Reference Entry

Structuralism, post-structuralism

Christopher Norris

in Oxford Music Online

Published in print January 2001 |
Published online January 2001 | e-ISBN: 9781561592630 | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.26993

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The foundations of structuralist thought were laid by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in lectures delivered during the early years of the 20th century and later published from student transcripts as Course in General Linguistics (Saussure, 1916; Benveniste, 1966–74). His primary aim was to place the study of language on a more scientific basis by breaking with traditional, historically-orientated or ‘diachronic’ approaches of the kind that had dominated 19th-century philology, his own earlier work included. Instead it should seek to conceptualize language as a system of contrastive or differential features ‘without positive terms’, since the relationship between signifier and signified (or word and concept) cannot be understood on a straightforward, one-to-one order of equivalence. Rather it consists in the complex stucture of inter-articulated differences which enables a mere handful of phonemes (minimal distinctive sound-units) to serve for a vast, potentially infinite range of meanings. At the semantic level, the precondition for language is its structural capacity to distinguish between concepts, and thereby impose an intelligible order on the world of knowledge and experience. So these two dimensions of language (sound and sense) should be treated from a structural-synchronic standpoint which acknowledges the ‘arbitrary’ link between signifier and signified, or the absence of any natural (non-conventional) tie that would bond them. This relationship is always caught up in a play of phonemic/semantic differences and contrasts that vary from one language to another, or from one diachronic stage to the next in the development of a language....

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Subjects: Musical Structures, Styles, and Techniques

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