Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

Journal | Volume | Article



The Prague school, teleology and language as a dynamic system

Ľudmila Lacková

pp. 105-121


The present article deals with the concept of “purposefulness” in the goal-oriented linguistic model developed by the Prague Linguistic Circle and presented in the Thèses (1929). This approach is often classified as a teleological viewpoint on language. Teleology being incompatible with the present-day scientific framework (both in the humanities and the natural sciences), this part of the Prague linguistic heritage has only rarely been dealt with in depth and has been almost forgotten in recent years. Patrick Sériot speaks of “allusions likely to be negligently skipped over today because they no longer make sense to the contemporary reader” (Sériot, 2014, 20). Here, I present the notion of “purposefulness” in a different light, avoiding teleological thinking and reinterpreting “purposefulness” in a more plausible way for a contemporary reader. The choice of the term “purposefulness” itself might have originated due to a lack of suitable terminology and might be reconstructed in connection with contemporary dynamic approaches in linguistics.

1 | Introduction

0The Prague School of linguistics is often associated with the concept of teleology and with an understanding of language as having a certain purpose (Verleyn 2013; Kříž, 2014). “Purposefulness”, however, is a quite peculiar and obscure term and has been called into question by Czech scholars (Koř­enský, 2014; Osolsobě, 2003). As Jan Kořenský suggests, it is not even clear whether the reference to “purposefulness” in the first pages of the Prague School’s Theses (1929) is to be understood in the sense of teleology.

0I wish to argue here that the notion of purposefulness does not constitute a focal point of interest of the Prague School as a whole: this concept was primarily elaborated by Jakobson (1962a, 1962b, 1962c) and Trubetzkoy (1969), but used not by the school’s other members (such as Mathesius for instance). True, Jakobson claims in his essay “Efforts toward a means-ends model of language in interwar continental linguistics” (1963) that the “means-ends” oriented model represents a common feature that distinguishes the Prague School as a whole from other linguists. In another essay, “O předpokladech pražské lingvistické školy” [The fundamental assumptions of the Prague School of linguistics] (1934), Jakobson compares the ideas of the Prague School with the teleological theory of the Czech philosopher Karel Engliš.1 Next to the Czech philosophical context, another possible influence was Anton Marty, who defined intentional directedness as one of the main features of language: as Fréchette and Taieb remark, the first of the Theses seems strongly influenced by Marty’s conception of language (Fréchette & Taieb 2017, 12-13). Nonetheless, as will be argued below, the why in which the notion of directedness is formulated in the first Thesis seems to have nothing to do with the concept of teleology in the strict sense.

0The article will develop two core hypotheses: i) the tendencies of language towards a point of stability are not to be understood in terms of teleology, but in terms of a dynamic system theory; ii) even Jakobson’s theory of pur­posefulness in phonology is not strictly teleological, in the sense that it is anchored in a social approach to the linguistic system and that purposes or intentions (we use the terms interchangeably in this article) are associated rather with language users than with the language system.

2 | Whose intentions are language intentions?

0Let us begin with a quotation by Leen Verleyn:

“The Prague linguists do not say explicitly whether it is language as such, or much rather the speakers who tend towards a goal.”2 (Verleyn, 2016, 6, my translation)

0As is suggested by Verleyn, linguistic purposefulness can be understood in two different ways:

  • The intentions and purposes of speakers
  • The purpose (telos) of language itself

0The aim of this article is to determine which of these two ways of under­standing purposefulness is to be associated with the PragueSchool. I will begin with a short analysis of the definition of purposefulness given in the Theses – which at first sight seems clear and unambiguous. Indeed, at least with regard to the Theses, it can be stated that Verleyn’s affirmation is mis­leading, because the use of the term purposefulness there clearly indicates that purpose belongs to the speakers and not to language itself. It is true that in Prague phonology, especially in the works of Jakobson and Trubetzkoy, it is language itself that is supposed to have a purpose. A confusion between the two possible interpretations of purposefulness thus seems to arise only from the later interpretations of the Theses and from the later writings on teleology of Jakobson where, to my mind, two principles were brought together: the purposefulness or functional intentions of speakers and an understanding of language as a system. It cannot be said, however, that this pur­posefulness of language is a common theme in the Prague School as a whole, since in the Theses, the use of the term “purposefulness” is slightly different. Moreover, the fact that the term “teleology” or “purpose” does not occur in works by Mathesius and that purposefulness in the Theses is used in another way (to refer to the intention of speakers and to a functional approach to language) seem to imply that the teleology did not represent a common framework of the Prague School and that the “means-end oriented model” was nothing but a dream of Roman Jakobson.

