September 19th, 20126:56 am



Glossematics is a rigorous study of language at the level of its most basic unit or component which carries meaning, the glosseme. The term was coined by the Danish linguists, Louis Hjelmslev and Hans Jorgen Uldall,

as a neologism combining glossary with mathematics to indicate a formal­ized system of study. The scientists’ ideas formed the basis of the Copen­hagen School of linguistics founded by Hjelmslev on September, 24 , 1931.

Initially, their interest lay mainly in developing an alternative concept of the phoneme, but it later developed into a complete theory which was called glossematics, and was notably influenced by structuralism. Membership of the group grew rapidly and a significant list of publications resulted, includ­ing an irregular series of larger works.

The ultimate goal of the linguist who studies glossemes is the same as that of a physicist who studies atoms, to wit a more perfect understanding of the whole through a thorough study of the structure of its constituent parts. To the greatest extent possible, glossematics seeks to take a tabula rasa ap­proach, constructing an internally consistent framework of axioms and prin­ciples with minimal reliance on external terms. This system, constructed without recourse to any particular language, seeks to establish a universal standard by defining the necessary and sufficient conditions of language.

Like Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Hjelmslev treats language as a system of signs and approaches the language system from the point of view of its use. Furthering Saussure’s remarks on fallacious differentiation between syntax, morphology, and lexicology, Hjelmslev arrives at the conclusion that grammar should be regarded as indivisible discipline – the theory of forms opposed to the theory of sounds. Any syntactic phenomenon is morphologi­cal in a sense it concerns only a grammatical form, whereas any morphologi­cal phenomenon may be interpreted as syntactic, since it is always based on syntactic relations between grammatical elements. In other words, the dif­ference between morphology and syntax lies only in the difference between paradigmatic functions (in a system) and syntagmatic functions (in a text).

The scholar divides the subject of research (so-called class) into parts, called “periods of a class”. The procedure results in distinguishing between classes and their derivatives. In other words, the analysis produces a certain hierarchy that may be either correlating (i.e. paradigmatic, a system) or re­lational (syntagmatic, a process, a text). Texts are divided consistently into periods, periods undergo further divisions into sentences, sentences – into words, words – into syllables. Hjelmslev notes that periods are derived from texts, sentences are derivatives from texts and periods, words are derivatives from texts, periods and sentences, and syllables are derivatives from texts, periods, sentences and words. Simultaneously, syllables are parts of words but not sentences. Words are parts of sentences but not periods or texts, and, finally, periods are parts of texts.

Hjelmslev’s most famous book, Omkring sprogteoriens grundlceggelse, or in English translation, Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, first pub­lished in 1943, criticizes the then-prevailing methodologies in linguistics as being descriptive and not systematizing. The Danish scholar views lan­guage as an immanent ideal substance. In relation to the ideal substance, speech and its sounds may be regarded as its shadow. Not only content and objects, described in actual speech, are secondary; the very form of expres­sion retreats to the secondary position. Being ideal and immanent, language organizes the objective world; language may be materialized in sounds as well as in letters or in any other way. Thus, the substance of expression can be sounds, as is the case for most known languages, but it can have any ma­terial support whatsoever, for instance, hand movements, as is the case for sign languages. As a result, this interpretation of language puts linguistics in the position when linguistic observations are subordinated to some abstract linguistic categories, known to researchers beforehand and predetermining their studies. The aspiration to investigate the nature of language makes Hjelmslev in his later works focus his attention on simple systems – street­light signals, various codes, etc. These simple systems help analyze lan­guage as such, specify principles of general semiotics, and only then trans­fer the acquired knowledge onto human language.

The main and general principle of sign systems, according to Hjelmslev, may be explained in the following way: any system does not consist of parts, it consists of relations between these parts, therefore scientists should not be concerned with parts, they should focus their attention on relations between the parts in the system.

Glossematics – Part 2