Syntax in Linguistics


          The word syntax is derived from a Greek word meaning 'ordering together', 'systematic arrangement', or 'putting together'. It is the study of sentence-building, of the ways in which words are arranged together in order to make larger units. A syntactic analysis is generally concerned with sentences and the constituents of sentences. Briefly speaking, syntax is the grammar of sentences; it is the, science of sentence construction. 'It is perhaps best to define syntax negatively, as the study of the combinations of such morphemes as are not bound on the levels of either inflection or derivation' (Robert A.Hall, 1969:91). By this definition, most of the elements involved in syntactical combinations will indeed be free, but some will be phrasally or clausally bound.

          There are two quite distinct areas of syntax, one related to morphology, the other wholly or largely unrelated to it. In the past morphology dealt with the ways in which words are built up and syntax with the ways in which they combine with each other to form sentences. It was Saussure who pointed out that 'morphology' has no distinctly autonomous object. It cannot, he said, be distinguished from syntax. It was Saussure, too who demonstrated that lexicology cannot be isolated from either syntax or morphology. 'Morphology, syntax and lexicology interpenetrate because every synchronic fact is identical. No line of demarcation can be drawn in advance.'

          However, the chief concern of syntax is the sentence which is the maximal unit of grammatical analysis, and the minimal syntactic level is the morpheme. Sentence may be analysed segmentally into phonological units called phonemes and syllables; into morphological units called morphemes and words; and into syntactic units called phrases; and clauses. At the same time, sentences may be described suprasegmentally in respect of the prosodemes of length, stress and pitch and intersegmentally in respect of the prosodeme of syllable transition or juncture. Some linguists, notably of the school of Transformational-Generative Grammar are trying to study the maximal linguistic units through a fusion of all these approaches. They have closely inter-related all the components of language: the phonological, syntactical grammatical (fusing morphology and syntax together) and semantic.

                                   Semantics              Syntax           Phonology

          Nevertheless, syntax, not only to the Transformational Grammarians but also to a number of other linguists, is the core, the centre of grammar. And the linguists are interested in two aspects of this structuring of language. First, they are interested in the patterns underlying the sentence and its constituents. Secondly, they are interested in that syntactic devices used to link the constituents together, and the rules that transform one structure into another (the deep structure into immediate/surface) structure.



           Psycholinguistics is a recent branch of linguistics developed in the sixties. It is the study of interrelationship of psychological and linguistic behaviour. It uses linguistic concepts to describe psychological processes connected with the acquisition and use of language. As a distinct area of interest psycholinguistics developed in the early sixties, and in its early form covered acoustic phonology and language pathology. But now-a-days it has been influenced deeply by the development of generative theory, and its most important area of investigation has been language acquisition. It has raised and has partly answered questions such as how do children acquire their mother tongue? How do they grow up linguistically and learn to handle the registral and stylistic varieties of their mother tongue effectively? How much of the linguistic system that they ultimately command are they born with and how much do they discover on the basis of their exposure to language?

          In its early form, psycholinguistics covered the psychological implications of an extremely broad area, from acoustic phonetics to language pathology. Now-a-days, certain areas of language and linguistic theory tend to be concentrated on by the psycholinguist. Much of psycholinguistics has been influenced by generative theory and the so-called mentalists. The most important area is the investigation of the acquisition of language by children. In this respect there have been many studies of both a theoretical and a descriptive kind. The descriptive need is impelled by the fact that until recently hardly anything was known about the actual facts of language acquisition in children, in particular about the order in which grammatical structures were acquired. Even elementary questions as when and how the child develops its ability to ask question syntactically, or when it learns the inflectional system of its language, remained unanswered. And a great deal of work has been done recently on the methodological and descriptive problems related to the obtaining and analysing information of this kind.

          The theoretical questions have focused on the issue of how we can account for the phenomenon of language development in children at all. Normal children have mastered most of the structures of their language by the age of five or six. The generative approach argued against the earlier behaviourist assumptions that it was possible to explain language development largely in terms of imitation and selective reinforcement. It asserted that it was impossible to explain the rapidly or the complexity of language used by the people around them.

