Syntagmatic and Associative Relations

How does the structure of language, or of any signifying system, operates? Everything in the system is based on the RELATIONS that can occur between the units in the system. These relations consist mainly of relations of DIFFERENCE 对立或歧异.

(在语言体系成分中存在两种关系:Paradigmatic (选择关系) & Syntagmatic (连锁关系). 前者是词形变化,基于对立或歧异,而后者则是基于体系所能允许的组合类目。


The most important kind of relation between units in a signifying system, according to Saussure, is a SYNTAGMATIC relation. This means, basically, a LINEAR relation. In spoken or written language, words come out one by one. Because language is linear, it forms a chain, by which one unit is linked to the next.

An example of this is the fact that, in English, word order governs meaning. “The cat sat on the mat” means something different than “The mat sat on the cat” because word order–the position of a word in a chain of signification–contributes to meaning. (The sentences also differ in meaning because “mat” and “cat” are not the same words within the system).

English word order has a particular structure: subject-verb-object. Think of this sentence: “The adjectival noun verbed the direct object adverbially.” Other languages have other structures; in German, that sentence might be “The adjective noun auxiliary verbed the direct object adverbially main verb.” In French it might be “The noun adjective verbed adverbially the direct object .” In Latin, word order doesn’t matter, since the meaning of the word is determined, not by its place in the sentence, but by its cases (nominative, ablative, etc.)

Combinations or relations formed by position within a chain (like where a word is in a sentence) are called SYNTAGMS. Examples of SYNTAGMS can be any phrase or sentence that makes a linear relation between two or more units: under-achiever; by the way; lend me your ears; when in the course of human events.

The terms within a syntagm acquire VALUE only because they stand in opposition to everything before or after them. Each term IS something because it is NOT something else in the sequence. Again, think of coins: a dime is a dime because it’s not a quarter or a nickel or a penny or a $100 bill.

SYNTAGMATIC relations are most crucial in written and spoken language, in DISCOURSE, where the ideas of time, linearity, and syntactical meaning are important. There are other kinds of relations that exist outside of discourse.

Signs are stored in your memory, for example, not in syntagmatic links or sentences, but in ASSOCIATIVE groups. The word “education”, for example, may get linked, not to verbs and adjectives, but to other words that end in “-tion”:education, relation, association, deification. You may store the word education” with other words that have similar associations: education, teacher, textbook, college, expensive. Or you may store words in what looks like a completely random set of linkages: education, baseball, computer games, psychoanalysis (things I like). The idea of ASSOCIATIVE groups or linkages makes me think of pigeonholes, and what pigeonholes I put certain words or ideas in; when I pull out that word or idea, all the other things in that pigeonhole come tumbling out with it.

ASSOCIATIVE relations are only in your head, not in the structure of language itself, whereas SYNTAGMATIC relations are a product of linguistic structure.

Think of the columns of a building (or the rods in a Tinker-Toy “building”). The columns form syntagmatic, or structural, relation when you think about where in the building the columns are, what they support, what they’re connected to. The columns form associative relations when you think of what else the columns make you think of: phallic symbols, rockets, popsicles, or whatever.

syntagmatic relations are important because they allow for new words–neologisms–to arise and be recognized and accepted into a linguistic community. “To office,” for example (now used in a Kinko’s commercial) has meaning because the noun “office” can be moved to the position of verb, and take on a new syntagmatic position and relation to other words. Associative relations are important because they break patterns established in strictly grammatical/linear (syntagmatic) relations and allow for metaphoric expressions.