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This editorial appeared in Volume 3 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Editorial: Natural Semiotic

by Colwyn Trevarthen

The infinitely ambitious programme of semiotics, given contemporary enunciation by Sebeok (1990) and Eco(1979), for example, would unite all forms of communication, from physical communion among atoms and molecules, to the most fundamental and most profound of human symbolism, in one hierarchy of "information transfers". This physicalist theory wants to classify a stuff called "information" in a diverse machinery of emissive and receptive communicative processes. It presumes that top levels in the hierarchy of signs are built out of the physical necessities of the unthinking bottom, pre-life levels. If one is a physicalist, this is a tautological enterprise, however intellectually demanding it may be in even partial fulfilment.

In a sense such a science of "semiotics" is fundamentally at odds with a natural ethology, which should begin its analysis of how animals behave and communicate without preconceptions about the organisations that make animal intelligence and motivation possible. At the same time semiotic theory, though it claims to be Darwinian, is dualistic, because it views human symbolic communications as radically different from animal communication. Yet symbols are needed by, and generated in, communication games, for which there are motives that are not symbolic. In the beginning there was no word, and in infancy there is still none.

The socio-linguistics have long insisted that structural theories of grammar do not explain how meaning is generated and conveyed in the languages of the real human world. Habermas (1978, 1979) identifies the foundations of social contracts in "dialogue constituent universals", which also motivate grammars of speech and text. When people make deals, give orders or proclaim or withhold information, and when they ask for information or help they are not just making up intentional formats. They are performing transfers of purpose with feeling and awareness. They are negotiating states of doing and knowing to create a common meaning.

Halliday (1975) identifies the fundamental functions of sociosemiotics in the protolanguage of one-year-olds moving to the threshold of speech. The fundamental intersubjectivity of language resides in a consciousness of the minds of other persons as these are revealed through the movements of their whole bodies. McNeill (1987) has used television recordings to analyze 'deep speech' that all people give out unconsciously through body movements, especially gestures of the hands. Their partners in conversation instantly and unconsciously assimilate these movements as carriers of images and messages about the acts of protagonists in the story. Such encoded, or subconsciously coded and unrecorded expressive behaviours bridge language gaps. making it possible for friendly persons of totally alien cultures to share ideas. and even to do work together if they have overlapping expertise and the right pragmatic context. That human speakers of a story conceptualize and interpret the narrative in its interpersonal and metaphorical aspects is shown by the ways unconscious gestures of the hands and face are combined with the conventional symbols in the language of spoken words.

We conclude that human symbolic communication is grounded, not on deep cognitive structures specially for language alone, as conceived by Chomsky, but on a more general deep structure of an empathy for the dynamics and interactive values of all forms of human expression for sharing experiences. A language is entirely learned, arbitrary and codified, and usefully so. But the abstract functions of the language, built into the syntax and semantics, have a strong innate base in the patterns and processes of human intersubjectivity. These include motives for identifying "objects-of-common interest", and for making up common evaluations of such objects.

Furthermore, language is not just a means by which subjects, as cognitive units, exchange information. It is a product of a natural and essential interaction between the motives of minds that have evolved to grow through communication and that learn through "guided participation" in knowledge and joint tasks. The codification of human experiences, actions and artifacts is a cognitive overlay, carrying infinite detail of reference and the ordering classificatory schemes that assist learning and remembering. It rests on a system of transferred feelings that are shared directly, and that develop through semiotic mediation.

The whole semiotic system of a human community- its language, beliefs, customs, its image of itself in nationhood or as a "people", and in relation to the land it inhabits and the stories of how it came to be there - is taught. It is acquired through having the story told by someone who knows it already and who values its significance. This process of instruction, and every occasion in which this cultural system is communicated about, depends on the links between minds, and these are regulated by expressions of feeling and motivation that are not learned. The minds of the children and adults have evolved complementary motives to make this linking work. The living feelings of the teacher give the reinforcement for the learning of the pupil, and they guide its organization.

The expressions of feeling are universally recognisable whenever there is fresh negotiation of meanings between humans of any age. They hold the social system together and organize its consciousness and work, emotionally. They are celebrated, strengthened and made durable in art ritual. They are weakened if examined solely by the materialistic, realistic and rational discourse through which they have to find practical effect.

If ethology and semiotics are to be related in one theory of human communication based on Darwinian principles, they will need to concentrate more on the core regulations of human social cooperation and the construction of meaning, as these have been conceptualized, for example, by Malinowsky (1923), Halliday (1978), Habeermas (1979), and Rommetveit (1987). Both disciplines have their origins in a rational tradition in which perceptions and thoughts of the individual have been chosen to be axiomatic.

