Claude Lévi-Strauss, social constructivism and syllables across languages



In The Elementary Structures of Kinship,Claude Lévi-Strauss offers a theory about variations in the syllables of different languages. Strictly speaking, it is not about the syllables, but the sounds. However, I shall present it as about the syllables to begin with. This theory clashes profoundly with what I shall refer to as the constructivist theory. I do not know anyone who offers the constructivist theory, but the theory is an extension of a familiar way of thinking in other domains.


The constructivist theory

There are syllables in some languages which are absent in others. A simple form of constructivist theory involves these two claims:

(1) The ability to pronounce a syllable which is not part of all natural languages is acquired. Human beings who have the ability once did not have it and then acquired it.

(2) If the ability to pronounce a syllable is innate, then that syllable will be part of all natural languages.

Note that (1) and (2) do not exclude the possibility that there are syllables which are part of all languages but the ability to pronounce them is acquired. Note also that we need a further claim to get a typically constructivist theory: that there are no innate syllable pronunciation abilities.


It is possible to refine (1) and (2). For example, (2) can be refined so that it reads as: if the ability to pronounce a syllable is innate, then that syllable will probably be part of all natural languages. I will not be concerned here with refinements to the theory in its simple form.


Lévi-Strauss’s theory

Lévi-Strauss’s theory – when presented as one about syllables – holds that the child, in the early months of its life, has the capacity to produce all the syllables used in all languages. Each language makes a selection. As a consequence, later in life, people generally do not have the ability to produce all the syllables across all languages. Lévi-Strauss therefore denies (1). The ability to pronounce a syllable which is not part of all languages is not acquired. It is just that the ability to pronounce certain other syllables has been lost. He also denies (2). The ability to pronounce all syllables is innate, but each natural language involves only a subset of these syllables. If one finds that all native speakers of a given language have the ability to pronounce a certain syllable, but native speakers of certain other languages do not, Lévi-Strauss would not describe the ability as a social construction – a product of the socialisation process in a given context. He would describe it as a social selection.


I have presented Lévi-Strauss’s theory as about syllables but the translation edited by Rodney Needham presents it as about sounds:

During the prattling period, before the introduction to articulated language, the child produces the total range of sound realizable in human language while his own particular language will retain only some of them. In the first few months of its life every child has been able to emit sounds which he will later find very difficult to reproduce, and which he will fail to imitate satisfactorily when he learns languages very different from his own. (1969: 93-93)

The disadvantage of using the term ‘sound’ is that native speakers of a language do not necessarily make the same sounds when they say the same thing, a fact which the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss takes into account. A person with a high pitch voice and a person with a low pitch voice do not make exactly the same sounds when they say, ‘Hello.’ But perhaps ‘syllable’ too is not the ideal word with which to formulate his theory. The units he has in mind might be smaller than syllables.


Lévi-Strauss theorises various other features of ourselves as social selections, not constructions. He often conceives of culture as selecting from an original abundance, not adding to an original bareness.



Lévi-Strauss, C. (translated by J. H. Belle, J. R. von Sturmer and R. Needham, editor). 1969 (revised edition). The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Beacon Press: Boston.