0Purposefulness (not teleology) is the subject of the very first paragraph of the Theses (1a) The conception of language as a functional system:

0“Resulting from human activity, language partakes in its purpose­fulness. Whether one analyses language as expression or as commu­nication, it is the intention of the speaker which can explain it in a most evident and most natural manner. For this reason, linguistic analysis should respect the functionalist standpoint. Seen from this functionalist viewpoint, language is a system of purposeful means of expression.” (1929, 77)

0This passage clearly indicates that in the Theses – the text that should be taken to define the common traits of the Prague School as a whole – teleology is not even implicitly mentioned, because “the intention of the speaker” has nothing to do with teleological explanations. As pointed out by Kořenský (2014, 89), if the term teleology is to be understood in the sense of the Theses – where language is defined as an instrument that speakers use to communicate – it is indistinguishable from theconcept of functionalism. It becomes synonymic to it and if teleology is equivalent to functionalism, it would make no sense to talk about it as a distinctive trait of the Prague School, because it would merely be a redundant term for another distinctive trait, that is, functionalism. Kořenský hypothesises an alternative option, however, in order to understand teleology as the purposefulness of language itself in a jakobsonian way. In this case teleology would not equal function­alism, and thus it could be considered as another distinctive trait of the Prague School.

3 | Roman Jakobson and teleology

0In some of his works dedicated to the diachronic study of language, Jakobson used the term “teleology” and often used formulations that can be viewed as involving a mentalistic-teleological approach to language, e.g. “the cycle of sound changes aiming at” (1962a, 2), “linguistic changes have intention” (1962b, 18), etc. It remains unclear, however, whether he really wanted to say that language itself has a purpose. If one carefully reads the statements by Jakobson, one has to admit that these statements are at least ambiguous. He either spoke about the teleology of the linguistic system itself (see the examples above) or about the intentions of a speech community to lead language towards a desired state:

0« But, in reality, the role of the community of speaking subjects is much more active [...] Everywhere where a destructive process has taken place, it is necessarily followed by an active reaction. And just like chess, the loss of a piece often causes a whole series of dis­placements on the part of the threatened player, in order to restore the balance, so in a given language, one needs a whole series of phonetic innovations aimed at restabilizing the phonological system. It happens both to the community of speaking subjects and to the chess players to resort to processes which, while saving the situation on one point, may have disastrous consequences on other points of the system»3 (1962c, 5-6)

0A plausible explanation of this ambiguity would be to assume that formu­lations such as “language aimed” or “linguistic changes have intention” are simply metonymic. Since the metonymic association is obvious and intuitive (because it usually involves direct physical or causal associations), it can easily be misunderstood as not being an entity referring to another entity but as the referring entity itself. The proposal that I am presenting here is that this is a possible case of Jakobson referring to a speech community by means of the metonymic entity “language”. Jakobson’s type of metonymy would be a metonymy “object used for user” as e.g. in a sentence such as “The buses are on strike.” If we return to Verleyn’s quotation, however, one has to admit that it is not the “Prague linguists” but only Jakobson himself who “does not explain whether it is the language as such or rather the speakers who tend towards a goal.” At this point, two possible explanations offer themselves: (1) Jakobson either used metonymy and did not consider the ambiguity it could lead to; or (2) he did notintend to use metonymy but instead consciously used both formulations of purposefulness as the intentions of a speech com­munity intentions and as the purposefulness of language as such because he was aware of possible resistance by his colleagues to teleological explanations.

0I will argue in the following paragraphs for explanation (1), namely that Jakobson used metonymy and did not consider the ambiguity of it, in part because the social approach to language was so anchored in the Prague School (and structuralism in general) that it was quite natural to link language with the community of speakers.

