František Čermák synchrony and diachrony revisited: Was R. Jakobson and the Prague Circle Right in Their Criticism of de Saussure?

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Was R. Jakobson and the Prague Circle Right in Their Criticism of de Saussure?
Folia Linguistica Historica XVII/1-2, 1997, 29-40.

The article reopens the issue of relationship of Synchrony and Diachrony and tries to reanalyze the old Prague scholars' views on this point and their criticism of de Saussure, including the (1) immutability of langue, (2) its static character and (3) blind character of changes, which are allegedly (4) unconscious, the separation of langue and parole or (5) the non-structured character of diachrony. By a juxtaposition of their views with real Saussurean attitudes, it is shown that there has been a long misunderstanding there, mainly due to ardent attacks of R. Jakobson on de Saussure, which proves not to be supported by textual facts found in de Saussure.


One of the primary tenets of modern linguistics is the distinction (or as it is also called, antinomy, opposition or dichotomy) of synchrony and diachrony. This might have been the very basic factor which contributed to the new linguistic paradigm having been formed in the first half of this century which is closely linked with Ferdinand de Saussure and his more-than-one-epoch-making Cours de linguistique générale (1916). De Saussure himself has been well aware of the basic importance of the synchrony-diachrony distinction which primarily reoriented modern linguistics from historical insights to contemporary studies of the language; accordingly, this distinction is occasionally called "the first truth of de Saussure" from which most of the other notions and distinctions organically grow out.

The impact of this distinction has been enormous in modern linguistics, both in the positive and negative sense, and, as De Mauro (Saussure, note No 176, Wunderli 1990) records, several national schools joined unanimously the battle which has been going on for decades while others have taken the matter for granted. This had its repercussions in Prague, too. It is of some interest that there was only one ardent opposer of the distinction who was Czech, namely Bohumil Trnka, and two Russians, Nikolaj Trubetzkoj and Roman Jakobson; the rest was rather conciliatory. It should be noted, however, that the issue became a primary and rather inexplicable obssession with Roman Jakobson only, who voiced his negative attitudes towards it on a number of occasions for over 60 years (to start with a 1929 contribution and finish by that of 1990, published posthumously). With the critical edition of de Saussure being at our disposal now, there is no escaping the impression that Jakobson did, just like so many others, a very bad job of reading de Saussure, both of the canonical edition of 1916 and of the critical edition based on published manuscripts (1982, Engler's edition 1967-1974).
Prague relations to de Saussure have been summarized many times (Čermák 1989, 1966, 1995, Leška et al. 1987, Vachek 1966, 1967). However, to be able to arrive at a possibility of making any judgement, it is necessary to scrutinize some of the positions, namely those taken by Jakobson, Trnka and the authors of the Th‚ses of the Circle (1929). In the following, both the canonical edition of de Saussure (1982) and of the manuscripts (Engler, 1967ff) are used.

To sum up, briefly, major objections and counterproposals to de Saussure, at least the following 7 points should be raised (for extended quotes from Jakobson 1990 and 1929, Trnka 1988 and Th‚ses, see Notes 1, 2 and 3, respectively, and Vachek 1960):

(1) It is not true that langue is immutable, langue is changeable at all times (Jakobson).
(2) Langue is not to be made identical with statics or static linguistics only (Jakobson), in its changes it is very much dynamic.
(3) Changes in langue are neither blind nor accidental (Th‚ses). They often aim at the system, its stabilization, reconstruction etc.
(4) It is not true that langue is changed unconsciously (Jakobson, Th‚ses). There are also conscious changes of langue to be found in the literary language, which is cultivated, regulated, refined and artificially adapted for various uses.
(5) There is no insurmountable barrier between langue and parole since there are always mixed elements in the langue (Thèses).
(6) Diachrony, too, is structured and has a system (Trnka, Thèses).
(7) The very distinction of synchrony and diachrony is useless, expendable (Trnka). This very extreme point of view, which has been voiced only once, is hard to trace and identify with anybody else from the Prague School.