          Psycholinguists therefore argue that imitation is not enough; it is not merely by mechanical repetition that children acquire language. They also acquire it by natural exposure. Both nature and nurture influence the acquisition of language in children. Children learn first not items but systems. Every normal child comes to develop this abstract knowledge of his mother tongue even of a foreign language to some extent for himself, and the generative approach argues that such a process is only explicable if one postulates that certain features of this competence are present in the brain of the child right from the beginning. 'In other words, what is being claimed is that the child's brain contains certain innate characteristics which pre-structure' it in the direction of language learning. To enable these innate features to develop into adult competence, the child must be exposed to human language, i.e. it must be stimulated in proper to respond. But the basis on which it develops its linguistic abilities is not describable in behaviourist terms.' (David Crystal, Linguistics, p. 256)

          The boundary between psycholinguistics and linguistics is becoming increasingly blurred as the result of recent developments in linguistics which aim to give psychological reality to the description of language. Chomsky regards linguistics as a subfield of psychology, more specially the cognitive psychology. His view of linguistics, as outlined for instance, in his book Language and Mind, is that the most important contribution linguistics can make is to the study of the human mind. The bonds between psychology and linguistics become more and more strong by the extent to which language is influenced by and itself influences such things as memory, motivation, attention, recall and perception.

          Similarly psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics are coming closer since the realization that merely grammatical competence is not enough; we have to aim at communicative competence too. Whereas psycholinguistics is language and the mind, sociolinguistics is language and community. In other words, psycholinguistics can be said to deal with language and the individual, and sociolinguistics with languages and society.


          About sixty years ago, Edward Sapir introduced a valuable new concept into linguistics. 'Language,' he wrote,' moves down time in a current of its own making. It has a drift... Nothing is perfectly static. Every word, every grammatical element, every locution, every sound and accent is a slowly changing configuration, moulded by the invisible and impersonal....' (E. Sapir, Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, New York, repr. 1942). Of all linguistic elements, meaning is probably the least resistant to change. There is a proverb in our villages which says that language changes every six miles. One of the result is that "all grammars leak! because language is not a static entity. While defining language we have already said that language is 'modifiable, extendable' and that language changes in time and space.

          Living language, indeed, never hold still. All of them are continually changing their sounds, their grammar, their vocabulary and their meaning for various reasons. A look at the old inscriptions and manuscripts, at Chaucer or Shakespeare shows how many of English sounds and spellings have changed. For example the final 'e' in numerous Chaucerian words is no more seen in modern English; the sound phonetically /i/ which occurs before /u/ in words such as tune, duty, muse, has disappeared in words such as rute, flute. Once expression 'It is me' was ungrammatical, but now it is the quite acceptable.

          But for the most part these changes are gradual and systematic and minor. They are so natural that they escape our attention as they occur and remain imperceptible. Over a span of centuries, however, their cumulative effect is noticeable. 'It is only by a necessary fiction that we treat linguistic systems, for the purposes of synchronic analysis, as if they were static and unchanging. The linguistic analyst's first task is the synchronic description of linguistic structures; his second task is to formulate the changes that take place in language with the passage of time, through irreversible alterations'(Hall 1969).

          But the astonishing thing about language is not the fact that it changes, but that it changes so little not to disturb its equilibrium or upset its basic characteristics. Furthermore, language changes in an orderly and integrated fashion. No sound change is an isolated incident. In an interrelated system, a change in one item automatically affects all the other items by a chain reaction. 'Language, like thermostat, is self regulating, constantly readjusting itself in an attempt to maintain an equilibrium'. But a perfect equilibrium is impossible for various reasons, main being the irregular layout of the speech organs.


          Language has a tendency to change from complexity towards simplicity, from length towards precision, from difficulty towards ease, from disorder towards order. Need or uniformity or diversity, desire for novelty, need for new expressions because of new inventions, discoveries, developments, and need to find words for new objects, concepts and places cause language change. 

          Language changes because of linguistic, social, cultural, psychological historical and geographical factors too. According to Saussure, language changes due to the innovations of individuals and of community, and historical reasons. Bloomfield gives several accounts of linguistic change and concludes that sound change arises from the preference for one non-distinctive variant of a phoneme over another. Changes in the syntax or phonology or meaning of a language also result from borrowing which, in most cases, takes place because of prestige'. Neighbouring dialects and languages as well as foreign languages also effect linguistic changes. 


