Individual Acts of Language Creativity and Grammar

I think Voloshinov expressed the pathos of the philosophy of language in one phrase:

“We addressed ourselves to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of the word. But what is language, and what is word? We do not, of course, have in mind anything like a conclusive definition of these concepts.” (Voloshinov, 1973, 45)

He, of course, does not end here, but proceeds with outlining the four basic principles of language:

1 . Language is activity, an unceasing process of creation (energeia) realized in individual speech acts;
2. The laws of language creativity are the laws of individual psychology;
3. Creativity of language is meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art;
4. Language as a ready-made product (ergon), as astable system (lexicon, grammar, phonetics), is, so to speak, the inert crust, the hardened lava of language creativity, of which linguistics makes an abstract construct in the interests of the practical teaching of language as a ready-made instrument.” (48, cursive is the author’s here and further unless otherwise noted.)

I find the idea of Vossler, in regard to grammar, particularly appealing. In Voloshinov’s formulation, it sounds as follows:

Everything that becomes a fact of grammar had once been a fact of style.” (51)

That speaks to the notion of grammar with which Becker is occupied, in a somewhat opposing manner. If for Becker (1995) grammar precedes the utterance (which it does in any given respect), Vossler brings us to the realization that grammar categories are malleable, and the forms of expressions particularly economical, practical, and efficient, emerge and become day-to-day choices of speakers’ self-expression over other grammatical constructions. Thus the “individual creative acts of speech” all play out in the societal language production, influencing the norms and changing grammatical structures which are considered to be normative, over time.


Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Harvard University Press, 1973.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

Language as a System of Clichés

Becker provides us with a powerful description of language acquisition: “One learns these texts in action, by repetitions and corrections, starting with the simplest utterances of a baby. One learns to reshape these texts to new context, by imitation and by trial and error. One learns to interact with more and more people, in a greater and greater variety of environments.” (Becker, 1995, 144).

Grammar, therefore, is a set of rules not imposed on the speaker by books, but acquired as the structures of spoken, heard, and talked language.

The language is an intricately, infinitely complex system of clichés. To be understood, one has to rely on what has been already said billion times. There is a certain space for novelty but it is a regulated space.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995