It would, indeed, take a very poor and sloppy reader of de Saussure's Cours to arrive at these views, unfortunately (see Note 4) and this holds good of Jakobson, especially. Let us look at these points more closely and see what de Saussure really has to say (all of the pages are those of the French critical edition based on Engler; English translations are those of the author, see de Saussure 1967, 1982, 1989).
The alleged immutability of langue is hard to find in the text of the Cours; on the contrary, de Saussure is quite eloquent about the very opposite: (p. 108) "We have to recall that it (i.e. the langue) is always a heritage of the preceding period adding also that these social forces exert their influence in dependence on time... time which guarantees the continuity of the langue has yet another effect, which is seemingly contradictory to the first one: a faster of slower change of the langue signs." To make the point quite clear he repeats elsewhere (1930): "There is no absolute immutability in fact, all parts of the langue are subject to change...". In fact, very large parts of the Cours are devoted to change in language (esp. part III) and their mechanism: Speaking about anomalous changes de Saussure not only suggests the idea of balance but is aware of contributing factors of some conditions, too; he says (p. 221): "...the phenomenon of phonetic change is a disturbing factor. Everywhere where it does create any alternation, it contributes to a loosening of grammatical ties, which unite words with respect to each other... Fortunately, the effect of these transformations is counterbalanced by analogy."... "(p. 199) (phenomena = changes...) most often, phonetical phenomena are linked with certain conditions... Absolute changes are extremely rare." This amply documented point, where Jakobson presumed a point of view de Saussure never held, may be concluded by de Saussure's recurrent comprehensive view on the complementarity of change and stability, so to speak, cf. (p. 108) "In a sense, one may speak here about immutability and mutability of the sign at the same time." This idea is voiced when he mentions his famous game-of-chess example, too: (p. 162, see Engler 1489F): "Langue is comparable only to a complete idea of a game of chess admitting changes and states at the same time."
As to the alleged blind and accidental quality of these changes, let us point at a number of counter-points: on the limiting conditions mentioned above, and on the non-arbitrariness of these changes (p. 105): "these very factors (i.d. historical factors) ... explain why the sign is not changeable, i.e. why it resists every arbitrary change." On a more careful reading of this passage it is evident that de Saussure suggests that changes are, in fact, conditioned and dependent, therefore not blind or accidental. The most relevant remark of his in this respect, one which is related to the existence of balance (quoted above), maintained by an interplay of anomaly and analogy, is of crucial importance here. The Prague School liked to speak then, from time to time, about the teleological character of these change, where such aspects as stabilization and reconstruction are mentioned, as if it were something new to de Saussure. While he refuses any deterministic conception as teleological, it does not prevent him to see (Wunderli, p. 12) that a certain change, or, rather, a system, conditions another system. But what he stresses over and over again is that synchrony and diachrony are independent of each other and each is due to a different point of view. To explain the maintenance of the balance (mentioned above) as diachronic, which is what Prague scholars did, is to change the basic point of view and, accordingly, the appropriate methodology applied, a thing de Saussure would have refused as a 19th century view, undoubtedly. However, this does not exclude having two different points of the same thing, one synchronic and one diachronic, which happens to be another point de Saussure stressed painstakingly so many times.
The matter of teleology in langue, open to different interpretations (such as based on determinism or intentionality) is still very much controversial and far from being proved (see also Čermák 1995, p. 77, for a link with function). Let us add, as a passing thought, that, in a sense, the problem of explaining what is accidental may become beneficial and progressive, so to speak, has been given a lot of thought; it has been elaborated in the Darwinist theory of evolution and its natural selection processes (see also note 3). Undoubtedly, there is some similarity there to be followed.
However, what de Saussure frankly admits is his uncertainty as to the reasons why the langue undergoes changes, a question which has never been raised critically against him, however: (p. 202) "The search for these reasons (i.e. of changes of the langue) is one of the most difficult problems in linguistics. A number of explanations has been suggested, but none of them throws here light completely." Let us add here, that Jakobson's early view is, surprisingly, more in agreement with de Saussure than that of the Thèses: (Jakobson 1929, p. 96f.) "Diachronic laws do not have a teleological nature."
There is hardly any need to try to refute another of Jakobson's obsessions, viz., that de Saussure identified synchrony with statics; indeed statics has been a term used by him prior to that of synchrony (in his previous lecture courses) which is amply documented (see, e.g. p. 117).