Ethological theory describes motivation in terms of a subject orienting, exploring and making consummatory acts. Intersubjective (social) motives, which, ostensibly, are the principal concerns of the discipline, are then described mainly in terms of the control of competition and agonist encounters. The theory of cooperation is less developed, possibly in a disciplined reaction to romantic anthropomorphizing in old accounts of the social systems of insects, birds, etc. Ethological theory, which originated in Germany, has been shaped by a tradition of philosophy and education that emphasised the disciplining of the impulses of the individual for the common good.

We need, from the science of behaviour, a clearer representation of the cooperative mechanism, rather that a hypothetical engagement of IRM (Innate release mechanisms) systems in the separate individuals. Von Uexkull's idea of a "sign stimulus" was originally a way of conceptualising an organism's readiness to respond selectively to features of the environment that afford information, information that could be exploited to guide profitable action, i.e. action that promotes or supplies a life function. This basic ecological mechanism, fitting an animal's behaviour to the available or findable environment, can be degraded in the "comparative method" of ethology into a search for replicable descriptions of responses or forms of action. Von Uexkull clarified the mutual relationship between the chemical constitution, physical layout and dynamic processes in the environment and the patterned and integrated life processes of the organism, the latter being adapted by evolution to support that special life form in that environment. Furthermore, he recognised that the motivation is not just in the individual animal or plant, that it is in the engagement between information and energy of the environment and the dynamic vitality and reactivity of the organism. In a developmental perspective, one has to envisage innate conditions of readiness to change in a self-constructing direction, along a regulated and therefore predictable course, but with the necessary support of dependable environmental information, nutrients, forces, terrains, events, etc. That are fit to satisfy defined appetites and are selectively "consumed".

In the social environment, one has to observe the mutual interactions and relationships between the individuals, not just the signals of individuals or their intuitive response biases or templates for perception. In the cultural systems of human beings, the relation between the innate and the learned is even more distributed. It is not only necessary to see the individual living and developing in interaction with the chemical, physical, geographic, biological and social environments, but, through cooperative exploration and exploitation of the uses of all these different aspects of the environment, the growing child comes into relation with the patterns and customs of a culture extending time and space from the "here and now" to the limits of his or her people's "tribal narrative" and cosmology.


Eco, Umberto (1979) A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Habermas, Jurgen (1978) Knowledge and Human Interests (2nd. Edition) London: Heinemann.

Habermas, Jurgen (1979) Communication and the Evolution of Society. London: Heinemann.

Halliday, Michael A.K. (1975) Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language. London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, Michael A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1923) The problem of meaning in primitive language. Supplement I to The Meaning of Meaning, C.K. Ogden and l.A. Richardson (eds.) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McNeill, David (1987) Psycholinguistics: A new approach. New York: Harper and Row.

Rommetveit, Ragnar (1987) "Meaning, context and control: Convergent trends and controversial issues in current social-scientific research on human cognition and communication." Inquiry 30, 77-99.

Sebeok, Thomas A. (1990) Essays in Zoosemiotics (Monograph Series of the Toronto Semiotic Circle, Number 5) Toronto: Toronto Semiotic Circle, Victoria College in the University of Toronto.

Colwyn Trevarthen is Professor of Child Psychology and Psychobiology, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. His principal research interests include: development of communication; principals of expression and communication in language and music; role of motives and emotions in psychological growth; growth and education of the brain; comparative and developmental neuropsychology. He has published about equally on 'split-brain' research into mechanisms of perception, learning and motor coordination in monkeys and humans, and on intersubjectivity and cooperative understanding in infants His recent publication include (1985) Facial expression of emotion in mother infant interaction Human Neurobiology, 4, 21-32; (1990b) Growth and education of the hemispheres. In Brain circuits and functions of the mind: Essays in honor of Roger W. Sperry, C. Trevarthen (ed.). New York Cambridge University Press; (1990b) Intutitive emotions; their changing role in communication between mother and infant (Published in Italian: Le emoziaoni intuitive L'evoluzione del loro RuolLo nella communicazione tra madre e bambino. In Affeti Natura e Sviluppo delle Relazione Interpersonali. M. Ammaniti & N Dazzi (eds ) Roma-Bari Laterza, 97-139); (1990c) Signs before speech. In The Semiotic Web, 1989, T.A. Sebeok and J Umiker-Sebeok (eds) , Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter

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