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Algirdas Julien Greimas


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*Structuralist, semiologist, whose work influenced figures as diverse as Roland Barthes and Fredric Jameson (an avid exponent of Greimas's semiotic squares). He was part of a great generation of (mainly) French scholars who, in the aftermath of World War II, thought it both possible and desirable to take a more scientific approach to the study of culture in all its forms.

Born in Lithuania, Greimas moved to France in 1936 to study law at the University of Grenoble. He went back to Lithuania in 1940 and, after enduring successive military occupations by the Germans then the Soviets, returned to France in 1944 to complete a doctorate on the vocabulary of clothing. In 1949 he took a job in Alexandria in Egypt, where he met and became friends with Barthes, who had similarly been posted there by the French Department of Cultural Affairs. Drawing on three principal sources—namely, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, the Danish linguist Louis Hjemslev, and Russian morphologist Vladimir Propp—Greimas pioneered a method of analysis he called structural semantics. This was the subject of his magnum opus Sémantique structurale (1966), translated as Structural Semantics (1983).

Greimas's aim was not to determine the meaning of specific words or texts, but rather to understand how meaning is produced. Effectively a generational model akin to Noam Chomsky's model of generational grammar, structural semantics is an extreme form of formalism. Also known as semiotic reduction, structural semantics treats the content of the text as a superficial expression (or enunciation-spectacle) of a deeper drama played out between two interrelated structures he called actants and functions. In this way, virtually all forms of textual production from the writing of scientific treatises through to folktales and cookbooks (to list only some of the types of text Greimas analysed) can be treated as narratives. Moreover, it holds that the content is independent of the narrative, or what amounts to the same thing it shows that a particular narrative function or actant can be fulfilled by a near infinite variety of content.

Further Reading:

F. Dosse History of Structuralism (1997).F. Jameson The Prison-House of Language (1972).R. Schleifer A.J. Greimas: Linguistics, Semiotics and Discourse Theory (1987). An overview of a number of semioticians including Algirdas Greimas.

Subjects: Linguistics

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