synchronic linguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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

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.

The terms synchrony and diachrony refer, respectively, to a language state and to an evolutionary phase of language.

"In reality," says Théophile Obenga, "diachronic and synchronic linguistics interlock" ("Genetic Linguistic Connections of Ancient Egypt and the Rest of Africa," 1996).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "One can approach all different aspects of language, such as grammar, semantics, syntax, phonology, 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., Synchronic English Linguistics: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Gunter Nar Verlag, 2005)

  • "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. 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."
    (Colleen Elaine Donnelly, Linguistics for Writers. State Univiversity of New York Press, 1994)

  • Saussure and Historical Linguistics
    "Although nowadays one thinks of Saussure first and foremost as the scholar who defined the notion of 'synchronic linguistics'--the study of languages existing at a given point in time, as opposed to the historical linguistics ('diachronic' linguistics, as Saussure called it to clarify the contrast) which had seemed to his contemporaries the only possible approach to the subject--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."
    (Geoffrey Sampson, Schools of Linguistics. Stanford University Press, 1980)

  • Language Change
    "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."
    (Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2001)