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The Swiss and The Sign.
"The symphony has a reality of its own, which is independent of the way in which it is performed. The mistakes which musicians make in performance in no way compromise that reality." - Ferdinand de Saussure.
It would be misleading to suggest that the inquiry into the form and function of Natural Language is a phenomenon unique to the Late Twentieth Century. Indeed, form and meaning have been two of the central objects of study in philosophy since its beginnings in early metaphysics. There is, however, a special flavor to the assumptions and goals of twentieth century linguistics that differentiates it from previous inquiry. The birth of (modern) linguistics has traditionally been credited to Ferdinand de Saussure and his students in Geneva at the turn of the century. The critical insight attributed to Saussure is that "The sole object of study in linguistics is the normal, regular existence of a language already established." (p72)
At this point, if we take Saussure's insight as one of our assumptions, we are forced to look at the system itself and speculate as to its characteristics. A simple way to describe language that is consistent with our assumptions is to say that it is a system, involving two (or more) people, which transmits conceptual material from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener [Figure 1]. We can go one step further and say that it is a system which accomplishes this task through the oral articulation of sounds and the auditory interpretation of those sounds. From this point of view, inquiry begins to resemble the traditional "black-box" problem - it is a process the mechanisms of which are obscured from our view and we are forced to hypothesize on the mechanisms with knoweldge of merelythe input(s) and output(s) of the process.
Notice that there are two places where a mental process is taking place: "a", which is somewhere between the "mind" and the mouth, and "b", which is somewhere between the ears and the "mind". Since this is a black-box problem, we can only speculate as to the process by which this is done. The best way to do this is to take notice of WHAT the process IS. It seems that both the process in a and the process in b are a pairing between a sound and a concept - a is a process changing concepts into sounds and b is a process changing sounds into concepts. By Ocham's Razor, we are constrained to the assumption that both the process in a and the process in b are governed by the same set of principles (unless there is empirical evidence to the contrary).
The intriguing question seems to be "What is the process by which sound signals are transformed into conceptual information?" Indeed, this question could be said to be at the very heart of nearly every sub-discipline in present-day linguistics (along with "What are the regularities of the sound patterns themselves?" and "How are they constrained?") and Saussure's notion of the "linguistc sign" seems to be one of the major assumptions of its practitioners.
The linguistic sign is more of a process than a thing. Roughly, it is a mental relationship between a sound pattern (Signal) and a concept (Signification) [Figure 3]. But, a "linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer's psychological impression of a sound." (p66). In this way, the character the linguistic sign is far less trivial than it seems at first. Saussure refers to the "psychological impression of a sound" as the "signal" and to the "concept" as the "signification".
It is the link between the signal and the signification that comprises the sign. It is not just a realtion, but a relation from an ***abstract entity*** to an abstact entity. The distinction is subtle, but also far from trivial in its implications. The abstraction can be seen easily if we consider both the signal and the signification to be processes rather than things [Figure 4]. The signal, then, is a relation between a sound (as a "physical" object) and a sound structure and the signified is a relation between a concept (as it is "really": a thing, an event, etc.) and a mental representation of that concept. "The contact between ...[sound and thought]... gives rise to a form, not a substance". (p111) Both the sound structure and the mental representation can be thought of as "cognitive structures" (which do in fact "represent" physical stimuli - such as a stream of sound and an idealization of the physical world) and the relation between these congnitive structures taken to constitute the sign.
As Saussure points out, the "physical" portion of both the signal and the signification are drawn from extremely amorphous sources [Figure 5]; from "the plane of vague, amorphous thought (A)" and "the equally featureless plane of sound (B)." (p110) The amorphous character of the physical inputs/outputs from the language faculty seems to beg the question: "What is the nature of the relationship between signal and signification?".
Saussure argues that the relation between a sound pattern and a concept is arbitrary; that the linguistic sign is an "arbitrary" relation. This is not to say that a different sound can be uttered each time a concept is expressed, but rather, that there is nothing inherent in the relation between a sound pattern and a concept; that the sound [kat] really "has nothing to do with" the four-legged house pet that chases mice and gets chased by dogs. The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign is useful in telling us what types of things NOT to look for (like inherent relationships between sound and meaning) but it does not seem to independently answer our question about the nature of the linguistic sign. Some explanation is necessary.
Recall that Saussure takes language, "considered in itself and for its own sake", to be the "only true object of study in linguistics." The linguistic sign is a useful device in the explanation of language, but it does not represent the totality of language, the object of study. Since an "individual, acting alone, is incapable of establishing a value", there should be some larger system to which linguistic signs belong. Additionally, that system should contain all of the basic sound-meaning pairings contained in the language. As Saussure puts it "the linguistic sign itself, as the link uniting the two constituent elements, likewise has couterparts. These are the other signs of the language." (p113) (In modern parlance, this larger system would be roughly exquivalent to the "lexicon") We take this larger structure [Figure 6], then, to be a set of relations between signs, which is to say: a set of [relations between [relations of [relations [...?]]]]. (See [Figure 7] - coming soon to a homepage near you - for an attempted composite image of the system to this point).
