Post-Saussurean syntactic theories – Part 2

September 20th, 201212:52 pm


Post-Saussurean syntactic theories – Part 2

Post-Saussurean syntactic theories – Part 1

Analyzing syntactic theories, worked out on the basis of Saussurean work, one cannot but mention works by the leaders of the Prague Linguis­tic Circle founded in 1926. The Circle became known around the world as the Prague School. It has had significant continuing influence on linguistics and semiotics. After the World War II, the Circle was disbanded but the Prague School persisted as a major force in linguistic functionalism. It in­cluded Russian emigres such as Roman Jakobson, Nikolay Trubetzkoy, and Sergey Karcevskiy, as well as the famous Czech literary scolars Rene Wellek and Jan MurakovskyAmong its founders was the eminent Czech linguist Vilem Mathesius who was the president of the Prague Linguistic School until his death in 1945.

The leaders of the Prague School believed that syntax as study of change­able, individual elements (speech) may not be opposed to morphology that is interpreted as focused on constant, collective, or social elements (language), since these branches of grammar (syntax and morphology) act to regulate the norm and to realize normative elements. Segmenting the sentence into parts does not result in extracting morphological units (i.e. words and morphemes) and vice versa – building up morphological elements does not necessarily create a syntactic element – a sentence, since the sentence is much more than a sequence of isolated words, just like a building is much more than a sum of bricks it is built with. Consequently, one of the main tasks set in syntactic analysis is, on the one hand, to identify syntagmatic relations and morpho­logical means expressing them and, on the other hand, to identify combina­tions of these relations (complex sentences and relations within them).

Thus, the representatives of the Prague School treat syntax and mor­phology as two different branches of science. It should be noted that these scholars do not support the notion of immediate constituents proposed by structuralists, since it results in a simplified interpretation of language units regardless of their morphological or syntactic nature.

The claim that morphology and syntax interact with lexicology is im­portant for linguistic research, first of all, because these three branches of language interact in communication. The structural relation between vocab­ulary and morphology may not be doubted, since any morpheme (stem, suf­fix, prefix) must have its meaning, without which it would be merely a group of phonemes. The bond between vocabulary and syntax is obvious: it is the sentence where various meanings of a word are revealed. From the point of view of the Prague School, lexicology deals with more or less exhaustive factual material gained from phonological, morphological, syntactic and stylistic branches of linguistics.

The overview of syntactic research would not be complete without men­tioning the name of Vilem Mathesius. His notion of functional perspective of the sentence is drastically different from the traditional formal differen­tiation into sentence parts. The functional perspective provides the scholar with the possibility to get into semantic structure of the sentence. The functional perspective is responsible for the main function of language – communicative. In the functional perspective, Mathesius distin­guishes the theme (also referred to as topic), i.e. the part of the sentence that is being talked about (predicated). Once stated, the theme is therefore “old news”, i.e. the thing already mentioned and understood (e.g. in the follow­ing sentences the topic is underlined: The dog bit the little girl, The little girl was bitten by the dog, It was the little girl that the dog bit. The little girl, the dog bit her). The other part of the sentence gives information on the theme and is called rheme (or topic-comment). The rheme delivers new informa­tion, it forms communicative centre of the sentence.

Contrary to the formal (grammatical) division of the sentence into sen­tence parts (subject, predicate, attribute, object, adverbial modifier), func­tional sentence perspective is based on semantic structure of the sentence, it provides researchers with the tools to consider sentences from the point of view of their message in a given situation, i.e. functional correlation of their components. Functional perspective is the foundation that is used to distinguish already known elements of the sentence (theme), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, elements that deliver new information and mark the core of sentence content (rheme), i.e. they indicate the information for the sake of which the sentence is produced. The theme and the rheme are accompanied by various transitional elements that connect the theme to the dynamic core of the sentence, its rheme.

The idea of the “given” and the “new” as basis of sentence structure that determines its communicative functioning is also articulated in Karl Boost‘s syntactic theory. The scholar believes that the hearer’s first reaction to the first word in a sentence is tension (Spannung) which then is trans­formed into communicative resolution, i.e. elimination of the tension with the help of its adequate termination.

It is Boost who first uses the term “rheme” in reference to the part of the sentence that informs the hearer of something new about the theme. In fact, the term “rheme” was used by ancient Greeks to denote what we now call “predicate”. Introduction of the term is conditioned by the necessity to refer to the sentence part, larger than the predicate, i.e. the part that contains everything predicated to the theme.

It is obvious that Mathesius and Boost agree on the following ideas: the theme is a part of the sentence delivering least information and express­ing the already known starting point in order to introduce something new. The scholars’ positions, nevertheless, are essentially different in that Boost identifies functional perspective with linear sequence. We have stated in the paragraphs devoted to Gardiner’s theory that this identification is not justifi­able (see the analysis of the sentence Henry has arrived from the point of view of divergence between the locutional and elocutional forms).

The dependence between the order of the elements in the sentence and their informative value may be interpreted only in terms of the information theory. The oppositions “given – new”, “theme – rheme” are just several of those oppositions that make up the sentence (consider, for example, the opposition “speaker – hearer”, the opposition of immediate constituents within a word combination, the opposition “locutional form – elocutional form” etc.). Alongside of other oppositions, it may be used in order to study only one aspect of the essential and most complex speech unit – the sentence. Just like the other oppositions, the opposition “theme – rheme” should not be considered absolute.

To sum up, the Prague School interprets speech (parole) as “utterance”. The utterance is defined as an informative unit, i.e. the smallest message that under certain condition is perceived by the hearer as comprehensible unity. It enables linguists, adapting this viewpoint, to approach the sentence from the two positions: on the one hand, the sentence is treated as semiological unit formed by various language means and, on the other hand, as a complex system of language means. The two approaches are closely connected and complement each other: the former is individualizing, while the latter is abstract and generalizing.