0In Remarques sur l´évolution phonologique du russe (1929) and in The Concept of the Sound Law and the Teleological Criterion (1928), Jakobson argues for a diachronic linguistic study that differs from the previous tra­dition of neogrammarians who explained diachronic phonological changes by mechanistic sound laws, completely dissociated from the community of speakers. Jakobson continues with a complaint that Ferdinand de Saussure, despite announcing the need to study of language as a social institution, did not apply this approach to the diachronic study and simply continued in the Neogrammarian tradition (1962b, 17; 1962a, 2). With his call to apply the criterion of teleology in diachronic studies, Jakobson wanted to dissociate his new diachronic method from the previous mechanistic approach and replace it with a teleological approach that would explain changes in the linguistic system through the purposeful actions of language speakers, a so-called “goal-directed interpretation of sound changes” (1962a, 1). The following quotes clearly demonstrate that, for Jakobson, a teleological approach to sound change was very closely connected to its social character and in fact, the two features (teleological and social) were de facto indissociable.

0“The neo-grammarians did not succeed in explaining the social character of sound changes (why a speech community accepts and sanctions individual slips), but this problem too finds its solution once it is posed teleologically.” (1962a, 1)

0“And since not the motor but the acoustical aspect of speech sounds, aimed at by the speaker, has a social value, the teleological conception of sound problems increases the relevance of acoustical analysis in comparison with the physiology of speech.” (1962a, 2, my emphasis)

0One sees in the last quote in particular how the priority is given to an acoustical analysis of speech over a physiological one, and how the argu­mentation goes in the direction from the social value of acoustic aspects to a teleological conception of it. Not only are the social and teleological character of speech closely related, but it seems that Jakobson points out a certain causal relation between them. This causal relation is announced by the con­junction “since”, which points out that it is the social value of speech that dictates the standpoint that a linguist should adopt. Thus, the criterion of teleology only arises as a result of Jakobson’s social conception of language.

0The chess analogy quoted above helps us reach an even better under­standing of the purpose of language as connected to the speech community:

“The Saussurian analogy between language and chess can be taken to its end. There are linguistic changes which, like displacements in the game of chess, have ‘the intention to exert an action on the system’”.4 (1962c, 5-6)

0Jakobson extended the chess metaphor, which he considered not only from the point of view of the figures in the game, but also of the players who have intentions – these players being no other than the community of speakers. Thus, a sentence such as “linguistic changes […] have the intention to exert an action on the system” within the extended metaphor of chess seems to be a metonymical expression for “chessplayers’” intentions on the system.

4 | Synchrony and diachrony

0I have suggested that the notion of “language purpose” functions in Jakobson’s writings as a metonymy, since the language system can barely be differentiated from the speech community in structuralism in general and in the Prague School in particular (I refer here to the so-called functional approach of the Prague School). Considering the arguments taken from Jakobson, this metonymical explanation of purposefulness seems plausible. Nevertheless, one can go further and attempt to conceive the use of purpose­fulness as not metonymical but literal. This would assume following expla­nation (2), namely that Jakobson did not use metonymy but consciously used both formulations of purposefulness as speech community intentions on the one hand and immanent language teleology on the other because he was aware of the possible controversy caused by teleological explanations.

0But even if we assume that the use of teleology is not metonymical, there still remain doubts over the interpretation given by Jakobson to the teleology of language system itself. One of these doubts concerns the very meaning of the word “teleology”. Teleology is a term originally connected to the Aristo­telian final cause or to the medieval concept of God’s intention. In modern times it occurred mostly in biology and in Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species. According to Colin, teleology can thus be defined as follows:

0“Teleological notions were commonly associated with the pre-Darwinian view that the biological realm provides evidence of conscious design by a supernatural creator. Even after creationist viewpoints were rejected by most biologists there remained various grounds for concern about the role of teleology in biology, including whether such terms are:

  • vitalistic (positing some special "life-force");
  • requiring backwards causation (because future outcomes explain present traits);
  • incompatible with mechanistic explanation (because of 1 and 2);
  • mentalistic (attributing the action of mind where there is none);
  • empirically untestable (for all the above reasons)."

0But what about teleology in linguistics? One might argue that teleological explanations in linguistic thinking played a role especially in the 19th Century idea of language decline, which assumed that language degenerated. This implies that the future state of language was imagined and language was thought to be directed towards this end (backwards causation). In the period of structuralism, the concept of language aiming at an end was mostly abandoned because of the emphasis on synchronic studies. In the Prague School, however, the diachronic aspect of language is rediscovered and Jakobsonre-introduces the term teleology. But can this concept be understood in terms of the above quoted definition? Does the use of this concept by Jakobson satisfy the five terms quoted above?

