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A Theory Of Language


To what degree are human beings governed by the language they use? Is our freedom of choice restricted or in any way regulated by the language we speak and write? It is to these questions this little essay is addressed. As an inevitable consequence, other questions arise from any answers found but this is merely an integral facet of the learning process and one for which I would not exchange any oracle who could tell me what I wished to know for, it must be appreciated, a mind released from the necessity of application to the cutting edge of the learning process is a mind dulled and blunted through insufficient use.

   I shall therefore turn first to the ‘Theory Of Language’ by Saussure. The account of this tract given by Jonathan Culler is fairly explicit and may literally appear to require little further additional explanation; however, one should perhaps focus upon some of the implications of the points raised which Culler expounds for our thoughts and our ability to argue over a broad spectrum of philosophical disciplines. I suggest we may discover that his apparently simple remarks are apt to cause considerable consternation in the face of our habitual modes of thought, influenced in accordance by that modern western ethos of common sense. For a start, why should we study Culler on Saussure when we might go directly to the source and read Saussure himself? The answer to that is eminently practical: because no book upon ‘the theory of language’ was actually written by Saussure; it was compiled after his death by his students from their own lecture notes. In addition to this, there has been considerable dissent and disagreement as to the precise meaning of certain passages at crucial points in the book. So, from out of ‘Saussures’ book’ there are a number of interesting ideas that possess validity in themselves regardless of the authenticity of their authorship.

   When Culler gives us an account of a linguistic sign he purposefully simplifies the description in order to restrict his discussion to a particular ideal form of arbitrary linguistic sign. However, this has a distinct disadvantage in that it avoids key factors in Saussures’ work: linguistic signs are only of one class in the repertoire of signifying systems of a culture, since gestures, clothing and non-verbal behaviour (in fact, all that can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and felt) also qualify as signifying systems. Also, there are various degrees of arbitrariness that are bereft of sign systems as well as different kinds of signs - not only onomatopoeia but proper names. For example, does ‘Nathan Coles’ signify in the same way as ‘cat’? The relation between a diagram of a particular house itself seems less arbitrary than that between the word (that is, the signifier) ‘house’ and the idea of a house. A road-sign that indicates ‘left’ or ‘right’ seems less arbitrary than do the words ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right’ even though we have to learn to follow arrows that indicate a particular direction.

   A sign in this sense is a signifier (word) and that which is signified is the idea, concept or meaning. This statement, although a little oversimplified, presents the basic concept to which I shall add a few explanations. The meaning of the word ‘sign’ does not usually include the meaning of the sign under discussion. Culler and Saussure include both word and meaning when the term ’sign’ is used. To know this is to avoid conceptual confusion later on. Many words possess not only various often unrelated meanings but different connotations that may even depend upon the context at the time just as the meanings of certain words overlap and form clusters in a similar manner. There are also those words with identical sounds but different meanings: to, too, two; turn right, I am right so I will write about a human right to perform a rite! We can now appreciate that the initial sentence with which this section began was schematic, simplified and abstract in an obviously idealised form. Suffice to say that the signifier is a spoken or written word.

   ‘Signified’ presents more of a problem of course. Engaged in a discourse on aardvarks and asparagus I refer to a category (an idea or concept) that is present in my mind as I pursue the debate, rather than have an actual aardvark eating a spear of asparagus in my drawing room. It becomes even more apparent that it is ideas or a concept to which I refer if I talk of ‘decency’ or ‘democracy’. That which is signified is not a tangible object but a concept or idea. By this we can also say that language is not nomenclature - a system by which to denote and attribute names - but can we say what it is? There are various senses in which the sign can be regarded as arbitrary, that is to say, not given by nature, not caused or promulgated by any universal, intrinsic laws or reasons. We are not genetically programmed to experience any specific combination of sounds as being imbued with meaning; no special sounds exist that possess a divine property of meaning although a brief digression here must be excused simply because it is provocative.

   The most common sound emitted by anxious parents or partners of loved relations or friends under duress through the threat of a perceived danger is a sibilant hiss ‘ssh’ which means ‘hush’ (itself almost an onomatopoeia), ‘quiet’ or ‘whisht’ (a Scottish form, again of an onomatopoeiac nature) in all manner of heterogeneous cultures and societies throughout the world. I suggest this is a genetic legacy from the days when the far distant ancestors of humanity still had cause to fear such reptiles as poisonous lizards and venomous snakes. However, this represents an exception rather than a rule and in any case we deal here with a structureless utterance, not a contrived word even though I admit that in simplistic languages we may experience a difficulty in the demarcation of a dividing line between what constitutes the abstract verbal labels of words and their pre-civilised onomatoeiac ancestors. Of course the words ‘aardvark’ and ‘asparagus’ will possess no intrinsic meaning to a Japanese whose own words for this animal and this vegetable would be devoid of meaning to us (probably more so since it is generally true that he who speaks 3 languages is called ‘trilingual’, he who speaks 2 languages is called ‘bilingual’ while he who speaks just 1 language is called ‘English’).

