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The Paradigm Concept in the Sciences of Language

Pierluigi Basso Fossali, Marion Colas-Blaise et Sylvianne Rémi-Giraud
Cet article est une traduction de :
La notion de paradigme dans les sciences du langage [fr]

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1Linguists and semioticians specialising in lexicology, syntax, semantics, stylistics, rhetoric, discourse analysis, pragmatics and semiotics are invited to contribute to this thematic issue that will seek to renew the “paradigm” concept; firstly, it lies at the centre of some theoretical formulations (Systemic Functional Linguistics), and secondly, it has been marginalised and used only didactically. Therefore, it loses its major explanatory nature, both in terms of the organisation of language, and the description of discourse.

2The invitation is also open to researchers who work in other fields. It should be noted that the use of the word “paradigm” concerns primarily the organisation of language and speech. As for the other concept, namely the paradigm as a “system of representations of knowledge”, or as an “epistemic form of thought in a cultural epoch” (see Kuhn 1962), the connection between the two meanings should be shown.

  • 1 The notion of linguistic system (langue) is used here as a form of organisation of any historically (...)

3The paradigm was a concept at the foundation of a scientific perspective on languages. However, there were still some ambiguities. On the one hand, the paradigmatic organisation affirmed the existence of classes of elements characterizing specifically the language system1, and the other hand the criteria for the classifications appeared as heterogeneous and external to the autonomous form of language (associations, resemblances, etc.). If there was a problem with limiting this hybridisation of the internal principles to linguistic functioning, the paradigm provided in return a principle of mobilization of forms, showing the tensions between the classes and inside the classes. The system did not provide a neutral background made of pure virtualities: competing classifications could be recognized in the system and, in the same paradigm, contradictory tensions were also found between morphotactics compliance of the same root, and the introduction of irregular forms.

4The Hjelmslevian tradition tried to clarify the types of paradigmatic correlation (specification, complementarities, autonomy) by showing implicitly the transversality of these organisations in relation to categories. The paradigms appear to be related to the mobilisation of linguistic resources in relation to syntax requirements; on the contrary, categories are also elaborated during the apprehension of values in an objectified semiotics plan.

5Thus, the paradigm would question the discursive expression which can not only move up towards the requested languages (organization of the system), but also down towards potentially (norms, discursive practices) or comparatively (intertext) competing expressions. In this way, the relationship between the notions of category and paradigm remains a problem at the metalinguistic level. If the category field is expressed through a “perimeter” of oppositions, the paradigmatic organisation feeds reservoirs of forms taking advantage of a principle of analogy and exploiting subsequent dissimilations secured by redundancy. For this reason, the category seems to be concerned with the traits of expression or content, whereas the paradigm seems to support linguistic “identities” fostered by different structural dependencies and specific determinations of a thematic domain (see Rastier 2011). According to Martinet (1970, p. 136), “what matters in terms of paradigmatic classifications are the parallel variations in group units”.

6If the taxeme (Rastier 1987) seems to balance the categorical organisation with the idea of the paradigm bringing together competing units, insofar as it appears to comply with a reference restricted domain, the paradigmatic organisation which supports enunciative choice would normally go well beyond the isotopic margins, open to selections which make changes to the categorical relevance up to the figural (tropic) solution. This opening does not, however, belong to the latent potentialities (virtualities) of linguistic system, subject only to grammatical restrictions; it is an opening which is ultimately related to the discursive conduct (ductus) which may lead to maintaining that the only determinable paradigms, beyond strictly grammatical classifications, are anchored in textual depth or in reference encyclopaedia (Klinkenberg 1996, p. 148).

  • 2 F. de Saussure, Writing in General Linguistics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 40.

7Today, the reframing of the linguistic tradition ushered in by the Course in General Linguistics is so radical, that only morphemes are ultimately attributed to the dimension of the linguistic system (Rastier 2011), with the rest being the prerogative of discursive production (parole). The paradigmatic organisation, however, claims its place, even after the problematisation of linguistic facts which falls under the Saussurean approach. In The Double Essence of Language, Saussure emphasised the role of parallelism2 (parallélie) that would be closely linked not only to the alternation of uses, but also to the analogue processing of linguistic units. Paradigms are no longer linguistic classes which subsume identities, but systemic management forms of the institution of local meaning, grouped under the same label. The parallelism is, thus, the history of transformations of a semiotic entity which can only exist through its several co-textual (and therefore, local) determinations. Saussure does not want to get rid of the notion of identity, nor does he believe that its radical reduction to a totally negative determination is illuminating (see last section of The Double Essence of Language for a positive version of linguistic identity):

8“An inadequate reflection on what constitutes identity or the properties of identities, when it is about a non-existent being, such as the word, the mythical person or a letter of the alphabet, which are only different forms of the sign, in the philosophical sense (Saussure 2003, CM 136, Nibelungen, inv. A V p. 41)”.

9The cultural identity, as argued by Saussure through the mythical person, has transcendence in relation to these manifestations; it is organised in a paradigm of versions, or in a family of transformations (to stay in a formula widely used by François Rastier, which is also close to Peirce’s notion of famisign).

10It is well-known that, the paradigm concept could elicit a psychological transformation of the linguistic fact, depending in that case on a sphere of free associations. On the other hand, the acknowledgment of a legitimate role of the paradigm solely in the autonomous (expressive and semantic) organisation of language has brought with it the risk of lack of relevance regarding text analysis. If you want to emancipate the paradigm concept from the rigidity of the code and, at same time, from the idiosyncratic instability of the Sprachgefühl (with its psychological associations), it must be recognised as the regulatory form of semiotic identity over its continuously changing instantiations, compared to previous ones.