0To understand what exactly Jakobson meant with the term teleology, it might be relevant to make use of his own structuralist method: in structuralist thinking, an element is characterized by its relations to other elements in a larger system, in our case, Jakobson’s texts. To understand the meaning of a given element, we need to understand what elements it is related to, what elements it is opposed to. In Jakobson, the core theory of teleology is part of the essay Remarques sur l´évolution phonologique du russe. In this work, focused on the phonologic evolution of Russian, teleology is mentioned as an essential criterion of a new way of doing diachronic language studies. Jakobson opposes his own theory of sound change to the neogrammarian concept of sound law. He emphasizes the active role of speakers in the development of a linguistic system, – in opposition to previous mechanistic explanations of language diachrony in the Neo-grammarian school. Jakobson rejects an understanding of language as guided by blind and mechanistic laws, in favour of the creative, non-predetermined actions of speakers. It is also important to realize that mechanistic and teleological (in the sense of pre-determined) views both deny the active role of speakers, because if language evolution was indeed pre-determined, speakers could not participate actively, it would be driven and masterminded by a predefined goal.5 Moreover, in the essay “O předpokladech pražské lingvistické školy”, Jakobson compared the ideas of the Prague School with the teleological philosophy of Czech philosopher Engliš whose teleological theory is much more focused on social aspects and on the intentions of subjects, an approach that is completely different from the idea of a telos designed by an external force. Teleology, as it is used by Jakobson, thus slightly differs from the standard understanding of this term and is much closer to Mathesius’ concept of language dynamicity (cf. infra).

0One of the defining traits of teleology is backwards causation, that is, the idea that future outcomes explain present states. Jakobson does not, however, seem to use backwards causation, since he understands purposes not as the goals of language changes, but as the motivation for these changes. In other words, the intention to reach a desired state can cause linguistic changes, yet there is no pre-determination: purposes are causes, not effects of linguistic change. A very important task (announced in the Theses) that the Prague School set itself was to bridge the gap between diachronic and synchronic linguistics. For the Prague linguists, this meant in principle that it is not only impossible to fully comprehend the present state of a language without considering its previous states, but also – and what is more important for our argument – that linguistic evolution is inexplicable without considering the synchronic state of language. Is considering the present state to explain past states backwards causation? Can this be defined as a teleological approach? There is a differ­ence between explaining the present through the future and explaining the past through the present, and if nothing else, at least empirical evidence creates this difference.

0I hope readers can forgive me one more parallel from biology. In his last book on the beginnings of life, the Czech biologist Anton Markoš puts forward a point of view on the evolution of the species and on planetary history that permits an explanation of past states through present evidence, and not, as normally occurs in present-day scientific explanations, an explanation of the present through traces of the past (Markoš 2016, 321-324). He argues that, from the point of view of a giraffe, it could not occur in a different way that amniotes evolved from deuterostomes and that ungulates evolved from amniotes and that giraffes evolved from ungulates. But it actually could happen in a different way, as it only happened in this way because of a set of coincidences and environmental changes and adaptation processes. Yet, knowing the present state and knowing the phases that preceded, one could argue that it could not have happened in a different way (because we know the result and what preceded), but we can say this only ex post. We state, in exactly the same manner, that something was a prefiguration of something else only ex post, for example, the interpretations of the Old Testament as a prophecy of the arrival of Jesus appeared only after the appearance of the New Testament. This is, states Markoš, not a causation, but an interpretation. I would even add that this is not backwards causation. Applying this point of view to Jakobson’s theory of phonologic evolution and his specific emphasis on considering the synchronic state of language when studying its past stages, Jakobson’s words can be seen as an invitation to explain past states of language through a comparison with its present state and interpreting these past states so that this interpretation would seem the most plausible in respect to the present state, as we can only see causal relations ex post. Jakobson is simply interpreting past states through an analogy with a present state. For example, since the synchronic observation of a given language highlights how speakers are purposefully trying to influence it (through aesthetic or normative forces), one can assume that things were similar in the past and thus consider the purposeful action of speakers as an important and effective factor in linguistic change. All this, of course, with due regard for empirical evidence. Thus, already two of the terms related to the above definition of teleology are dismissed: backwards causation and empirical untestability. As concerns the rest, there is no evidence of a vitalistic or mentalistic approach to language in Jakobson’s work. Only one of the five terms from the definition of teleology seems to be satisfied and it is incompatible with the mechanistic explanation.

