In addition to having its own internal structure, the sign can be structured in two other ways. Signs can be joined up in a string, and they can be grouped in a bundle. This is often called the ‘chain and choice ‘ model, and we shall see examples of how a translation problem that cannot be solved at one point in the chain may be solved by an appropriate choice at some other point. In the first case (making the chain) we produce word sequences: in the restaurant we can string words together to say ‘I’d like sausage and chips, please’. The order in which we put the words is not normally random. It is governed by ‘syntax’, the rules of our language which tell us what kind of word can come in what place in a sentence. In another language we might have to say ‘like chip sausage would’. This is syntagmatic structure. Traditional linguistics handled syntax as a set of slots along the surface of the page or in the stream of spoken language; it tried to identify the function of each slot and what could go in it. Chomsky’s revolution was to go below the surface and ask how the string was generated and from what.
The second case (making the choice), we can pick words out of a ‘bag’ in place of other words. We could replace sausage in the above sentence by any number of words, such as egg,pie or steak. This is paradigmatic structure. But again the structure is not random. As we shall see below, words tend to group together to form semantic fields. Most people would associate knives with forks rather than with cats and dogs or any other no cutlery items.
These groups may seem naturally ordered according to what is out there in the real world. But very often they, like the sign, are socially determined. Sticking with our food example, we find that the society we live in quite arbitrarily restricts what we are allowed to eat and in what combinations.