Study Guide

Structuralism Buzzwords

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Duh—that's what this theory is named after. According to structuralist theorists there's some sort of structure underlying all cultural phenomena. Language has a deep structure, families have a deep structure, literature has a deep structure.


A French word referring to the deep structure (or grammar) underneath language. It's in charge of the infinite variety of sentences, utterances, and phrases that are, on the surface, different from one another.


No, it's not when a prisoner gets out of jail and promises to be good. This fancy French word refers to specific utterances or speech acts. Paroles may be different on the surface (the word parole is spelled differently and doesn't mean the same thing as langue), but they are all governed by the same "langue" (so both those words are nouns).


A marker (like a word) that refers to a specific concept. For instance the word "tree" is the signifier for the concept of a tree, which you are probably imagining right now.


The concept that the signifier refers to. The word or signifier "tree" refers to the "signified," which is that big thing in the forest with a trunk and green leaves (a tree).


A sign is made up of both a signifier and the signified. Both the word "tree," which you are reading right now, and the actual concept of a tree, which you are seeing in your head, make up the sign.


A discipline that takes the study of signs as its subject. That includes any kind of sign, not just linguistic—so body language, traffic lights, and icons would all be considered signs.

Binary opposition

A pair of words or concepts that are opposite in meaning. For instance: man/woman (however, ask the Feminists if that's a true binary). According to structuralist linguists, binary oppositions organize language because so much of the world is understood based on what it isn't.


An action that a character takes in a folk or fairy tale. According to the theorist Vladimir Propp, the number of functions in fairy tales is limited to 31. That means that after the whole "Once upon a time" bit, the characters will always follow one of those specific 31 functions that this structure-happy Russian picked out.


The texts, narratives or statements that make up a connected dialogue. A political speech made by a presidential candidate would be part of the "political discourse." A novel would form part of the "literary discourse."

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