The notion of opposition in linguistics

Hendrik Pos

Translated by Patrick Flack


Recent research has revealed the important role of opposition in all layers of language, from phonology up to syntax. Opposition is one of the principles that make up the language system [système de la langue].

The discovery of this fact has been a great stimulus to linguistic research and has profoundly changed the method of linguistic research: instead of meticulously recording isolated facts, its aim is to establish an order which allows one to see structures. The explanation of static and historical facts has been profoundly influenced by this new method.

Psychology and philosophy have a great interest in following this development of linguistics, which in turn can be deepened through this contact.

Philosophy is interested in clarifying how the idea of opposition contributes to the knowledge of linguistic facts, especially since the idea of opposition is part of logic.

Opposition is not an isolated fact: it is a structural principle. It always brings together two things that are distinct, but which are linked in such a way that thought cannot pose one without posing the other. The unity of opposites is always formed by a concept, which, implicitly, contains the opposites within it and divides into explicit opposition when applied to reality. 182 concrete. The content of the opposition is posterior to the form and concept from which it originates.

Opposition in linguistic facts is not a scheme that science introduces to master the facts, and which would remain outside them. Its importance goes beyond the epistemological order: when linguistic thought arranges facts according to the principles of opposition and system, it meets a thought that creates these facts themselves.

It follows from this for psychology that the empiricism of facts isolated from consciousness needs to be complemented and supported by a theory of the unconscious factors that determine the systematic structure of these facts. The rational unconscious, the creator of structures, must serve as the basis for the explanation of the scattered and fragmentary facts of individual consciousness. Linguistics, without abandoning the help it receives from psychology, is led by its own evolution to recognize that thought and psychic life are not two completely distinct essences.

K. Bühler (Vienna) points out that oppositions are only one element of the structure and that there are many other relationships than oppositions.

Flack Patrick (2013) "Le moment phénoménologique de la linguistique structurale", Cahiers de l'ILSL 37, pp.117-126.
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Merleau-Ponty Maurice (1952) "Sur la phénoménologie du langage", in: Van Breda Herman Leo (ed), Problèmes actuels de la phénoménologie: actes du Colloque international de phénoménologie. Bruxelles, avril 1951, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, pp.89-109.
Pos Hendrik (1922) Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft, Heidelberg, Carl Winter.
Pos Hendrik (1938) "La notion d'opposition en linguistique", in: Henri Piéron; I. Meyerson; (ed), Onzième congrès international de psychologie, Paris, Alcan, pp.246-247.
Pos Hendrik (1939) "Perspectives du structuralisme", in: Etudes phonologiques dédiées à la mémoire de M. le Prince N.S. Trubetzkoy, Praha, Jednota Československých Matematiků a Fysiků, pp.71-78.
Pos Hendrik (2010) "Phenomenology and linguistics", Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 31 (1), pp.35-44.
Salverda Reiner (1991) "The contribution of H. J. Pos (1898-1955) to early structural linguistics", in: J. Fenoulhet; Theo Hermans; (ed), Standing clear: A festschrift for Reinder P. Meijer, London, University College London, pp.220-237.

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(1938) "La notion d'opposition en linguistique", in: Henri Piéron; I. Meyerson; , Onzième congrès international de psychologie, Paris, Alcan, pp.246-247.