The fourth point raises the consciousness of changes, due, primarily, to the language policy pursued in the case of literary language. De Saussure makes this point quite clear in stressing that literary language has no natural development and should not be called natural, a fact which Jakobson seems not to be aware of and which makes his argumentation seem rather pointless: (de Saussure, p. 193) "The literary language, as we shall see on p. 268ff., is superimposed on the common language, i. e. the natural language, and it is subject to different existential conditions. Once it has been created, it remains rather stable and has a tendency to preserve its identity; its dependence on writing provides special guarantees of self-preservation. It cannot, then, show us to what extent natural languages change if they are rid of all literary regulation." The very essence of today's language planning efforts (literary language regulation and standardization) boils down to a precarious manipulation trying to strike some sort of equilibrium between a need for stability and a need to take into account the pressure of ongoing never-ending changes taking place in la langue. If viewed retrospectively, much of this artificial freezing of the state of a language (going under the name of codification) is never quite made to last: a modern history of literary-language regulation reads often like a series of somewhat belated concessions, especially in the form of subsequent orthographic reforms, made to suit the development and pressure of changes.
The remaining points are concerned with the relation of synchrony and diachrony, if any (Trnka, see also 1943, 1948), and the structure and system of diachrony.
Despite the imperfect and unbalanced state in which de Saussure's thinking is represented in the Cours, such remarks on the state of the langue as that on pp. 234-5 are not isolated: "The course of the langue is being crossed by countless hesitations, approximations and imperfect analyses. At no point of time, does a particular langue have a system which would be made up of perfectly stable units" (compare the views of Mathesius here, note 5). It is really difficult not to see dynamism, which Jakobson kept refusing to see here. Elsewhere (Engler p. 188, 1401-2), de Saussure makes a fine point about the nature of changes: "The alteration does not aim at the system but at the elements of the system" (see note 6). It is evident, here and elsewhere, that de Saussure postulated no absolute dividing-line between synchrony and diachrony, attributed to him, but held both to be results, pictures (if described) of two different points of view, which was for him a methodological point. A much clearer picture of this point emerges, if we realize its close connection with the problem of how to define the state of language, which de Saussure admittedly leaves open. Elsewhere, (on p. 232) he adds another crucial remark: "The langue never ceases to elaborate, interpret and analyze its units, which are given. How come, however, that this interpretation is being changed from one generation to another?" Clearly, it does not follow, from these remarks, that de Saussure postulated any insurmountable dividing-line between synchrony and diachrony. In another remark, de Saussure explicitly mentions presence of changes in the state of langue, i.e., elements of another state and, accordingly, of diachrony.
The rather essential idea of the state of the langue helps to clarify the point of structure and system, a mistaken innovation of Prague scholars. De Saussure's notes as the following are eloquent enough: "(p. 117) By the same virtue synchrony and diachrony designate a state of the langue and a phase in evolution, respectively"; or (p. 142): "In practice, a certain state of the langue is no point, but a longer or shorter time span, during which a minimum of changes take place... to study a certain state of the langue means to abstract from changes of little importance..." If both synchrony and diachrony are identified or, rather, based on the same notion of the langue state, it is clear that there is a structure and a system everywhere. One might, perhaps, say that diachrony is a multitude of states which used to be synchronic states, each with its own system, for their respective users.
To take up, finally, the very unfortunate remark of the late Bohumil Trnka which effectively gives up the synchrony and diachrony distinction but also, which he did not admit, abolishes all of the subsequent distinctions based on this, such as langue and parole, let us only say that he was completely wrong. One of the arguments, which could go on for a very long time, may also be an indirect one: there is, basically, no school of thought today which would subscribe to this passing thought of his.
But let us also sum up the rest: It must be admitted that Jakobson was wrong in all of his points, too, as well as the authors of the Th‚ses, and that de Saussure is and has been right. His primary concern has been that of methodology which - for the sake of a precise argument, very much in the spirit of many of today's schools of linguistics - does not allow for mixing both approaches and points of view, that of synchrony and that of diachrony.
The general impression of this controversy is rather a Quixotical one: de Saussure's opponents seem to have fought with a non-existent person, and said things which were, generally, said by de Saussure, before them, very often in a much more illuminating way, too, stressing heavily the importance of methodology in linguistics, a requirement which is very urgent even today.

