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Swimming in Semeiosis

Charles Peirce, the modern founder of the theory of signs, made a special point of saying that we should think of ourselves as “being in semeiosis” just exactly as we think of a body “being in motion.” Parsing “semeiosis” as a more encompassing designation for “meaning,” and utilizing Peirce’s insight for the purposes of linguistic analysis (but not only), we become more acutely alert to explanations of phenomena––following Peirce––as THE RATIONALIZED EXPLICATION OF VARIETY.

Here is a concrete example that presented itself to your humble blogger this afternoon as he looked out the window of a restaurant on York Avenue in Manhattan. On a fitness studio’s awning across the street one reads the following phrase meant to communicate the establishment’s name: “Regenerate Fitness.” While the owner’s intention is to be interpreted as a command, i. e., something amounting to “Patronize us, and you will regenerate your fitness,” there is another way of reading the name, namely with the word “Regenerate” as an adjective, yielding a nominal phrase rather than a command. Quite apart from the unlikeliness of this second understanding, the contrast between the verb and the adjective of the word “regenerate” spelled identically involves a difference in pronunciation: the vowel –a– of –ate bears a secondary stress in the verb and is pronounced with the tense vowel [ɛj], whereas the adjectival form is pronounced with the lax schwa [ə]; cf. the exact same alternation as between the verb degenerate ‘to fall below a normal or desirable state, especially functionally or morally’ and its correlative adjective with the meaning ‘having declined, as in function or nature, from a former or original state’.

Only one theory of language, the one informed by Peirce’s semeiotic, is capable of giving a rationalized explication of the variation of the unstressed vowels in the two grammatical categories involved in the word degenerate. The key is the concept of MARKEDNESS, which is a species of interpretant, i. e., the semeiotic superstructure that guides variation by means of ICONICITY. Specifically in this example, the marked value of the verb (verbs are marked vis-à-vis nominal forms by necessarily referring to time) is mirrored by the implementation of the vowel marked for protensity (tense vowels are marked vis-à-vis lax vowels in English), rendering the form-meaning parallelism a DIAGRAM in the strict semeiotic sense, i.e., an icon of relation. It is the diagrammatic quiddity of the parallelism that gives the pattern exemplified by the two meanings of degenerate its raison d’être.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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