traditional linguists, which were based on European languages. It compelled the American linguists to do more advanced studies. Therefore, it is this focus on the Native American languages that actually formed American linguistics, differentiating it from other movements of linguistics structuralism.

Characteristics of American Structuralism

  • Began as an offshoot of anthropology
  • Influenced by behaviourist psychology
  • Focused on native American languages, which were dying out
  • Neglect of semantics
  • Attempted to develop a methodology to describe any corpus in terms of the distribution of its expression-elements relative to each other.

What is European Structuralism

European structuralism was directly influenced and inspired by the work of Saussure. The central concept of this movement is that language is a system of signs and has a structure. Since it is a system of signs, one cannot identify expression-elements (sounds, words) independently of the content-elements (meanings). Therefore, it is not possible to separate the study of language from the study of meaning. This is where the concept of sign, signified, and signifier comes in. In simple words, Signifier is the image or sound associated with something (e.g., a table), while signified is the idea or concept of the thing (e.g., the idea of a table). Also, the sign is the object that combines the signifier and the signified into a meaningful unit.Main Difference - American vs European Structuralism

Furthermore, according to Saussure, language operates at two levels:  langue and parole. Langue is an abstract system, whereas parole is actual speech. Besides, there are various schools of European structuralism such as the Geneva School, Prague School, Copenhagen School, and Paris School.

Difference Between American and European Structuralism

Definition

American structuralism is a heterogeneous movement of linguistics that occurred in the US from the 1930s to 1960s. European structuralism is a heterogeneous movement of linguistics that developed in Europe during the 1920s.

Prominent Linguists

Ferdinand de Saussure was the most prominent linguist in European structuralism. On the other hand, Leonard Bloomfield was the most prominent linguist in American structuralism.

Languages

American structuralism involved the study of Native American languages. Since it was an unexplored area, linguists had to determine their rules and grammar structures first, before describing these languages patterns and comparing them with English. However, European structuralism involved European languages, which had been extensively studied before.

Meaning/ Semantics

In American structuralism, one can observe complete neglect of semantics or meaning. But, in European structuralism, the study of language cannot be separated from the study of meaning.

Type of Study

Moreover, European structuralism mostly involved abstract ideas and concepts. But, American structuralism was comparatively more applied in nature.

Nature

American structuralism began as an offshoot of anthropology and was influenced by behaviourism. On the other hand, European structuralism takes a more pure linguistics approach.

Conclusion

In brief, American structuralism and European structuralism are two main structural linguistics movements that developed independently of each other. American structuralism began as an offshoot of anthropology and was influenced by behaviourism. European structuralism, on the other hand, was directly inspired and influenced by the work of Saussure. Moreover, American structuralism focused on Native American languages, while European structuralism focused on European languages, which has clearly identifiable grammar rules and structures. Therefore, there is a distinct difference between American and European structuralism.

Reference:

1. “American Structural Linguistics.” Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Available here.
2. Ganzhelyuk, Polina. “American Structuralism.” Prezi.com, 24 May 2015, Available here.
3. Structuralism and Generative Grammar, Available here.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Ferdinand de Saussure by Jullien” By “F. Jullien Genève”, maybe Frank-Henri Jullien (1882–1938) – Indogermanisches Jahrbuch (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Saussure Signifie-Signifiant” By Ferdinand de Saussure (26 November 1857 – 22 February 1913) – Cours de linguistique générale (1916), p. 158 ([231]), (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimeida

About the Author: Hasa

Hasa has a BA degree in English, French and Translation studies. She is currently reading for a Masters degree in English. Her areas of interests include literature, language, linguistics and also food.

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