I am not one for theories. Studying Chomsky’s Generative Grammar at university had put an end to my career in theoretical linguistics. Even though, linguistics was by far my preferred subject (syntax, phonetics, morphology, semantics, you name it…); building a ‘universal grammar’ felt like having gone about a hundred extrapolations too far. Like building a castle out of air (légvárat építeni) as a Hungarian would say it. I steered clear of hard-core theorising ever since, until I was forced to do it during my translator training. As I was sitting there frowning, the lecturer was explaining why translation theories were important:

  • Theories name things and help you describe linguistic phenomena.
  • They help you organise your thoughts and argument.
  • They help you finding reasons for choosing one translation over another.
  • They contribute to the selective process when you have several alternative translations and decisions have to be made (e.g.: on basis of ethics, purpose of translation, etc…)

“Yeah, whatever…” I was thinking to myself, “Just get on with it, I came here to translate not to theorise.” Then there was a lecture on Structuralism and that changed everything. It was a light bulb moment, my mind became alert, I was galvanised. I found a name for something that I had known and experienced ever since I became fluent in English and Dutch.

Structural linguistics was developed by Ferdinand Saussure in the early 1900s, and by today’s standards it is way out of fashion. In linguist circles it’s not cool. Yet, to me it’s pure genius. It grasps something quite fundamental about human thought and communication. Saussure’s theory grew from the school of linguistics that views language as a ‘semiotic system’. It sounds scary I know. But it just means that that these linguists see language in terms of its function, i.e.: what it’s trying to express; in terms of what it means (i.e.: semantics). (As opposed to Chomsky, whose main concern is how language is expressed in a structure, i.e.: grammar). To Saussure, language doesn’t belong to the individual speaker. It is a convention (i.e.: an implicit set of principles based on common knowledge and shared by others in your environment) that we absorb from our culture and use to communicate. He distinguishes between langue and parole. Langue is a bit like a particular language’s ‘potential’. It’s everything it can express as summed up in its vocabulary and grammar. Parole on the other hand is the actualisation of this potential in real life. For example, in English ‘sheep’ can only refer to the animal whilst ‘mutton’ refers to the meat of the sheep. In French mouton can refer to both the animal and the meat. The meaning of mouton will be determined when the word is ‘actualised’ in a real life situation. So the ‘value’ of sheep in English is different to the ‘value’ of mouton in French. They have different ‘potentials’.

According to structuralists (e.g.: Saussure, Humbolt, Sapir, Wolf) different languages express different views of the world. This means that different languages make different conceptual distinctions when interpreting the world. Something that is a very important difference conceptually to one language might be completely ignored in another. Gender is a good example. Some languages like French and German lay huge emphasis on gender. Every noun has a gender which in turn has an impact on most grammatical constructions that the noun is involved in (e.g.: ma mère, mon père). In the Hungarian language, on the other hand, gender is completely neglected, so much so, that even the 3rd person personal pronoun he/she is not differentiated, we just say ő. If you want to know if it’s a man or a woman, you either infer from the context or just ask. This explains my hopeless confusion of ‘he’ and ‘she’, even after twenty years as an English speaker. My mind is ‘gender blind’. Not that I don’t understand the difference, it’s quite clear to me that men are different to women. But in my language system, this difference is irrelevant, and I can’t ‘restructure’ my brain to see it. As a consequence, I mix ‘he’ and ‘she’ more often than not, moreover, my possessive pronouns are often inversed and (like in French) they match the gender of the possessed and not of the possessor, e.g.: ‘Peter and her mother.’

Hungarian is a language that is great at generalising. Hungarian sees the big picture. Hungarian likes to make connections between existing concepts, it sees the similarities between things and expresses these through language. Take the names for body parts, for example. To the Hungarian language all fingers are fingers. The thumb is a finger too! There are fingers on hands, fingers on feet. They are all fingers. Hungarian has a concept for ‘head’ that can be generalised to mean: ‘something that sits at the end of a main body part’. So we have kézfej = ‘hand-head’ and lábfej = ‘feet-head’. When we jump head-first into the swimming pool, that’s called ‘jumping a header’ – fejest ugrani. When we hit the ball with our head, that’s also (just like in English) a ‘header’ – fejes. English, on the other hand, has a strong preference for structuring the world into lots of individual unrelated concepts (thereby causing great annoyance to the Hungarian mind). English likes compartmentalising. English makes a difference between fingers and toes and between fingers and the thumb (which is to me inconceivable?!).

Structuralism is at work every day in my life. The way I see things and express myself; it underlies all the misunderstandings, little misconceptions and arguments I have with my nearest and dearest. To a Hungarian bread stays bread even after it had been toasted. It doesn’t suddenly change substance and become ‘toast’. No, it’s ‘toasted bread’. So when I ask my husband in the morning whilst we are eating toast if he wants more bread and he looks at me with furrowed brows: that’s structuralism. He says: “No, I don’t want bread, but another piece of toast would be nice.” (Don’t start me off on plurals…!)

When Mopsy goes off to school in the morning and I see her wearing a skirt and ask: “Are you wearing a skirt or are those the short trousers with the wide legs I got for you which look like a skirt?” and she looks at me and says: “Mum you are so confusing! Do you mean shorts? Shorts are not trousers, they are shorts!” That’s structuralism at work. To Mopsy’s mind there is a conceptual distinction between trousers and shorts. To my Hungarian mind, shorts are a type of trouser.

When the family says we should have pasta for dinner and I suggest Chinese noodles and they look at me in confusion: that’s structuralism at work. To me, pasta is made of eggs, flour and water. That’s what noodles are made of. Ergo, noodles are a kind of pasta. Wrong. The English speakers of this world place ‘noodles’ in their own separate mini compartment.

Whilst researching structuralism, I came across systemic functional linguistics, developed by Halliday. I won’t go into it here, but systemic functional linguistics is a lovely thing (for an introduction see Eggins 2012). Just like structuralism, it was inspired by social semiotics and sees language as a ‘system of meanings’. Halliday’s take on Chomsky’s work warmed my heart, he wrote: ‘imaginary problems were created by the whole series of dichotomies that Chomsky introduced, or took over unproblematised: not only syntax/semantics but also grammar/lexis, language/thought, competence/performance. Once these dichotomies had been set up, the problem arose of locating and maintaining the boundaries between them” (Halliday 1995). Reading this I felt vindicated. Maybe I am a theorist after all; it just took me a long time to find the right theory.

With love,

Footloose the closet theorist



Eggins, Suzanne (2012) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics, London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1995. “A Recent View of ‘Missteps’ in Linguistic Theory”. In Functions of Language 2.2. Vol. 3 of The Collected Works, p. 236.


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