Substance and structure in linguistics – University of Copenhagen

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Substance and structure in linguistics

Worskhop at the University of Copenhagen, February 27-28, 2015. 


Workshop description
Confirmed invited speakers
Program, abstracts and presentations
Aim of the workshop

Workshop description

For the old structuralists (especially the European variety), the distinction between substance and structure (or form) served two important purposes. Firstly, it provided a means for simultaneously allowing for language-particular and universal aspects of language: structural properties were seen as language-particular modulations of substance, which was taken to be at least potentially universal (e.g. Hjelmslev 1943). Secondly, it made possible a definition of linguistics as an autonomous discipline dealing with an area of phenomena that are specifically properties of languages: according to structuralism, structure (and thus language-particular issues) were taken to be the central concern of linguists, rather than substance (and universal issues) (e.g. de Saussure 1916).
From the beginning, then, substance played a marginal role in 20th century linguistics, and with the fading of structuralist frameworks such as Hjelmslev’s and Ulldal’s Glossematics and the rise and increasing dominance of generative grammar in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the distinction between substance and structure fell into almost complete oblivion. In two respects, the notion of substance would in fact seem useful to Chomsky. Firstly, like the structuralists, Chomsky and his followers had the ambition of defining linguistics (at least, grammar) as an autonomous discipline. Secondly, unlike the structuralists, they took an interest in universal issues. However, the idea of Universal Grammar and thus universal linguistic structure left little need and room for substance in the theory.
Still, the distinction between structure and substance was not entirely forgotten. It lived on in some individual linguists and scholarly environments that did not follow the Chomskyan way, and did not reject structuralist ideas en bloc. As one example, Danish Functional Linguistics – a research community established around Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen, Lisbeth Falster Jacobsen, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder and Lars Heltoft in the 1990’s (cf. Engberg-Pedersen & al. 1996) – adopted (in modified form) Hjelmslev’s version of the distinction, and in this community it continues to play a central role (especially, Harder 1996). Other examples are found in linguistic typology, where Gilbert Lazard has stressed the importance of distinguishing between structure and substance (e.g. Lazard 2005), and Bybee has discussed grammaticalization and semantic change in terms of the distinction (e.g.  Bybee 1988, Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca 1994).

Recent years have witnessed a revitalization of the distinction within functional typology and cognitive linguistics. Haspelmath has explicitly invoked the notion of substance in his discussions of the basis of crosslinguistic comparison and categorization (e.g. Haspelmath 2007, 2010), and Croft has used a similar notion, conceptual space, to point out the common ground of semantic mapping and multidimensional scaling (e.g. Croft 2001, 2003). In connection with the issue of linguistic relativity, Slobin’s work on ‘Thinking for Speaking’ (e.g. Slobin 1996) may be seen as an argument that it is not a one-way issue of substance constraining structure – the way we form substance for the purpose of linguistic formulation may have an impact on the conceptual substance itself, i.e. on how speakers conceptualize the world around them. In a similar vein, Levinson (2003) makes a distinction between semantic structure (language-particular) and conceptual structure (potentially universal), and simultaneously argues that there is an interface between the two. All these scholars – including those affiliated with Danish Functional Linguistics – seem to converge in stressing the importance of the structuralist distinction between substance and structure, while at the same diverging from the old structuralists by including substance in the focus of linguistics.

Confirmed invited speakers

William Croft

Peter Harder

Martin Haspelmath

Program, abstracts and presentations

Please find program with abstracts here.

Presentations from the workshop are to be downlaoded from this page.

Aim of the workshop

The aim of this workshop is to discuss the distinction between substance and structure itself and linguistic phenomena and problems that can fruitfully be approached in terms of the distinction. Specific areas of interest include (but are not restricted to) the following:

  • Crosslinguistic comparison

How is substance-based crosslinguistic comparison carried out in practice? Are Haspelmath’s (2010) “comparative concepts” necessarily entirely subjective, or can they be objectified?

  • Crosslinguistic categorization

What are the criteria for identifying substance-based descriptive categories like Tense, Aspect, and Modality?

  • Linguistic relativity

In what respects does substance constrain structure, and in what respects may structure influence on substance? Can a strict distinction between substance and structure always be maintained?

  • The nature of substance

What is substance, conceptual structure, functional-communicative potential, both or neither?

  • Substance and structure in semantics

How do we tell substance from structure in semantics, and how is the distinction relevant?

  • Substance and structure in phonology and phonetics

How do we tell substance from structure in phonetics and phonology, and when is it at all relevant?

  • Conceptual dependency and layered structure?

Is it possible to distinguish between Langackerian conceptual dependency (as substance) and layered structure (as structure)?


Please register for the workshop by selecting one of the options below:

- Workshop with lunch and coffee/tea both days (link to webshop)

- Workshop with vegetarian lunch and coffee/tea both days (link to webshop)

- Workshop only with coffee/tea both days (link to webshop)


Kasper Boye,  

Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen, 

Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen

The Linguistic Circle of Copenhagen


Bybee, Joan L. 1988. “Semantic substance vs. contrast in the development of grammatical meaning.” Berkeley Linguistics Society 14: 247-64.

Bybee, J., R. Perkins & W. Pagliuca. 1994. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Croft, W. 2001. Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic theory in typological perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Croft, W. 2003. Typology and universals, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engberg-Pedersen, Elisabeth, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder, Lars Heltoft & Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen (eds.). 1996. Content, expression and structure: Studies in Danish Functional Grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Harder, P. 1996. Functional semantics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Haspelmath, M. 2007. “Pre-established categories don’t exist: Consequences for language description and typology”. Linguistic Typology 11 (1): 119-132.

Haspelmath, M. 2010. “Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in cross-linguistic studies”. Language 86 (3): 663-687.

Hjelmslev, L. 1943. Omkring sprogteoriens grundlæggelse. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.

Lazard, G. 2005. “What are typologists doing?”. Z. Frajzyngier, A. Hodges & D. S. Rod (eds.). Linguistic diversity and language theories. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 1-24.

Levinson, S. C. 2003. “Language and mind: Let’s get the issues straight!”. D. Gentner & S. Goldin-Meadow (eds.). Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 25-46.

Saussure, F. de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Lausanne: Payot.

Slobin, D. I. 1996. “From ‘thought and language’ to ‘thinking for speaking’”. J. J. Gumperz & S. C. Levinson (eds.). Rethinking linguistic relativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 70-96.