          Minimal units of grammatical structure, such as the four components of un faith fulness are called morphemes. Telephones has three morphemes 

[tele}, phone, and {-s} while telephone has two and phone just one. Morphemes are customarily described as minimal units of grammatical analysis the-units of 'lowest rank of which words, the units of next 'highest rank are composed. So morphemes are those distinct, minimal syntactical units which form words. They can also be defined as the minimal units of meaning out of which meaningful words are composed in various ways. 

          A morpheme thus is a distinct linguistic form. It is a minimal unit of speech that is recurrent. It has a grammatical function. It is a semantically different form other phonemically similar or identical linguistic forms, and is not divisible or analyzable into smaller forms. If we try to break or analyze a morpheme into its constituents, it loses its identity, and we end up with a sequence of meaningless noises, e.g., nation (na+tion, or nati+on). Analyzing the morphomes leads us straight into the realm of phonology.

          Morphemes may or may not have meaning, may or may not have a phonological representation, {un-} has a negative meaning in unfriendly unhealthy, unable, unemployed and many other words, but is meaningless in under. 

{-er} has a constant meaning in teacher, heater, reader, writer, speaker, painter, leader, etc. But it would be difficult to pin down any constant meaning for spect in respect, inspect circumspect, for pre in and spectacle protest, professor, prospective, process, proceed, etc. In plural words like sheep, fish we have two morphemes in each words; the first morpheme in each case has a phonological representation but the second one has no phonological representation and is called morpheme. Morphologically the plural noun sheep is {sheep}+{}, that is to say that the word 'sheep' is made up of two morphemes sheep plus a plural morpheme which is present in the meaning but is not physically present in spelling or pronunciation.

          Morphemes sometimes vary in their phonological manifestations. Pro, for instance, is pronounced different in profess and the noun progress. The plural morpheme is pronounced {s} in words like cats, maps and snacks; {z}in dogs, hands, and ideas; {iz} in words like churches, judges, classes; but it has no phonetic form at all in the plural nouns such as sheep, fish, etc. Then there are completely idiosyncratic forms such as oxen, children, brethren. It is not always clear whether or not a given sound sequence, should be considered a morpheme. For instance, should animal be said to consist of two morphemes anima (a) and (b) I, or just one? consider natural: it has two morphemes {nature} and {-al}. Shouldn't we then regard woman as a word having two morphemes {wo-} and {man}? A sound sequence is a morpheme in some words; it is not in some others. Un clearly in a morpheme in unnatural and unfaithful but it is not a morpheme in under or sun.

          A morpheme may be monosyllabic as {man} and {a/an/the} or polysyllabic as {happy} and {nature}.

          A morpheme has been called 'a grammatical moneme' by Martinet. Another synonym for the morpheme is 'glosseme'.

          Morphemes are usually put into braces, i.e. curly brackets {} { the } { help }{ -less } { boy }{  -s }


          Any phonemic shape or representation of a phoneme is a morph (Hockott). Each morph, like each phone, or each person or each day, happens only once and then it is gone. To quote John Lyons, "When the word can be segmented in to pact, these segments are referred to as morphs." Thus the word shorter is analyzable in two morphs, which can be written orthographically as short and er, and in a phonological transcription /t/ and //. Each morph represents a particular morpheme, but each morpheme does not have a morph. For example, the plural noun sheep has one morph, but it has two morphemes {sheep} and {} went has one morph, but two morpheme {go} and [ed}.



           It frequently happens that a particular morpheme is not represented everywhere by the same morph, but by different morphs in different environments. The alternative phonological manifestation or representations of such a morpheme are called allomorphs or 'morpheme alternats' or 'morpheme variant'. An allomorph, therefore, is a non-distinctive variant of a morpheme. Or, it may be called a family or class of morphs which are phonemically and semantically identical, that is, an allomorph is a family of morphs which are alike in two ways: (1) in the allophones of which they are composed and, (ii) in the meaning which they have" (Nelson Francis).