To pursue the topic further, a number of questions, albeit different from those of Jakobson and others, should be asked for which, however, there are no ready-made answers. Without going into any further analysis, let us try to sum up at least some of the aspects and factors involved here which should be taken into account in any further study of diachrony versus synchrony. All of them are badly in need of more precise criteria and methodology, if possible, quantifiable, which would contribute to their clarification. Let us, once again, stress the crucial importance of upholding Saussurean point of view, too.
I STATE of LANGUE: a-its status during a time-span

b-status of relative stability and fixity of langue units and rules

c-factors and clusters of relations contributing to its homeostasis

d-prototypicality and, perhaps, cohesion

II CENTRUM-PERIPHERY: a-proportions in this respect within a continuum

b-dividing line, if any, between langue reality and further potentiality of use of language units

c-status and role of variant-invariant distinction
Finding answers, i.e. criteria, to these points would help in decision making in other areas which often become points of controversy and of widely divergent policies in language planning. Some of these are present as implications and bear on such points as the status and criteria of language planning in codification of certain aspects of literary language (by officially abolishing or prohibiting certain variants, i.e. the very true manifestations of changes, or preserving old and dead forms or even phenomena, such as certain participial forms in the Czech language). Although aimed at stabilization and freezing of some sort of chosen and adapted form of the state of langue, these codification attempts, in shorter or longer span, being of necessity artificial and ahistorical (anti-developmental), do succumb to the pressure of the spoken language and appear, in the long run, merely a futile slowing down of the natural process of language change.

Despite some of minor points left unresolved, the synchrony-diachrony distinction is still of principal importance and to ignore it has vast consequences (Wunderli 1990, Čermák 1994). To mix up language facts of different langue states together leads to an artificial and inorganic hotchpotch which can be used for no study or description and which, effectively, brings us back to the heyday of the Junggrammatiker period. The system of langue is clearly given by its relation to a particular state of langue (see also H-H. Lieb, 1970), which happens to be, in our case as language users of one, that or those parts of that which can be really felt by the users as distinct.
There is no doubt that the distiction is a methodological one, primarily, and that it depends on the point of view taken which is associated here, primarily, with the langue state. The protracted discussion about its substance shows much misunderstanding and incomprehension on the part of the critics, often due to a careless reading and dwelling on ill-taken details from the Cours. The major objection arguing that there are traces, elements of the past in the langue which one views as fluctuation and variation in many cases says nothing more or less than that one confuses two points of view. The langue is always like that: despite its basic balanced state it is always, at the same time, frayed, wavering and unbalanced in details at the edges, so to speak, because it is always in developement. This opposition of balance versus imbalance, whether we relate it to the unifying force versus diversifying force of Zipf (Zipf 1949) or merely to the age-old forces of analogy and anomaly, has always been linked with a constant movement and change in the langue. To look mechanically for any sharp difference between synchrony and diachrony is impossible, the difference is only a methodological one, which is precisely the lesson F. de Saussure is still able to teach us today, despite his opponents who were so wrong.

