The myth of the synchronic-diachronic dichotomy

The overarching dialectic treated in this work is framed in terms of the familiar ‘synchronic-diachronic’ opposition indicative of 20th century linguistic dualism. Taken as a strict dichotomy, synchrony and diachrony are, ipso facto, irreconcilable. If we distance ourselves from the old essentialist presuppositions and approach the actual unfolding of language use and linguistic cognition in time and space with more probing, phenomenological attitudes, the distinction itself becomes liable to an ontological-conceptual shift. Instead of generating artificial binary choices (e.g., between past vs. present, history vs. typology, reconstruction vs. description), synchrony and diachrony emerge as profoundly involved in each other’s affairs in limitless combinations of underlying complementary tensions – tensions that might be more aptly re-framed in interdependent biological terms (see dialogue between Croft 2010 and Mufwane 2010 for precedence and potential problems). In place of the ‘synchronic-diachronic’ dyad, a biology-oriented triad suggests itself, including ‘ecological’, ‘phylogenetic’ and ‘ontogenetic’ contingencies: linguistic ecology including both synchronic context and diachronic contact; linguistic phylogeny including both diachronic lineage and synchronic inheritance; and linguistic ontogeny mediating between the two in the form of specific, polylectal speech varieties growing through space and time. … Attempting to choose between the two seems, at best, more and more shortsighted.

Jamin Pelkey (2011), Dialectology As Dialectic: Interpreting Phula Variation, viii.

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3 thoughts on “The myth of the synchronic-diachronic dichotomy

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  1. Help out the not-fully-initiated a little here, Mike. If this means that describing one moment is impossible, so that synchrony fades into diachronic on a continuum, I’m fine with that. But they still seem like incredibly useful concepts. I do in fact use them almost literally every day. What am I missing? I need a little more translation.

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