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Conference Information

Full Title: Substance and Structure in Linguistics

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Start Date: 27-Feb-2015 - 28-Feb-2015
Contact: Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen
Meeting Email: click here to access email
Meeting URL:
Meeting Description: For the old structuralists (especially the European variety), the distinction between substance and structure (or form) served two important purposes: 1) It provided a means for simultaneously allowing for language-particular and universal aspects of language: structural properties were seen as language-particular modulations of substance, which was taken to be at least potentially universal. 2) It made possible a definition of linguistics as an autonomous discipline dealing with an area of phenomena that are specifically properties of languages: according to structuralism, structure were taken to be the central concern of linguists, rather than substance.

From the beginning, then, substance played a marginal role in 20th century linguistics, and with the fading of structuralist frameworks and the rise and increasing dominance of generative grammar, the distinction between substance and structure fell into almost complete oblivion. The idea of Universal Grammar and thus universal linguistic structure left little need and room for substance in the theory.

Still, the distinction between structure and substance was not entirely forgotten. It lived on in some individual linguists and scholarly environments that did not follow the Chomskyan way, and did not reject structuralist ideas en bloc. As one example, Danish Functional Linguistics (cf. Engberg-Pedersen & al. 1996) adopted (in modified form) Hjelmslev’s version of the distinction, and in this community it continues to play a central role (especially, Harder 1996). Other examples are found in linguistic typology, where Gilbert Lazard has stressed the importance of distinguishing between structure and substance (e.g. Lazard 2005), and Bybee has discussed grammaticalization and semantic change in terms of the distinction (e.g. Bybee 1988).

Recent years have witnessed a revitalization of the distinction within functional typology and cognitive linguistics. Haspelmath has explicitly invoked the notion of substance in his discussions of the basis of crosslinguistic comparison and categorization (e.g. Haspelmath 2010), and Croft has used a similar notion, conceptual space, to point out the common ground of semantic mapping and multidimensional scaling (e.g. Croft 2003). In connection with the issue of linguistic relativity, Slobin’s work on ‘Thinking for Speaking’ (e.g. Slobin 1996) may be seen as an argument that it is not a one-way issue of substance constraining structure – the way we form substance for the purpose of linguistic formulation may have an impact on the conceptual substance itself, i.e. on how speakers conceptualize the world around them. In a similar vein, Levinson (2003) makes a distinction between semantic structure (language-particular) and conceptual structure (potentially universal), and simultaneously argues that there is an interface between the two. All these scholars – including those affiliated with Danish Functional Linguistics – seem to converge in stressing the importance of the structuralist distinction between substance and structure, while at the same diverging from the old structuralists by including substance in the focus of linguistics.

The aim of this workshop is to discuss the distinction between substance and structure itself and linguistic phenomena and problems that can fruitfully be approached in terms of the distinction.

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Linguistic Subfield: Cognitive Science; General Linguistics; Philosophy of Language; Semantics; Typology
LL Issue: 25.2697

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