0When we consider that Jakobson elaborated his theory of teleology within an essay on phonological diachronic studies, it becomes clear that his use of the term teleology is supposed to be an explanatory tool of diachronic linguistic changes. With this explanatory tool, he describes phonological changes in old states of Slavonic languages and does not appear to have the intention to treat language either in a mentalistic way, i.e. as having an awareness of its future states, nor as being directed to an end designed by external forces. The only forces that direct language changes are its users, thus Jakobson’s idea of teleology ends up as a part of a social approach to language. Whether we assume the purposefulness of language in Jakobson’s texts as metonymy or not, we have to admit that he never is dealing with teleology in a strict sense.

5 | Teleology VS dynamism

0As previously argued, the idea of teleology in language does not represent something common to the Prague School. The concept of language as a dynamic system, defined by Mathesius (1983 [1911]) in terms of static plasticity and potentiality of linguistic phenomena, is a more plausible candidate for that role, as it appears in studies on phonology, lexicon as well as in diachronic studies.6 The understanding of language as a dynamic system focuses on the internal movements of linguistic phenomena within language as a system. These movements are either consequences of external pertur­bations or are tendencies towards a point of internal stability. The question is whether tendencies to reach a point of stability can be viewed as an intentional purpose of language, that is, whether a teleological explanation is compatible with the linguistic dynamicity as proposed by Mathesius7.

0At first glance, the distinction between teleology and dynamicity is not intuitive and the two terms can be easily confused. However, Mathesius’s idea of dynamicity in some way contradicts the teleological conception: language is not directed towards a purpose but instead oscillates between local or temporary tendencies. This can be explained in terms of dynamic systems in physics, which avoid equilibrium in favour of many metastable states, with certain stable modes functioning as attractors. The Mathesian explication of oscillating linguistic phenomena is similar to what is called a metastable or unstable state in physics.8 The oscillation around a point of stability without ever reaching that point is even classified, among certain linguists, as a language universal. In the words of another linguist from the Prague School, Josef Vachek, “as the existence of development of language is clearly one of language universals, it logically follows that equally universal is also the incomplete balance of the language system” (1976, 24). The “incomplete balance of the language system” is probably a continuation of the Mathesian notion of “static plasticity”.

0Understanding language in terms of dynamic development has been a matter of linguistic interest in recent years. Applications of the notion of dynamicity to various language levels have been proposed and elaborated and terms such as dynamic syntax or dynamic semantics are in common use (Milward, 1994; Nefdt, 2016). Especially in the context of generative syntax theory, the notion of dynamicity has been elaborated to a great extent. This particular aspect of current research is not dissimilar to the understanding of language as a dynamic system by the Prague School. The language dynami­city as used in recent years refers to the processual view of grammar, discourse-oriented and functional grammar models. All these concepts were already proposed by the Prague School and one could argue that the Prague School program is finally being achieved.9

0The Mathesian notion of static plasticity is nevertheless one of the notions that has not been considered sufficiently and which is often neg­lected at the expense of other Prague School concepts. The notion of static plasticity may be very helpful, however, in inquiries concerning the origins of the teleological ideas of the Prague School.

0The terminology chosen by Mathesius was probably not altogether opportune. The term “static” is not used in reference to staticity, yet is used because of the importance given to the synchronic study of language. Mathe­sius, as pointed out by Vachek (1976, 23), did not distinguish between notions of “synchronism” and “staticity”. This is unfortunate because this confusion has led to a general misunderstanding of certain ideas of Prague structuralism. Although the Prague linguists focused on the synchronic study of language, this does not mean that they viewed language system as a static, frozen and faultless structure. “Static” was meant by Mathesius in opposition “diachronic”, which means that the state of a language at a certain point in time is studied, but not that the structure of language as such is static. The term “plasticity” reminds us of the dynamicity of the system. Mathesius mentioned this distinction in his essay “On the Potentiality of the Pheno­mena of Language” (Mathesius 1983): “instability at the given time [...] is opposed to dynamic changeability”. In this short quotation, two details are worthy of attention:

