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In linguistics, syntax (from Ancient Greek σύνταξις "arrangement" from σύν syn, "together", and τάξις táxis, "an ordering") is the study of the principles and rules for constructing sentences in natural languages.

In addition to referring to the discipline, the term syntax is also used to refer directly to the rules and principles that govern the sentence structure of any individual language, as in "the syntax of Modern Irish."

Modern research in syntax attempts to describe languages in terms of such rules. Many professionals in this discipline attempt to find general rules that apply to all natural languages. The term syntax is also sometimes used to refer to the rules governing the behavior of mathematical systems, such as logic, artificial formal languages, and computer programming languages.


Early history

Works on grammar were written long before modern syntax came about; the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini is often cited as an example of a premodern work that approaches the sophistication of a modern syntactic theory.[1] In the West, the school of thought that came to be known as "traditional grammar" began with the work of Dionysius Thrax.

For centuries, work in syntax was dominated by a framework known as grammaire générale, first expounded in 1660 by Antoine Arnauld in a book of the same title. This system took as its basic premise the assumption that language is a direct reflection of thought processes and therefore there is a single, most natural way to express a thought. That way, coincidentally, was exactly the way it was expressed in French.

However, in the 19th century, with the development of historical-comparative linguistics, linguists began to realize the sheer diversity of human language, and to question fundamental assumptions about the relationship between language and logic. It became apparent that there was no such thing as the most natural way to express a thought, and therefore logic could no longer be relied upon as a basis for studying the structure of language.

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