We should examine this idea a little more thoroughly because this semiological system (which Saussure refers to as A Language) is at the heart of this conception of language. Saussure suggests that to "think of a sign as nothing more [than the combination of a certain sound and a certain concept] would be to isolate it from the system to which it belongs. It would be to suppose that a start could be made with individual signs, and a system constructed by putting them together. On the contrary, the system as a united whole is the starting point, from which it becomes possible, by a process of analysis, to identify its constituent elements." (p112: bracketed material added from context - crw). We should be careful not to attribute a significance to this statement that it does not deserve. The point being made here is that the "meaning" of a sign cannot be determined in isolation; that there is no inherent relation between any particular sound pattern and a concept. In other words, "elements keep one another in a state of equilibrium in accordance with fixed rules," (p109) and "values remain entirely a matter of internal relations." (p111) Moreover, this dependence on relations operating toward equilibrium "is why the link between idea and sound is intrinsically arbitrary." (p111). It is in this way that we take the system, as a whole, to be the object of study and to be necessary in the establishment of value.
It is not clear, however, that the "language" itself is acting as the "starting point" here. We could, for example, assume that it is the PROCESS of assigning value to the sign that serves as the starting point. (see: UG - to appear). The "language", then, could be built from these signs by some process of sentence-formation (see: GENERATIVE GRAMMAR - to appear). It could very well be the case that the process by which these sentnces are built is an extention of the process used in the formation of the "atomic" signs (words) themselves. (***)
Since our goal is to better understand the form and function of Natural Language, it might be best to take a step back for a minute and examine what we know. The language faculty can be thought of as a process or, more accurately, as a system of relations:
(1) A set of relations between "real-world" entities (sounds and situations) and mental representations of those entities (sound patterns and concepts). (figure 47). (The relations expressed here are not traditionally considered to be within the realm of linguistics proper. Typically, the study of linguistic relations normally begins with relations between mental entities ... as in (2))
(2) A set of relations (signs) between sound patterns (signifiers) and concepts (significances). (figure 4).
(3) A semiological system (or: a set of relations between signs). (figure 6).
We can further characterize the system by adding that the relations are arbitrary and are based on a delicate equilibrium established with respect to the linguistic system. This, however, is where we reach the end of our rope. The questions being begged are: What does it mean to say that the semiological system is the result of an equilibrium state of relations? and How does the semiological system relate to the linguistic system?
It looks like we cannot make much more progress if we continue to assume that the processes in a and b (figure1) are "isolated" processes. Indeed, "the faculty of articulating words is put to use only by means of the linguistic instrument created and provided by society." (p11). Language is a social phenomenon, which depends very critically on an "agreement", between the speaker and the hearer(s), to "interpret" the linguistic signs in a similar manner. "A community is necessary in order to establish values. Values have no other rationale than usage and general agreement. An individual, acting alone, is incapable of establishing value." (p112) Just as it is impossible to evaluate the sign without reference to the semiological system, it is impossible to evaluate the semiological system without reference to the linguistic system.
Again, it will help to think of the linguistic system as a process rather than as a thing. We can imagine that the semiological system is revised by a set of relations to the linguistic system as a whole. (In most theories, this process occurs predominately during childhood, but pretty much every account allows for minor adjustments to the semiological system in later years). "All the individuals linguistically linked in this manner will establish among themselves a kind of mean; all of them will reproduce - doubtless not exactly, but approximately - the same signs linked to the same concepts." (p13) (***See also variability of the sign***)
Of course, the difficulty lies in reconciling these assumptions with the empirical facts of Natural Language. Nonetheless, Saussure's suggestion that "a language is a system of pure values, determined by nothing else apart from the temporary state of its constituent elements" (p80) provides for an interesting backdrop against which to view the facts of Natural Language. No doubt, this is an over-simplification of the case. A working model of the structural properties of Natural Language has yet to be constructed and a good deal of terrain is still to be explored in this area.
We can begin to see why the inner mechanisms of Natural Language are less than transparent. Here we have taken a relatively wide view. It could very well be the case that signs are not all of a single type and that this embedding of relations is responsible for a good deal of the computation and encoding that takes place in the lexicon. For insatnce, the description of signs given above could very well be applicable only to (proper) nouns. It may require an additonal level of abstraction to deal with verbs and adjectives and another still to handle adverbs, but the point remains the same: Natural Language seems to involve a process involving relations between entities which are themselves relations between enities, and so on. The extent to which this recursion produces an infinite regress in unclear to me. At any rate, we could state, as a matter of definition, that the "atomic" level of language involves relations between mental states representing "concepts" and mental states representing "sound patterns".