What Is Synchronic Linguistics?

A painting of the tower of babel
Tower of Babel, 1595, by Marten van Valkenborch (1535-1612), painting, Belgium, 16th century. De Agostini / M. Carrieri

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.

Key Takeaways: Synchronistic Linguistics

  • Synchronistic linguistics is the study of a language at a particular time.
  • In contrast, diachronic linguistics studies the development of a language over time.
  • Synchronistic linguistics is often descriptive, analyzing how the parts of a language or grammar work together.
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)

Synchronistic views look at a language as if it's static and not changing. (Languages continually evolve, though it's slow enough that people don't notice it much while it's happening.) 

The term was coined by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. That for which he is now most known was just a portion of his contributions to academia; his specialty was the analysis of Indo-European languages, and his work generally studied languages over time, or diachronic (historical) linguistics.

Synchronic vs. Diachronic Approaches

Synchronic linguistics is one of the two main temporal dimensions of language study introduced by 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. The first looks at a snapshot of a language, and the other studies its evolution (like a frame of film vs. a movie).

For example, analyzing the word order in a sentence in Old English only would be a study in synchronistic linguistics. If you looked at how word order changed in a sentence from Old English to Middle English and now to modern English, that would be a diachronic study.

Say you need to analyze how historical events affected a language. If you look at when the Normans conquered England in 1066 and brought with them a lot of new words to be injected into English, a diachronic look could analyze what new words were adopted, which ones fell out of use, and how long that process took for select words. A synchronic study might look at the language at different points before the Normans or after. Note how you need a longer time period for the diachronic study than the synchronic one.

Consider this example: When people had more opportunities to change their social class in the 1600s, they started using the words thee and thou less often. If they didn't know the social class of the person they were addressing, they'd use the formal pronoun you to be safely polite, leading to the demise of thee and thou in English. This would be a diachronic look. A description of the words and how they were used at the time in comparison to the pronoun you would be a synchronic description.

Before Saussure, it was considered that the only true scientific study of a language could be diachronic. However, both approaches are useful. In the third edition of "Synchronic English Linguistics: An Introduction," the authors explain the types of historical linguistics: 

"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)

Synchronic studies look at what associates with what (how parts interact) at any given time. Diachronic studies look at what causes what and how things change over time.

Examples of Synchronic Study

Synchronic linguistics are descriptive linguistics, for example, the study of how parts of a language (morphs or morphemes) combine to form words and phrases and how proper syntax gives a sentence meaning. In the 20th century the search for a universal grammar, that which is instinctive in humans and gives them the ability to pick up their native language as an infant, is a synchronic area of study.

Studies of "dead" languages can be synchronic, as by definition they are no longer spoken (no native or fluent speakers) nor evolving and are frozen in time.