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The Sign-Character of Language

Instructor: Ding, Ersu

I. Course Description

"Language is made up of signs" seems to be a universal statement that all linguists, past and present, readily accept in their discussions about language. Yet, not all discussions about language can be described as "semiotic" in the sense that they put at the center of their studies the significative entity called "the linguistic sign". Looking back at the history of linguistics, the first systematic attempt to incorporate the study of language into a semiotic purview can be attributed to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who explicitly announces in his Course that 'linguistics is only one part' of the general science which he calls semiology. Ironically, it is also Saussure, or rather, his structualist perspective that is responsible for excluding the nucleus of the linguistic sign - its meaning - from his own as well as from much of subsequent semiotic investigations. Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress thus write:

"Synchronic linguistics deals with signs which have a value, that is, a place in a system or structure, syntagmatic or paradigmatic, and a signification, that is, a relation of reference, existing outside language. For reasons that are consistent with the rest of the scheme, he [Saussure] opted for consderations of value (relations in a system) rather than signification." (Social Semiotics, Cornell University Press, 1988, pp. 16-17)
In recent decades, the Saussurean linguistics has come under increasing attack from various sectors of the humanities and social sciences for neglecting consideration of concepts or meanings of language, and also joining issue are many semioticians who now look to the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce as a new source of intellectual inspiration. According to Peirce, the meaning of a linguistic sign comes primarily from language users' conceptualization, or repeated conceptualizations, of their extra-linguistic life experience which is then integrated into a formal structure for the sake of easy and efficient communication among members of a particular socio-linguistic community. Such a view proposes to place, not "phoneme" which is the smallest unit in an abstract system, but "word" which is the smallest entity is a concrete discourse at the center of our linguistic investigations. The latter not only possesses structural features that constrain its combinations with other elements within the same linguistic system, but also provides a vital conncetion between language and the world through its unique mechanism of denotation and connotation. In other words, it is by studying the "word" as a "living" sign that we understand the gradual transformation of discursive situations into linguistic meanings as well as the contranit of the language system over its individual elements.

II. Course Outline

1. Introduction. This introdutory lecture discusses the disputed relationship between semiotics and linguistics argued from varios points of view. To the present writer, semiotics does not subsume but overlaps with linguistics. As "an interdisciplinary enterprise" (Morris), the former uses the general concept of "sign" to study the phenomenon of signification in all its different forms, and the reason for its transdisciplinary existence is to overcome the negative effects of "overspecialization" which characterizes our modern episteme.

2. Saussure's definition of the linguistic sign. Being the founder of both modern linguistics and semiotics, Saussure's elaboration of the linguistic sign from a semiotic perspective has, for better or worse, affected much of subsequent discussions about language. It is, therefore, important to reexamine the model he proposes for explaining the phenomenon of linguistic signification. The key to understanding Saussure's theory is his "principle of arbitrariness". According to him, a linguistic sign consists of two sides - a formal signifier and a conceptual signified - and the correspondence between them is not "inherent" or "natural". Furthermore, a linguistic sign does not stand in its own, but enters into all sorts of structural relationships with other signs within the same system. It is through its "noncoincidnece" with other elements surrounding it that a linguistic sign acquires its "value" which is the object of linguistic investigations.

3. Difficulties of structuralist linguistics. Structuralist linguistics can be said to be generally characterized by its comprehensive application of the Saussurean model of the sign to the study of language. Following the Saussurean thesis that meaning is the effect of structural differentiation, it focuses exclusively on the relationships among various linguistic elements within a synchronic system at the expense of their referentiality to the life world. One obvious deficiency, among many others, of such a relational perspective is that it fails to tell semantic differences among those "ambiguous" sentences that are syntactically the same. In fact, even when structuralists are analyzing their favorite phonemic distinctive features that are claimed to be independent of meaning, their actual practice cannot but presuppose a prior knowledge of semantic differences at a higher level on the part of the linguistic practioner.

4. Criticism from the semiotic field. The difficulties that face structural linguistics have forced many semioticians to question the theoretical soundness of the Saussurean model of the sign. One major disagreement between the two sides is on how meaning is produced: for Saussure, the meaning of a linguistic sign is generated through its difference from other signs within a system that pre-exists its members, but for his opponents, language is not an ontological system which somehow is able to decompose itself into various semantic units, rather linguistic meaning comes from language users' verbal generalization of their perceptive experience in the world.

5. Peirce's semiotic trichotomies. In their effort to overcome the limitations of structuralist linguistics, many semioticians today turn to the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, whose semiotic thought promises a more comprehensive treatment of the relationship between language and the world. The key concept in Peirce's theory is what he calls "object" in relation to which signs can be divided into three major types: Icon, Index, and Symbol. Language, of course, belongs to the last category, and its individual elements correspond to various objects by dint of a social law or convention.

6. Redefining the linguistic sign. In contrast to Saussure's bilateral model of the linguistic sign, the American philosopher offers a triadic explanation of the phenomenon of signification: representamen, interpretant, and object. The first item in this trichotomy is largely equivalent to Saussure's "signifier" which is the formal aspect of a sign; the second item corresponds roughly to Saussure's "signified" which is the conceptual aspect of a sign; the third item is missing from Saussure's model, but the absence proves to be fatal, for it is the very source from which the conceptual aspect of a sign springs into being. In other words, the "interpretant" of a sign is the effect of the interaction between a human subject and his experiential "object" or "objects".

7. Unity of signification and structure. The meaning of a linguistic sign comes from human conceptualization of a particular segment of their life experience, but this verbal representation of "object" has to be "systemized" for the sake of easy and efficient communication, hence the grouping of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on, each with fixed inflections or conjugations and proper rules of combination. This dual nature of the linguistic sign, thererfore, calls for a kind of analysis that pays equal attention to both the meaning of the sign itself and its relationship with other signs in which they occur.

8. Sign, text, and the world. Finally, a linguistic sign should not be viewed merely as a static unit in a synchronic system, but also as a dynamic entity in a real social discourse. As discrete entries in a dictionary, lexical items are given succinct definitions as their meanings, but these definitions are only short hand notes of a multi-layered and theoretically inexhaustible universe of "sememes" that every word is capable of being analyzed into. Which "lexemes" of a word are actually "activated" depend on the particular verbal as well as nonverbal context in which it appears. In addition, "old" words can be used used to stand for "new" segments of our life experience through which some meanings are born and others are forgotten. It is through our abductive use of this living sign that we keep adapting to an ever changing world.


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