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National Research University

Higher School of Economics


Subject: Theory of foreign language

Olga Dmitrievna Vishnyakova

Ekaterina Matievskaya

Moscow, 2018

1. Introduction
2. Two approaches to language
3. Difference between synchronic and diachronic approaches
4. Synchrony and diachrony in terms of other fields of knowledge
5. Conclusion
6. References


Language is a unique ability of human beings that allow them to maintain verbal
and non-verbal communication with the whole world. Without a language, there would
be no interaction at all.
Language is a system. A system is a set of interrelated and interdependent
elements. If any element is removed from the system, it will not be able to function or
its functioning will not be sufficiently effective. So, the speech consists of four systems
that form a common system of language.
Language needs to be analysed and researched, thus lexicology appeared.
Lexicology (gr. lexikos - referring to a word, logos - teaching) is a branch of the science
of a language that studies the vocabulary of a language, or vocabulary.
The vocabulary of the language is an internally organised set of lexical units,
interconnected, functioning and developing according to the laws inherent in the
Russian language.
In lexicology, 1) the word is studied as an individual language unit, its meaning;
2) the place of the word in the lexical system of the language; 3) the history of the
formation of modern vocabulary; 4) the relationship of the word to the active or passive
vocabulary; 5) the place of the word in the system of functional styles of the modern
Russian language (neutral, scientific, business, etc.). Lexicology studies the vocabulary
of the language in its temporary development, since over time various changes occur
in the vocabulary of the language, as well as identify the reasons for these changes.
In this paper, main approaches to language will be discussed.


In the XIX century, ancient languages and the search for the "parent language"
were considered to be a worthy object of linguistics as a science. The study of living
languages was provided to the school, sharply delimiting this area from science. The
successes of dialectology describing living dialects, learning the languages of peoples
living in colonial dependence, and the need for more serious teaching of native and
foreign languages have put forward new tasks for linguists: to create methods of
scientific description of this state of the language without regard to its origin and past.
Practice has caused a theoretical understanding. The largest scientists of the late
XIX – early XX century. - F. F. Fortunatov, I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay, F. de
Saussure and others - put forward the theoretical foundations of the scientific
description of a given language in a given era. FF Fortunatov developed the principles
of descriptive grammar1, I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay divided linguistics into static
(descriptive) and dynamic (historical), distinguishing between phonetics and grammar
the phenomena of coexistence. But perhaps the most thoroughly examined this
question by F. de Saussure.
Its main thesis is that: “at any given moment, speech activity implies both an
established system and evolution; at any moment, the language is both a living activity
and a product of the past”. Thus, two approaches to language were implemented:
synchronic and diachronic.
The synchronic approach analyses the similarities and differences of languages
at a given point of time by focusing on their structural features and characteristics and
by using phonological, morphological and syntactic explanations including semantic
and pragmatic aspects.
The diachronic approach studies the development of language in time by paying
attention to affinity between languages and historical transmutations of sounds and by
striving for the reconstruction of principal languages. It produces descriptions how
languages are genealogically related.
It should be emphatically stressed that the distinction between the synchronic
and the diachronic study is merely a difference of approach separating for the purposes
of investigation what in real language is inseparable. The two approaches should not
be contrasted, or set one against the other; in fact, they are intrinsically interconnected
and interdependent: every linguistic structure and system actually exists in a state of
constant development so that the synchronic state of a language system is a result of a
long process of linguistic evolution, of its historical development.
A good example illustrating both the distinction between the two approaches and
their interconnection is furnished by the words to beg and beggar. Synchronically, the
words to beg and beggar are related as a simple and a derived word, the noun beggar
being the derived member of the pair, for the derivative correlation between the two is
the same as in the case of to sing in singer, to teach in teacher, etc. When we approach
the problem diachronically, however, we learn that the noun beggar was borrowed from
Old French and only presumed to have been derived from a shorter word, namely the
verb to beg, as in the English language agent nouns are commonly derived from verbs
with the help of the agent suffix -er.
The theoretical understanding of the difference between synchrony and
diachrony (statics and dynamics) was initiated by V. Humbolt. He did not use the terms
"synchrony" and "diachrony", but this does not mean that he did not see the difference
between these two approaches to the language. In his report "on the comparative study
of languages as applied to the different epochs of their development," he divides
comparative linguistics into two sections: the study of the organism by language and
the study of languages in the state of their development. According to V. Humbolt,
synchrony has less influence than diachrony.
The most common form of application of the synchronic approach to the study
of language is the study of the modern living language. I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay
worked under conditions in which the dead of the language in writing were used in
linguistics. But the primary form of the existence of a language is living or oral
Unlike I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay, F. de Saussure defined synchronic rather
than diachronic as the main approach. The advantage of synchrony over diachronic F.
de Saussure saw first of all that it is the synchronic consideration of which the language
system is available as such, whereas diachronic linguistics deals with changes that
occur not in the language, but in the speech of individual speakers.
So, after nearly a century of development of the concept of synchronous-
diachronic linguistics, it became quite obvious, how useful was the idea of strictly
separating the two plans for considering a language and what serious consequences it
had for improving various methods of describing a language. At the same time, despite
the fact that synchronicity was originally contrasted with diachrony in linguistics, both
processes were recognised as interdependent and mutually complementary: for
example, the fact that the diachronic process can be detected through the descriptions
of synchrony in the form of an ordered system rules, the order of which corresponds to
the diachronic sequence of transformations. Note that the thesis of F. de Saussure still
remains relevant, according to which the synchronic aspect dominates the diachronic
one, “For the present language is the only reality for speaking people” [Saussure, 1933,
p. 57]. Thus, synchronic linguistics can be understood, in a certain sense, as a science
of the status of a language; therefore, it is to some extent more static linguistics.
Diachronic linguistics in this sense can be called evolutionary linguistics.