11A paradigm is, thus, only an open inquiry on an identity declination that is continuously being regenerated and renegotiated.

12“The object which serves as a sign is never the same twice; from the first moment, it must be a test, an initial agreement, to know on behalf of what and within what limits we have the right to call it the same thing: therein lies the fundamental difference with any object. For example, the table in front of me is materially the same thing today and tomorrow, and the letter “b” that I write is as material as the table, but it is not the [same thing]” (Saussure 1894 p. 203).

13Such reflection has an even stronger and illuminating impact on non-verbal languages, given that they do not have a repertoire of pre-established units like natural languages. While it is true that the identity of semiotic entities also points to co-occurring words, the phenomena of paradigmatic resonance, with their specific contribution to signification, have not been sufficiently studied. In particular, paradigms may be defined as cross-cutting organisations that allow interconnections between competing perspectives of enunciation (Fontanille 2008). Indeed, today we can think of textual manifestation as the epiphenomenon compared to the previous programming of discursive parallel solutions (locally, one could always supersede the others). The paradigm does not only have a role in the systematic organisation of languages; it is also proving to be capable of orchestrating semantic effects textually.

  • 3 Several theorists of metaphor (Max Black, Ricœur, Groupe µ, etc.) have offered crucial remarks abou (...)

14Today the paradigm concept can work in an antiphrastic way: firstly, as a reformulation of what can be really attributed to the system of language in the continuous transformation of its forms; and secondly, as a review of the discursive significance that functions as a “sounding board” for competitive meaning effects3.

  • 4 Each form of linguistic organisation is an open system which participates in a polysemiotic cultura (...)

15In this concept (which seems a bit old), we can locate an unexpected key challenge for the sciences of language, which is: to clarify the relationship between languages and speech, linguistic system and discursive production, semiotic heritage and local enunciation. Rather than strictly observing the question of units delimited by paradigms, today we feel the need to study competitive paradigmatic management arrangements; indeed, they are shared between linguistic attractors who protect reservoirs of general forms, and discursive attractors who seek to impose a rather local textual organisation. Alongside the instance of enunciation which support selections and combinations, there would be interpenetration between realized discourse and linguistic development environments4 (systems, norms and reference corpora).

16Rather than follow the idea that the paradigm is akin to the concept of classification, linguistic and semiotic research began to envisage the idea of presenting it as a “space”, a place for analogical exchanges, interpenetrations between systems and discourse, schematisations capable of managing the heterogeneity of morphotactic and discursive genealogies. That is why the term “paradigm” may be exploited also as a praxemic, or even epistemic, framework, according to an acceptation used in the epistemological tradition (Kuhn).

17Certain questions seem to require the attention of the linguist and the semiotician:

  1. What are the historical conditions for identifying a paradigmatic classification?

  2. How can a language be distinguished from other competing semiotic organisations, based on its internal paradigms?

  3. How can a speech “weave” its own paradigmatic organisations?

  4. What are the tactical discursive forms of exploitation of the linguistic paradigmatic potentialities?

  5. Does paradigmatic organisation compete with syntax coordination as regard to discursive semantic effects?

  6. Can paradigms guarantee a prior mapping of speech, capable of qualifying enunciative choices?

  7. Can the paradigm participate in the structural and categorical architecture of language, or is it the first apprehension of a semiotic development environment, where the living activity of assimilation and dissimilation can be found, which ultimately unifies linguistic system and discourse?

18The paradigm concept has experienced competition from other linguistic and semiotic concepts; there is not only a significant interest in the “archaeological” analysis of distinctions, but also the necessity to proceed with other dissimilations. For example, according to the theory of M.A.K. Halliday (1978), we can acknowledge the leading role of paradigmatic organisation easily, but afterwards we could prefer to use the concepts of “system networks” and “meaning potential of language”.

19Finally, it may be emphasised that the term paradigm was used to describe the internal organisation of grammatical classifications, and, therefore, to also name the inflectional forms of verbs, beyond the use of multiple stems. This shows that its modelling scope was acknowledged not only as a taxemic homogeneity, compared to the heterogeneity of assembled lexemes, but also as a heterogeneity of forms in the declination of the same word. The productive reversibility of traditional operations of assimilation and dissimilation shows that, the paradigm remains a mereological principle, namely, an engine of integrations and scores. This could, perhaps, be constituted as the conceptual gateway that allowed the paradigm to assume an epistemological role as the “epistemic field of representations”. What we saw as a competition between classification and the paradigmatic space may ultimately find a balance in the dialectic between the intensive differentiation of categorical forms, and the extensive tension of their integration. The cultural form, which is part of each language, is ultimately a distinctive grain and flexible compatibility imposed on collective representations.

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1 The notion of linguistic system (langue) is used here as a form of organisation of any historically certified language which obviously refers to the Saussurean tradition. The identification, however, between linguistic system and the paradigmatic dimension is not an obvious theoretical consequence; on the contrary, for a long time we began to “require the explicit integration of syntactic structures in the definition of linguistic system (langue)” (Greimas & Courtés 1979, “Natural language”).

2 F. de Saussure, Writing in General Linguistics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 40.

3 Several theorists of metaphor (Max Black, Ricœur, Groupe µ, etc.) have offered crucial remarks about the relation between discursive manifestations and the reservoirs of linguistic competing features.

4 Each form of linguistic organisation is an open system which participates in a polysemiotic cultural environment (semiosphere), where uncertain possibilities of translation or intertextual connection may be defined as a factor of indeterminacy, exploited by creative practices and controlled by critical interpretations.

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Pierluigi Basso Fossali, Marion Colas-Blaise et Sylvianne Rémi-Giraud, « The Paradigm Concept in the Sciences of Language »Signata [En ligne], 8 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 février 2017, consulté le 25 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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