The Theory of Language

Hans-Heinrich Lieb

Integrational Linguistics: The Theory of Language

© 2018 Hans-Heinrich Lieb

Part I

General characterization

(Note. Part II: The Theory of Linguistic Systems, is currently – 2018 – in progress; Part II is going to form a separate text. See below, Section 2.3.)

1.  Scope, state of development, format, underlying theories

1.1  Scope and state of development (2018)

The Integrational Theory of Language (ITL), intended to deal with languages in any mode of realization (spoken, written, signed), is to cover both the system aspects of languages (Integrational Theory of Linguistic Systems) and the communication aspects (Integrational Theory of Language Use). The variety structure of languages is fully taken into account (Integrational Theory of Linguistic Variability).

The largest amount of general work in IL has been devoted to the Integrational Theory of Linguistic Systems, with two milestones: Lieb (1983b), and the two-thousand page documentation of the work done in the Berlin Colloquium on Integrational Linguistics from 1992 to 2003 (Lieb ed. 2017). The second publication comprises twenty-two parts. The main text of each part is in German, but with detailed English introductions that contain summaries and demonstrate the relevance of the part to current research in linguistics.

The Integrational Theory of Linguistic Variability is well developed in Lieb (1970c) and Lieb (1993g).

The Integrational Theory of Language Use is the least developed. However, in the semantic part of the Integrational Theory of Linguistic Systems, semantic reference is treated as referring by a speaker, and sentence meanings are construed as relations between potential speakers and utterances that include both situational features and the features that are usually treated in speech act theory. On a different conception, what is now the semantic part of the Integrational Theory of Linguistic Systems might well have been assigned to the Integrational Theory of Language Use. Even so, the Integrational Theory of Language Use is basically incomplete, lacking, among other things, a part devoted specifically to inter-personal discourse.

In all three areas – systems, variability, and use – emphasis has been on spoken language; work on sign languages, though foreseen, has not yet been done. There has been significant work on written language by Peter Eisenberg and his students (Nana Fuhrhop in particular), inspired by IL and paying special attention to German. Andreas Nolda is currently working on written language from a more general, theoretical point of view.

1.2  Format

From the very beginning, an axiomatic formulation was aimed at for the theory of language and its parts; however, axiomatic versions of parts or fragments of ITL have been achieved so far only in certain areas. Axiomatic formulations allow for maximal clarity; they are compatible with the nature of an empirical theory as long as the formulation is inspired by, and applicable to, the data available in its domain.

Empirical theories must have a conceptual core, consisting of the assumptions and definitions – typically quite general – that are modified or given up last when a theory is confronted with conflicting data. For many years, work on ITL and its sub-theories has centred around conceptual cores; such cores cannot be obtained by simply generalizing over large amounts of data. As a theory meant to apply to arbitrary languages, ITL may be used in grammars of any language, offering a framework for linguists whose interest is more immediately descriptive while indicating how their results may be generalized.

1.3  Underlying theories: The Integrational Theory of Communication

ITL is connected, explicitly or implicitly, with a number of other theories, such as a theory of time to deal with the temporal aspects of languages. Linguistic communication is, of course, a key aspect to be accounted for. Depending on certain theoretical decisions, ITL either presupposes or is an extension of the Integrational Theory of Communication.

The Theory of Communication was first developed in Lieb (1968c) and, as a corrected and vastly extended version, in Lieb (1970c); also compare Lieb (1993g). The emphasis is on providing general concepts for dealing with linguistic variability within a general communication framework. Communication acts and their basis in communicators – human, animal, and possibly machine – provide the theoretical starting point, but most details for their treatment have not yet been formulated; for this reason, essential parts of the theory remain to be developed.

For any kind of communicating, linguistic or otherwise, means of communication are assumed as sets of form-meaning pairs, at a low level of abstraction from actual realizations; each means is determined by a system of the means. Two relations are assumed as basic in regard of a means of communication: an agent communicating regularly by a means of communication during a certain time and having full command of such a means during some time, where command implies having an internal basis for the system of the means.

Communication complexes are sets of means of communication. Such a complex may be determined by a system for the complex, a set of properties of a certain kind shared by the means of communication in the complex. Because the means and their systems are related to communicators and to space and time through the basic relations, this is also true of communication complexes and their systems, for which there are sets of communicators in space and time that can be used to relate the complexes and their systems to space and time, giving rise to stages and periods of a complex.

2.  Major sub-theories

2.1  The Theory of Linguistic Variability

This theory either presupposes or is an extension of the Integrational Theory of Communication: idiolects are ‘linguistic means of communication’, and languages and their varieties are ‘linguistic communication complexes’. An introduction to this conception may be found in Lieb (1983b: Part A). The temporal aspect – ‘languages in time’ – is worked out, at a fairly abstract level, in Lieb (1970c). A detailed development of the complete framework for variability is provided in Lieb (1993g). This framework, developed for arbitrary means of communication and communication complexes, applies as follows.