  • Opposing “instability” to “changeability” is a counter-sense of sorts and it is thus not these terms that create an opposition. Nor is “dynamic” opposed to “instability” (another counter-sense). It is the terms “at the given time” and “dynamic” that create an opposition. This clearly indicates that for Mathesius, “dynamic” was a synonym for “diachronic”, and similarly, “static” was a synonym for “synchro­nic”, as has been mentioned already above.
  • The use of the term “instability at the given time” clearly demon­strates that synchronic language phenomena are unstable, that is, non-static, contrary to certain interpretations of the synchronic approach of Prague structuralism and structuralism in general.

0So-called plasticity was studied by Mathesius primarily in the domain of lexicography and stylistics and by Vachek in the domain of phonology. Mathesius defined plasticity as oscillating tendencies, not “laws”, this being mainly because these oscillations are to some extent unpredictable and are not determined by mechanistic laws. Oscillating tendencies are caused by various forces that can be

  • Prescriptive forces imposed on language by the speakers’ community (fashion or aesthetic factors)
  • The internal tendency of energy economy (e.g. to avoid the use of marginal elements, at any language level: phonological, lexical etc.)
  • “Therapeutic” tendencies10 to reach a point of stability, to “heal” the unstable state of language

0All kinds of tendencies occur in language and they alter ad infinitum: once language reaches a point of stability (thanks to the therapeutic ten­dency), this stability can be disturbed by a certain external force and will probably afterwards arrive at another therapeutic tendency, etc. The notion of dynamicity as elaborated by Mathesius shares some properties with the idea of teleology as proposed by Jakobson, e.g. the active role of speakers in linguistic changes and the unpredictability related to the general refusal of mechanistic explanations in linguistics. Nevertheless the two concepts are not interchangeable, as Mathesius’s term is more focussed on the internal dyna­micity of the linguistic system without a specific goal, whereas Jakobson’s teleology is a notion stressing goal-oriented explanations. For the afore-mentioned reason, I suppose that defining teleology as a common feature of the Prague School is to some extent misleading.

6 | Conclusions

0The aim of this paper was to contribute to the discussion on doubts about teleology in the Prague School opened up by Osolsobě and Kořenský. Teleology is a concept that has been mistaken for the social and functional approach to language in Prague structuralism. It mainly occurs in works on diachronic phonology by Jakobson, yet after a broader analysis of the complex nature of Jakobson’s work on diachronic linguistic studies, it is apparent that Jakobson used the term “teleology” in an unusual sense. Jakobson emphasized the creative and active role of speakers, which is incompatible with teleology in a strict sense: teleology as reaching a “telos” leaves no space for active participation, but only for a blind execution of what has been predetermined/preselected. An understanding of teleology in the way that was proposed in this article, and which I believe was the way that Jakobson himself understood this term, is in no sense incompatible with a scientific approach. The conclusion of the above argumentation is that the choice of terminology by Jakobson was not completely appropriate and led to discussions on what can be defined rather as a problem of a terminological kind. To conclude, teleology of language does not represent a common theme of the Prague School as suggested by Jakobson. Nevertheless, the values with which this term is associated in Jakobson’s works can be viewed as being part of the common values of the Prague School, concretely the functional and social approach to language and the bridging of the gap between synchrony and diachrony. Furthermore, the Prague School theory on purposefulness and the concept of plastic staticity can be associated with contemporary dynamic linguistic models. In this manner, the Prague School finds continuation of ideas proposed decades ago.


0The production and publication of this paper was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Faculty of Arts of Palacky´ University Olomouc in from the Student´s Research Support Fund. The name of the project isModely mentální reprezentace slova v kontextu morfologie s přihlédnutím k jejich explanačnímu potenciálu, n. IGA_FF_2017_022.


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Publication details

Published in:

Aurora Simone (2018) Acta Structuralica 3.

Pages: 105-121

DOI: 10.19079/actas.2018.3.105

Full citation:

Lacková Ľudmila (2018) „The Prague school, teleology and language as a dynamic system“. Acta Structuralica 3, 105–121.