What Is Synchronic Linguistics?

language sign

Mark Williamson/Getty Images

Synchronic linguistics is the study of a language at one particular period (usually the present). It is also known as descriptive linguistics or general linguistics.

For example, "A synchronic study of language is a comparison of languages or dialects—various spoken differences of the same language—used within some defined spatial region and during the same period of time," wrote Colleen Elaine Donnelly in "Linguistics for Writers." "Determining the regions of the United States in which people currently say 'pop' rather than 'soda' and 'idea' rather than 'idear' are examples of the types of inquiries pertinent to a synchronic study." (State University of New York Press, 1994)

Synchronic vs. Diachronic

Synchronic linguistics is one of the two main temporal dimensions of language study introduced by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics (1916). The other is diachronic linguistics, which is the study of language through periods of time in history.

In the third edition of "Synchronic English Linguistics: An Introduction," the authors explain the types of historical linguistics. 

"One can approach all different aspects of language, such as grammarsemanticssyntaxphonology, etc., from two different points of view: Diachronic linguistics (Diachrone Linguistik) studies language in its development across time (this is what the term diachronic means) (Moessner 2001),whilst synchronic linguistics (Synchrone Linguistik) tries to understand the functioning of language at a single point of time, without reference to earlier or later stages.
"As it is necessary to know how a system works at any given time before one can hope to understand changes, the analysis of language at a single point in time, i.e. synchronic linguistics, now usually precedes the study in terms of diachronic linguistics." (Paul Georg Meyer et al., Gunter Nar Verlag, 2005)

The terms synchrony and diachrony refer, respectively, to a language state and to an evolutionary phase of language. "In reality," said Théophile Obenga, "diachronic and synchronic linguistics interlock." ("Genetic Linguistic Connections of Ancient Egypt and the Rest of Africa," 1996). Jean Aitchison illustrated how the two had worked together in the past:

"For most of the twentieth century, synchronic linguistics was considered to be prior to diachronic linguistics. Historical linguists were expected to gather together descriptions of a language at various points in time, relying to a large extent on the previous work of synchronic linguists. Then they studied the changes which had taken place by comparing the various synchronic states. They behaved somewhat like a photographer trying to work out a continuous sequence of events from a series of separate snapshots—on the face of it, a sensible enough procedure. The problem was simply this: linguists making the synchronic descriptions were, without realizing it, simply leaving out those aspects of the description that were essential for an understanding of language change." ("Language Change: Progress or Decay?" 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001)

About Saussure

Author Geoffrey Sampson gave some additional context on Saussure's lifelong work, which was more than just synchronic linguistics:

"Although nowadays one thinks of Saussure first and foremost as the scholar who defined the notion of 'synchronic linguistics'...in his own lifetime this was far from his main claim to fame....[A]ll his publications, and almost all his teaching, throughout his career dealt with historical rather than with synchronic linguistics, and indeed with detailed analysis of various Indo-European languages rather than with the general, theoretical discourse for which he is now famous." ('Schools of Linguistics.' Stanford University Press, 1980)