The distinction between synchronicity and diachrony arose in the process of

developing historical language learning. In the XIX century, linguistics as a science
was considered by ancient languages and the search for a "mother tongue" to be a
worthy object. The traditional comparative historical paradigm of linguistics of the
previous centuries, which turned the study of language into an independent science
with the main goal to restore the language with the methods of internal and external
reconstruction of language data. The possibility of analysing linguistic facts of different
degrees of limitation was provided by the comparative historical method. A theoretical
understanding of the difference between synchronicity and diachrony was laid by V.
Humboldt. Starting from the 1910s, in both Russian and foreign science, a new trend
began to be traced, namely, a turn towards the consideration of language as a direct
data (its synchronous component).
It is known that synchrony assumes consideration of a language (or some other
system of signs) from the point of view of relations between its constituent parts in one
period of time. The study of language in synchrony reached a high level in ancient
Indian, Late Antique and New European (starting from the 18th century) grammars,
but a theoretical understanding of synchrony as a consequence of the fact that every
element of the language has significance due to its systemic relation with other
linguistic elements, it was given only at the beginning of the XX century. However, it
was F. de Saussure who proposed to consider synchronicity as a static aspect of
language, precluding any intervention of time, and diachrony as the actual evolution of
language in time. Highlighting the primacy of synchrony over diachrony, F. de
Saussure made a revolution in the sciences of language. His main thesis was that: “at
any given moment speech activity implies both an established system and evolution;
at any moment, the language is both a living activity and a product of the past”
[Saussure, 1933, p. 34]. From here originates the idea of synchrony and diachronic.
Synchrony in a language is traditionally understood as the state of a language
system or its individual elements at a certain moment in the development of a language.
In linguistic literature, it is defined, for example, as "the state of a language at a given
moment as a finished system of interconnected and interdependent elements: lexical,
grammatical and phonetic, which have value or significance, regardless of their origin,
but only because of correlations inside the whole - the system". At the same time, the
concept of the moment in the process of language development in different sources is
explained differently. Some linguists understand the moment, the instant, the
mathematical point in time, or "the axis of simultaneity relating to the relationship
between existing things, from which any time intervention is excluded," while others
mean a known interval time, a certain era, "some historical period," "historical stage in
the development of language". With this explanation of the synchronous state of the
language, the fundamental difference between synchronicity and diachrony is lost,
since changes in the language system concerning its various units are possible and
inevitably occur in any epoch, in any historical period, at any historical stage of
linguistic development.