1 In 1985 (p. 96ff.) Jakobson writes: "Saussure's identification of the contrast between synchrony and diachrony with the contrast between statics and dynamics turned out to be misleading. In actual reality synchrony is not at all static; changes are always emerging and are part of synchrony. Actual synchrony is dynamic. Static synchrony is an abstraction, which may be useful to the investigation of language for specific purposes; however, an exhaustive true-to-facts synchronic description of language must consistently consider the dynamics of language."
In 1990 (pp. 106ff.) Jakobson made, among other things, the following points: "Langue itself is changeable, contrary to the Saussurean notion. And if Saussure points out that, of all social institutions, langue is the least subject to innovations and resists arbitrary substitution (pp. 72-78), this consideration, instead of proving the immutability of langue, overturns his argument that the evolution of langue is brought about by parole."
Let us now consider Saussure's essential argument against the mutability of the linguistic system in and of itself... if one asks this question (how can speakers who are not aware of the laws of their language modify them?), one is justified in wondering as well how speakers who are, as Saussure would have it, "profoundly ignorant" of the complex system of their language, can nevertheless use that system every day and handle it correctly and how, being unaware of these laws, they succeed in abiding by them and in carrying them out meticulously. Modern research answers all these questions in a very positive way: certain laws can be modified unconsciously just as they are used and maintained unconsciously. At the time when Saussure 's views were in their formative stage, the study of the unconscious had barely begun, and Saussure's position with regard to this problem remained uncertain. On the one hand, he asserts that "any creation must be preceded by un unconscious comparison of the materials deposited in the storehouse of langue" (p. 165); on the other hand, unconscious modifications of a given linguistic system seem to him to be a contradiction."...
"When Saussure talks of the inability, on the part of the speakers, to transform their language, he is merely following the neogrammarian tradition and is neglecting literary language, which is cultivated, regulated, refined and artificially adapted for the use of science, technology, religion, or various requirements of an aesthetic nature. And if Saussure asserts that the meddling of specialists, grammarians, logicians, etc. has met with no success in the development of language (p. 73), the history of every literary language offers numerous examples that completely disprove this point."
2 Trnka (1988, p. 192) :"The Linguistic Circle of Prague conceives language as a system of sign oppositions and concludes, at the same time, that it does not cease to be a structure and system even in its historical development. By applying the notion of language system to its historical perspective, the Circle has reconciled linguistic diachrony with synchrony, contrary to F. de Saussure's theory"."In the Prague School of Linguistics' view, arrived at before the war already, both terms are dispensable for a structural linguistic theory...".
3 Th‚ses (1929, p. 8): "There is no insurmountable barrier between the synchronic and diachronic method which is posed by the Geneva school. If we look upon, in the synchronic linguistics, elements of the language system from the point of view of function, we would not be able to judge changes which have taken place in the language, if we did not take into consideration the system which has been affected by these changes. It would not be logical to suppose that language changes are destructive interference whose effect is accidental and heterogeneous from the point of view of the language. Language changes often aim at the system, its stabilization, reconstruction etc. Thus the diachronic study does not exclude the notions of the system and function but it is incomplete without regard to these notions....
On the other hand, neither can the synchronic description exclude absolutely the notion of evolution because also in the domain viewed synchronically there exists an awareness of the stage being on its way to extinction, of the present stage and of the formative stage; stylistic elements felt as archaisms and, in the second place, the distinction of productive and non-productive forms are diachronic facts which should not be eliminated from the synchronic linguistics."
4 Leška (1995, p. 6): "It should be added that careful reading of de Saussure does not belong to the virtues of the Circle."
5 Already in 1911 Czech scholar V. Mathesius was well-aware of this frayed state of langue, even though he had no way of knowing about de Saussure's thinking at that time. It was basically under the same name of static (fluctuation) opposed to dynamic (changeability) (terms later abandoned by de Saussure in favour of the present distinction) that V. Mathesius spoke about potentiality of language (Mathesius 1911, see also 1975).
6 De Saussure/Engler 1401-2, p. 188: (1401) "Do the diachronic facts have the character which tends to change the system? Undoubtedly, there is a system here and later, there is another one." (1402) "Did one want to pass from one system of relations to another one? No. The alteration does not aim at the system but the elements of the system."

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Address of the author: František Čermák

Dept. of the Czech National Corpus

Faculty of Philosophy, Charles University

nám. Palacha 2, Praha 1, 110 00


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