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diachronic and synchronic

Nothing like as nasty as they sound – the origin is from the Greek word for time (khronos) not the low Latin for disease (chronicus)!

Diachronic is a convenient way of referring to something that changes over time.

Synchronic refers to 'similar' instances existing at the same time.

For example, English spoken today in America is somewhat different from the English I use here in England, and both are different from the varieties of English spoken in India. These are synchronic forms of English. English spoken by Londoners in 2003 is subtley different from English spoken by Londoners in 1903, and more greatly different from the way Londoners spoke in 1803. In, say, 1403 the people of London spoke an even more distinct form of English. These are diachronic forms of English.

Clearly languages (and many other aspects of culture) 'evolve' both diachronically and synchronically; these terms are helpful in referring to predominant tendencies even if the two can rarely be totally separated.

The anthropologist Johannes Fabian suggested a different way of distinguishing events depending whether they are synchronous/ simultaneous (sharing physical time), contemporary (sharing abstract time), or coeval (which covers both). See making time article.

The concept of self, or more specifically the sense of unity of self, has both synchronic ('I seem to be a unified self at any given moment') and diachronic ('I seem to be the same self as I was a few minutes/hours/months/years ago') aspects.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003; 2004


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