Synergetic linguistics

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The basic idea behind synergetic linguistics (cf. Köhler 1986, 2005) is the aim to integrate the separated laws and hypotheses which have been found so far into a complex model which not only describes the linguistic phenomena but also provides a means to explain them. This is achieved by introducing the central axiom that language is a self-regulating and self-organizing system. An explanation of existence, properties, and changes of linguistic, more generally semiotic systems is not possible without the aspect of the (dynamic) interdependence of structure and function. Genesis and evolution of these systems must be attributed to repercussions of communication upon structure (cf. Bunge 1998 as opposed to Köhler/Martináková 1998).


This axiom (i.e. the view of language as a system that develops in reaction to the properties and requirements of its environment by adaptation mechanisms in analogy to biological evolution) makes possible to set up a model on the basis of synergetics. The synergetic approach (cf. Haken/Graham 1971; Haken 1978) is a specific branch of systems theory (von Bertalanffy 1968) and can be characterized as an interdisciplinary approach to the modeling of certain dynamic aspects of systems, which occur in different disciplines for different objects of investigation in an analogous way. Its particularity which separates it from other systems theoretical approaches is that it focuses on the ‘spontaneous’ rise and the development of structures. Synergetic modeling in linguistics starts from axiomatically assumed requirements, which a semiotic system must meet such as the coding requirement (semiotic systems have to provide means to create meaningful expressions), the requirement of coding and decoding efficiency, of memory saving, of transmission security, minimization of effort and many others. These requirements can be subdivided into three kinds (cf. Köhler 1990, 181f): (1) language-constitutive requirements, (2) language-forming requirements, and (3) control-level require-ments (the adaptation requirement, i.e. the need for a language to adapt itself to varying circumstances, and the opposite stability requirement). The second step is the determination of system levels, units, and variables which are of interest to the current investigation. In step three, relevant consequences, effects, and interrelations are determined. Here, the researcher sets up or systematizes hypotheses about dependences of variables on others, e.g. with increasing polytextuality of a lexical item its polysemy increases monotonically, or, the higher the position of a syntactic construction (i.e. the more to the right hand side of its mother constituent) the less its information, etc. The forth step consists of the search for functional equivalents and multi-functionalities. Step five is the mathematical formulation of the hypotheses set up so far – a precondition for any rigorous test - and step 6 is the empirical test of these mathematically formulated hypotheses. In this way, for each subsystem of language (i.e. the lexical, morphological, syntactical etc. subsystems), models of arbitrary complexity are formed. The elements, the system variables, represent linguistic units or their properties, while the specific links between these elements are universal hypotheses, which obtain the status of laws if they have been intensively tested and corroborated.

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  • Bertalanffy, Ludwig van. 1968. General System Theory. Foundations, Development, Applications. New York: George Braziller.
  • Bunge, Mario. 1998. Semiotic Systems. In: Altmann & Koch (ed.). Systems. A New Paradigm for the Human Sciences. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter,337-349.
  • Haken, Hermann. 1978. Synergetics. Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer.
  • Haken, Hermann & Graham, R.. 1971. Synergetik. Die Lehre vom Zusammenwirken. Umschau 6, 191.
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  • Köhler, Reinhard. 1990. Elemente der synergetischen Linguistik. Glottometrika 12: 179-188.
  • Köhler, Reinhard. 1995. Bibliography of quantitative linguistics = Bibliographie zur quantitativen Linguistik = Bibliografija po kvantitativnoj lingvistike. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
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