Like in European studies, American linguistics also developed theories about synchronic linguistics. The importance of Saussure’s course in the development of that process has been a great deal of discussion. In 1922, Leonard Bloomfield wrote that Saussure had constructed the basis of the new linguistics.
For many American linguists, the beginning of their research was the study of indigenous languages due to fact that they were unknown in their previous phases so, there weren’t susceptible to diachronic investigation. This was precisely the fact that formed and distinguished the American structuralism and its methods.
As those languages couldn’t be described with the categories that were established by the traditional linguistics (noun, adjective, verb, etc.) researchers had to find new categories and, at the same time, noticed the ‘weaknesses' of the old languages that were based on the European ones. This conducted the American linguists to make studies that were more advanced than those of their European colleagues. Like a result of this, Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield became the two most important and influential linguists of their time.
Sapir established the basis of the phonologic structuralism while Bloomfield left mark in the study of morphology and syntax. However, both got separate to their respective conceptions of language. Sapir is on the top of what is called ‘American mentalism’ that is an interpretation of language which is strongly related to the mind. On the other hand, Bloomfield was the master and creator of the ‘anti mentalism’ that conducts to the dissociation of the signifiant and the signifié.
Although Bloomfield’s investigations have been of great importance for the American linguistics, his most relevant work was the development of the American structuralism.
The structural linguistics, also called descriptive linguistics, had its beginning in the USA with the apparition of Leonard Bloomfield’s paper (1887-1949, Language) and the studies of linguists such as Zelling Harris and Charles Hockett. The most notable aspects that distinguish the American Structuralist school are:
- It was inspired in the empiricism. That means that it recognized experience as the unique source of language, in this case, the results of language. This conducted a descriptivist method that is based strictly in the facts that have been registered (corpus) not in any other hypothetical possibility.
- It was related to the conductivism’s theory (behaviorism) of the time of Watson and Skinner until the point of explaining the sign as the response of a intermediate stimulus (S→R). For example, a person that is hungry can have two reactions if there is an apple in front of him/her: get close and take the apple or ask for it using the language. In the second case, besides the stimulus and response, there was an intermediation of another stimulus (the verbal expression) and another response (the comprehension of the request that finishes with the delivering of the apple): S → S → R → R.
- It was thought that the structure of the language was upheld for two classes of subsystems: centrals and peripheries. The first were concerned about the grammatical system, the phonological system and the morphological systems while the other was concerned about the phonetic and the semantic systems.
- It’s usually presented as a reaction against traditional grammar.
- American structural linguists based their descriptions on objectively observable data, paying special attention to current speech.
American structuralists made claims for a scientific approach to language. Language should be studied to know and to understand how language works. There is a desire to make the study of language both scientific and autonomous. According to the American structuralists, there could be no correctness apart from usage. For them, language should be described as it is spoken.
Grammar has to do with the way English is spoken, and not with how it 'should' be spoken, differences in language practice should be accepted and different registers should be established. American structuralists clearly differentiated synchronic description of languages from diachronic studies. For them, it was important to define the stages of description and to distinguish between descriptive and historical linguistics.
Every language must be described in and by itself. In this sense, there are no universal categories. The concepts "noun" or "adjective" in English must be different from those in French, since their real value does not lie in themselves but in their specific position within the system. Every language should be considered as a system of relations. Every unit, every element in this system has no value by itself, if isolated. Its meaning has to be established in relation to all the other elements in the language.
The general types of devices that English has to express structural meaning are the use of form-words (inflections and derivations), the use of function words (prepositions, determiners, subordinators, etc.), the use of word order, and in some cases the use of stress and intonation.
Considering phonology as the starting point of any investigation, Bloomfield claims that "linguistic study must always start from the phonetic form and not from the meaning." And probably for this reason phonology is the field where structuralists made more advances.
American structuralists limited the area of language to be described by emphasizing language form as the single, objective, observable and verifiable aspect of language, thus relegating meaning to a subordinate place. For them, linguistic analysis should begin with an objective description of the forms of language and move from form to meaning.