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The Uniqueness of Human Language: Meaning by Indirection

“Heads roll at the Vatican bank,” was the opening statement of a radio broadcast this morning (“Marketplace Morning Report,” NPR), which any person with a sufficient knowledge of English automatically understood to mean nothing to do with decapitation literally, only metaphorically, i. e., in a transferred sense, via the visceral image used in English to connote persons who had been dismissed from their positions.

The tropological use of language, which can be called MEANING BY INDIRECTION, is the unique semeiotic capacity of the human species. Despite claims in the animal ethology literature about primates like chimpanzees and bonobos, and even non-primates like parrots and whales, nothing reported about the communication systems of animals (including mimicry, camouflage, and other forms of deceptive behavior) is even remotely comparable to the capability at the heart of human language, namely the routine ability of saying one thing while meaning another––and being understood correctly.


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