Idiolects are sets of form-meaning pairs, the forms being narrowly phonetic in the case of a spoken idiolect; the meanings are of a sentence-meaning type. Any idiolect is determined by a system of the idiolect. Languages (historical languages and their periods) are sets of idiolects, and a system for a language is a set of certain properties (‘component-specifying properties’) shared by the systems of the idiolects in the language.

Any language has a variety structure, a certain classification system (a set of classifications, which allow for overlapping classes) on the language, a system based on criteria of space, time, situation type, etc. The varieties of a language – including registers – are the classes in the variety structure; each variety is a subset of the language and is determined by a system for the variety. The idiolects in the language are homogeneous with respect to the variety structure in the sense that only in its entirety can an idiolect belong to a variety. Any idiolect will simultaneously belong to a number of different varieties. Each speaker of a language has a personal variety at his or her command, a set of idiolects that normally has more than one element.

For each stage of a language – understood as a temporal variety of the language – there will be a chain of systems, each system being more abstract than the preceding one, such that the first system in the chain determines the stage but the following systems determine ever larger temporal parts of the language. The same is true of varieties and their stages.

2.2  The Theory of Language Use

This is the sketchiest part of ITL; it has not yet been given an independent formulation.

Assuming communication by means of idiolects is defended in Lieb (1983b: Part A), also, in Lieb (1993g: Ch. 6): defended against a number of objections such as not accounting explicitly for the addressee in assuming communicating as one of the basic relations, or as failing to account for social aspects. 

Idiolects are sets of form-meaning pairs that are at a low level of abstraction from utterances but are still abstract. An important problem consists in relating such pairs to actual utterances, which must be concrete (entities in space and time), or at least have a concrete component. In Lieb (1983b), concepts of normal utterance have been used to relate ‘sentences’ – at various levels of abstraction and possibly of a non-standard form – to utterances, discussing such concepts mainly in relation to sentence meanings. (The concept of sentence meaning is ‘pragmatic’, and also accounts for speech acts.) More than one concept of normal utterance may be needed. Such concepts must be clarified in the Integrational Theory of Language Use. Within the larger framework of ITL, their clarification will be helped by the fact that the Integrational Theory of Linguistic Systems is utterance-oriented, especially in its semantic part.

Utterances should be involved in ‘texts’; this can be accounted for in the Integrational Theory of Language Use (compare Lieb 1982a, 2009).

2.3  The Theory of Linguistic Systems

This theory deals with the following major aspects of linguistic systems: the phonetic-phonological, the morpho-syntactic (including the morphological, syntactic, and word formation aspects), the lexical semantic, and the sentence-semantic (including the speech-act aspect).

From the very beginning, the Theory of Linguistic Systems was designed so as to be compatible with the Theory of Linguistic Variability. Therefore, the systems of idiolects were taken as basic. The Theory of Linguistic Systems and its various parts primarily deal with such systems, and derivatively with the systems for languages and their varieties.

The Theory of Linguistic Systems is by far the most developed part of the Integrational Theory of Language (compare “Integrational Linguistics: Development and topicality”, this Homepage), and will therefore be presented separately, as Part II of the present outline of the Theory of Language.


(Only work by Lieb is being listed. For relevant work done by others, see “Integrational Linguistics: Development and topicality”, this Homepage, and generally the Bibliography that is part of the Homepage. The following titles are quoted as they appear in the Bibliography.)

1968c. Communication complexes and their stages: A contribution to a theory of the language stage. The Hague; Paris: Mouton. (= Janua Linguarum, Series minor 71).

1970c. Sprachstadium und Sprachsystem: Umrisse einer Sprachtheorie. Stuttgart etc.: Kohlhammer.

1982a. "A text: what is it? A neglected question in text linguistics". In: János S. Petöfi (ed.), Text vs. sentence continued. Hamburg: Buske. 134–158. [Written in 1979]. 

1983b. Integrational Linguistics. Vol. I: General Outline. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: Benja mins. (= Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 17).

1993g. Linguistic variables: Towards a unified theory of linguistic variation. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: Benjamins. (= Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 108).

2009. "Bemerkungen zu Satz, Satzverbindung und Text". Appendix in: Svetlana Friedrich, Definitheit im Russischen. Frankfurt am Main etc.: Peter Lang. (= Potsdam Linguistic Investigations — Potsdamer Linguistische Untersuchungen — Recherches Linguistiques à Potsdam 4). 235–237. 

2017 (ed.). Linguistic research in progress: Proceedings of the Berlin Research Colloquium on Integrational Linguistics 1992 – 2003 (Parts I to XXII) / Berliner Forschungskol loquium Integr ative Sprachwissenschaft 1992-2003. Protokolle (Teil I bis  XXII). Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin. [Ca. 2000 pp.]