Recently, some linguists have made certain clarifications in the traditional

understanding of language synchrony. The synchronous state of a language is defined,
for example, as "a piece of objective reality, a slice chosen from the general flow of
language meaning history development on the basis of a number of certain signs, in
particular, according to the absence of changes", or as "such a length, such" state
"[Language], which is characterised by the absence of changes or can be described
outside of changes". In more detail, the question of the synchrony of the language is
considered in other papers.
The concepts of synchrony and diachrony (and the corresponding terms) are
used not only in relation to the language, to the language system, but also to the science
of language, linguistics, to different sections of linguistics. For example, synchronous
(otherwise descriptive) and diachronic (or historical) phonetics, synchronous and
diachronic lexicology, synchronous and diachronic word formation, synchronous and
diachronic grammar, as well as synchronous and diachronic linguistics as a whole (as
mentioned in the introduction.
When explaining the concepts of synchrony and diachronic, there are sometimes
objections to the polysemous use of the terms "synchrony" and "diachrony" in relation
to the language and in relation to its study, it is proposed to differentiate the
corresponding phenomena terminologically in the language and teaching about it.
Some linguists consider it appropriate to use these terms only in relation to the “real
forms of existence” of a language, forms of the temporal existence of linguistic
phenomena, and in relation to their research they recommend using other terms, such
as “synchronous analysis”, “diachronic analysis”. Other scholars, on the contrary, the
terms "synchrony" and "diachrony" suggest using research approaches to designate
well-known to the language science, aspects of the study, and to refer to certain states
of the language - other terms, such as "functioning" and "development". At the same
time, the terms in question in modern linguistics are often used in different meanings
— to denote different states of a language and certain aspects of its study.


Summarising the above, following points could be emphasised:

Due to the fact that studies of a language in its synchronous state are easier to
implement in practice, their use manifested itself at the earliest stages of describing a
language as a system; the theoretical understanding of synchronic was given much later
- only starting from the 20th century.
Actually, the distinction between synchrony and diachrony as such arose in the
process of historical study of the language, in particular, in connection with the
development in the 19th century, comparative historical method. At the same time,
from the very beginning of the study of the historical ways of the development of
languages, the antithesis between synchronous and diachronic approaches in linguistics
has been outlined. Thus, synchronicity was originally contrasted with diachronic,
although both of these linguistic states were recognised as interdependent and
complementary processes.
After almost a century of development of the concept of synchronous-diachronic
linguistics, it became obvious how useful was an idea of delimitation of two plans for
the consideration of language, since it is precisely the distinction between the states of
synchrony and diachrony that allows not only to focus mainly on the constant
properties of the language system, but also on the processes of its evolution.
Also, in modern linguistics, the thesis that it is the diachronic approach that
already helps to understand how this or that linguistic system has been developed has
become firmly established. And although the simultaneous consideration of language
is still preceded by a diachronic one, both approaches undoubtedly complement and
enrich each other.
According to modern scientific trends, the diachronic aspect of linguistics is
viewed not as a history of individual sounds and forms, but primarily as a history of
the development of systemic relations, when the main historical processes in the
language are interpreted from the point of view of the laws of system development and
are determined by the desire to the alignment and unification of its constituent units.
Thus, language is studied and understood as a system that exists not only in the present,
but also in the past, which allows us to consider synchrony and diachrony as different
measurement systems.
However, it cannot be said that there are no contradictions left in this question
and it can be considered completely resolved. Some linguists still continue to believe
that these measurement systems are radically different from each other in their attitude
to the time factor.
Summing up the general results, we note that at the modern stage of development
of linguistics, the distinction between synchrony and diachrony is recognised as one of
the most important aspects when learning a language. Firstly, it allows focusing mainly
on the constant properties of the language system, and secondly, on its evolution. But
at the same time, it is important not to forget that synchrony and diachrony are
inseparably linked with each other, since the state of a language at any moment of its
existence is just one of the episodes of the development of a language.


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