          The allomorphs are phonologically conditioned. Their forms are dependent on the adjacent phonemes. Or else, they are morphologically conditioned. That is when morphemes are affected by their phonological environment 'sandhi', they become allomorphs. For example, /-z/, /-s/, and  /-iz/, are the various allomorphs of the plural morpheme {-z} in English.

          The study of different shapes of allomorphs is half way between phonology and morphology and is sometimes referred to as morphophonology or morphonology. In America where phonology, is considered as part of descriptive, synchronic linguistics has relied phonemic analysis, the term morphophonemic is used for this aspect of grammar.


          Language is a social-cultural-geographical phenomenon. There is a deep relationship between language and society. It is in society that man acquires and uses language. When we study a language which is an abstraction of abstractions, a system of systems, we have to study its further abstractions such as dialects, sociolects, idiolects, etc. That is why we have to keep in mind the geographical area in which this language is spoken, the culture and the society in which it is used, the context and situation in which it is used, the speakers who use it, the listeners for whom it is used and the purpose for which it is used besides the linguistic components that compose it. Only then can our study of a language be complete and comprehensive. So we must look at language not only from within but also from without: we should study language from both the points of view of form and functions. Socio-linguistics is the study of speech functions according to the speaker. the hearer, their relationship and contact, the context and the situation. The topic of discourse, the purpose of discourse, and the form of the discourse. An informal definition of socio-linguistic suggested by a linguist is the study of: "Who can say what how, using what means, to whom and why." It studies the causes and consequences of linguistic behaviour in human societies: it is concerned with the function of language, and studies language from without.

          Socio-linguistics is a fascinating and challenging field of linguistics. It studies the ways in which language interacts with society. It is the study of the way in which the structure of a language changes in response to its different social functions, and the definition of what these functions are 'Society, here is to cover a spectrum of phenomena to do to with race, nationality, more restricted regional, social and political groups, and the interactions of individuals within groups. Different labels have sometimes been suggested to cover various parts of this spectrum. ETHNOLINGUISTICS is sometimes distinguished from the rest, referring to the linguistic correlates and problems of ethnic groups-illustrated at a  practical level by the linguistic consequences of immigration; there is a language side to race relations. The term ANTHROPOLOGICAL LINGUISTICS is sometimes distinguished from 'sociological linguistics', depending on one's particular views as to the validity or otherwise of a distinction between anthropology and sociology in the first place (for example, the former studying primitive cultures, the latter studying more 'advanced political units; but this distinction is not maintained by many others). 'Stylistics, is another label which is sometimes distinguished, referring to the study of the distinctive linguistics characteristics of smaller social groupings. (But more usually, stylistics refers to the study of the literary expression of a community, using linguistics gradually merges into ethno-linguistics, anthropological linguistics, stylistics and the subject matter of psychology.

          Broadly speaking, however, the study of language as part of culture and society has now commonly been accepted as SOCIOLINGUISTICS. But there are also some other expressions which have been used at one time or another, including the sociology of language', 'social linguistics', 'institutional linguistics', 'anthropological linguistics', linguistic anthropology', 'ethnolinguistics', the 'ethnography of communication', etc.

          The scope of socio-linguistics, therefore, is the interaction of language and various sociologically definable variables such as social class, specific social situation, status and roles of speakers/hearers, etc. As J.B. Pride says, socio-linguistics is not simply 'an amalgam of linguistics and sociology (or indeed of linguistics and any other of the social sciences). It incorporates, in principle at least, every aspect of the structure and use of language that relates to its social and cultural function. Hence there seems no real conflict between the socio-linguistics and the psycho-linguistic approach to language. Both these views should be reconciled ultimately. Linguisticians like John Lyons and cognitive psychologists like Campbell and Wales advocate the necessity of widening the notion of competence to take account of a great deal of what might be called the social context of speech.

          No doubt that the study of language as part of culture and society has the now commonly accepted label sociolinguistics.' But there are also some other expressions which have been used at one time or another, including the sociology of language,' 'social linguistics,' 'institutional linguistics,"sociological linguistics', 'anthropological linguistics', anthropology', ethnolinguistics', and 'the ethnography communication,