Searle’s Fundamental Principles of Language
Searle’s principles of the crucial relation between syntax and semantics include discreteness, compositionality, and generativity (Searle, p. 176). These three principles are all essential to maintaining the underlying structure of language in terms of the relation between syntax and semantics. Without any one of them, language as we know it would fracture, and consequently, all three of Searle’s principles for language are equally fundamental in maintaining the organization of linguistic structure and meaning.
According to Searle, discreteness “is that feature by which syntactical elements retain their identity under the various syntactical operations,” (Searle, p. 176). Essentially, discreteness works to maintain a root word’s meaning when it is shifted due to the addition of morphemes or the reconstruction of a sentence, for example. If discreteness did not exist as a feature of language, then the addition of morphemes to a root word would fundamentally change its identity; when dog becomes dogs, for example, the two words would no longer share an identity and would instead serve as representations for entirely different referents. In addition, the reconstruction of a sentence, perhaps through the rearranging of clauses, would alter the meaning of the overall sentence, whereas in language as we know it, the meaning of a sentence remains the same when clauses are rearranged. Ergo, without discreteness as a feature of language, meanings would not remain constant across morpheme and clause shifts as they do now, altering language at a fundamental structural level.
The second principle, if removed, would similarly alter language at a fundamental structural level. Compositionality, defined by Searle as “both a syntactic and semantic property,” relates to the formation of sentences to convey meaning, along with how that meaning may shift depending on the arrangement of what makes up the sentence (Searle, p. 176). From a syntactic standpoint, compositionality operates according to the formation rules of the given language, in that a sentence acts as a composite, made up of smaller elements such as words and morphemes. The meanings of such composites are determined by the syntactical structure, depending on the order of the elements as well as the sentence as a whole. As such, the meaning of a sentence changes if its elements are shifted around; the sentence “Sally slapped Penny,” for example, conveys a different meaning than the sentence “Penny slapped Sally,” regardless of consisting of the same elements, because the key to semantics is the arrangement of those elements, not just the presence of the elements themselves. Consequently, without the principle of compositionality, the formation of sentences would be fundamentally altered. In addition, sentences containing the same elements, regardless of word order, would have the same meaning, disrupting overall semantics. Therefore, without compositionality, language as we know it would become unrecognizable.
Searle’s third principle is what he calls generativity, which would, similarly to the principles of discrete and compositionality, alter language on a fundamental, structural level if removed. Generativity, as defined by Searle, points to the nature of language allowing the creation of an infinite number of novel sentences (Searle, p. 176). Generativity allows the speakers of a language to continually form previously unknown sentences based on the underlying linguistic rules of their language(s). Essentially, generativity is what allows language such fluidity and creativity, as it allows for no upper limit to the number of sentences it is possible to form. Without generativity, we would have no capacity for the creation of original sentences, which would eradicate original stories and all culture rooted in story, greatly simplifying the lives of humanity. Conversation, also, is rooted in story, so conversation would not exist as it does without generativity. Consequently, language would be forever stagnant without generativity, rather than forever evolving, altering language as we know it on a fundamental level.
Searle’s three principles of language; discreteness, compositionality, and generativity; all work together to maintain the relation between syntax and semantics; each principle is crucial in its own right to maintaining language on a fundamental, structural level. As evidenced by the examples mentioned throughout this essay of the consequences of removing any of the three principles, even if just one of these principles were missing, language would fracture into something else entirely, becoming much simpler as well as stagnant, ultimately failing to serve its users as needed and disrupting all interactions of humanity. As such, discreteness, compositionality, and generativity are all equally essential principles in maintaining the fundamental, underlying structure of language, specifically regarding the relation between syntax and semantics.
Searle, John R. What is Language? Some Preliminary Remarks* Etica & Politica / Ethics & Politics, XI, 2009, 1, pp. 173-202.