   The fact that different human societies speak different languages is sufficient proof that the link between signifiers and what is signified is arbitrary. During our normal speech, to attribute certain sound combinations (which we call words) to links which are ‘obvious’ appears to be natural yet this process is as much an accident - an arbitrary one at that - of culture in Scotland as it is in Japan. Words themselves do not possess any intrinsic meaning; repeat a word - any word - many times in succession to yourself and see how much meaning remains after you have uttered this word for the thirtieth time. The signifier itself is arbitrary. We have seen that no sound combination is inherently imbued with meaning but a signifier can be said to be arbitrary in a more important, more abstract sense: ‘dog’ in English has only two meanings, our canine friends who may repeatedly ‘dog’ us for food. No words of similar sound will suffice: wog, fog and log will not conjure up the same animal in our minds.

   Our perception of meaning is comprised of significant chains of sounds; there is no original combination of meaningful sounds to which all other combinations are related by virtue of similarities or differences. Signifiers are simply relational or differential entities while, according to Saussure, there is no transcendental signifier: ‘dog’ possesses its specific meanings in English purely because it is unlike any other sound combination so that it is related to every other English word due to its position within the juxtaposed chains of difference. To summarise, there are no solid or fixed words anywhere in our vocabulary - the words possess their qualities of fragility and verisimilitude are by nature transitory because they are culturally determined, that is, arbitrary entities.

  That which is signified is also arbitrary, but this is an issue fraught with perplexity since it is impossible to reach a state of universal agreement on the degree to which various signified subjects are by nature arbitrary. Culler expresses the notion that all signified entities are of an equally arbitrary nature while it is clear that Saussure never intended to imply that all signifieds are equally arbitrary. A strict empiricist would state that we categorise the world and articulate reality simply because the world and our reality present themselves to us in the pre-ordained categories that we are wont to use so that therefore we as human beings are not responsible for the existence of these categories at all. However, different languages articulate the colour spectrum in various modes so that there is no universally accepted concept of green-ness for example. We experience green only because an arbitrarily demarcated segment of the spectrum is, according to our senses, different from other equally arbitrarily demarcated segments. Our language thus articulates the continuous spectrum into arbitrary signified segments.

   The interesting conclusion to be drawn from all this is plainly that our language (and hence any of our thoughts beyond mere sense experience) can never refer directly to the external reality we perceive. Our language is thus little more than a marsh of shifting sound combinations with transitory chains of difference that clumsily address arbitrarily demarcated mental signified entities. According to Culler each language articulates or organises the world differently. Languages do not simply name existing categories, they articulate their own. In this way it has been proved that language is not a nomenclature. In order to appreciate this concept we are required to utilise our ideas in a spatial manner so that we regard all possible ideas in our minds as being akin to a vast undifferentiated blank three dimensional space; our language then articulates that blank space into ideas and concepts. This of course suggests that we cannot possess or conceive of any ideas until language has inserted them into our consciousness and since language is produced by culture, it is our culture, in this sense, that does our thinking.

   Does anyone find this rather absurd? Surely our sense experience can distinguish between black and white, dark and light, in the manner of intrinsic notions that exist without the aid of language? Otherwise we state that pre-civilised people, that is, people without language, were unable to make such distinctions - which of course is ridiculous. Dogs know when the sun has risen, after all. But although we know now that the words we use (black, white, dog and so on) are totally arbitrary, that which is signified must be directly related to our sense experience. That which is signified cannot, then, be totally arbitrary, therefore there must be degrees of arbitrariness. To quote the American philosopher Richard Rorty: ‘The world does not speak, only we do; the world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs but it cannot propose a language for us to speak - only human beings can do that. The realisation that the world does not tell us what language games to play should not, however, lead us to say that a decision which to play is arbitrary nor to say that it is the expression of something deep within us.”

   While the individual sign is arbitrary, there is a sense in which the signifying system as a whole is not. The language we use can therefore be said to be inherently related to the belief systems and reality maps we each possess, different from each-other though they must inevitably be. Our cultural values are equally related to past and existent relations of power within our society. Expressions such as ‘fight like a man’, ‘scared as a chicken’ and so forth, could make sense in no other context. It remains an intriguing - perhaps even necessary - task for us to analyse how the social fabric of the world and its relationships results in a particular use of language for, if we are not content with or even opposed to certain particular relationships, what can we do about them?


Andy Martin © 2003.




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