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Archive for April, 2017

When Only a Foreign Locution Will Serve (German erblich belastet)

English is a magnificent instrument of linguistic expression, arguably the richest and most adaptable language in the human firmament. However, occasionally it lacks a specific word or phrase that can only be found in another language, and the use of this heterolingual means in an English utterance conveniently fills the gap that happens to exist in the native lexicon.

     Y-H-B was reminded today of this fact while sitting in a fish restaurant on Third Avenue in Manhattan and enjoying a rare treat of caviar and wine. His waitress happened to turn her back as she made her way from the table after taking the order, thereby revealing a derrière characteristic of a certain human female type, and immediately the German participial compound phrase erblich belastet (from das Erbe ‘inheritance’ + die Last ‘load’) hove into Y-H-B’s consciousness, a phrase he had acquired in childhood from his mother (who spoke five languages fluently, including German). The meaning is something like “encumbered by heredity,” i. e. inescapably part of one’s biological inheritance. That was the most apposite description of the waitress’s lower anatomy, for which there is no idiomatic equivalent in English.


Meaning and the Trirelative Semiotic Orientation of Language

Linguistics is axiomatically an observational science. It pays attention to and analyzes the ontology and the use of language in a triad of respects: (1) language as code, i. e., a set of norms that every speaker inherits when they become members of the community of learners and users; (2) language as inner/personal speech, i. e., the internal communication that occurs between phases of the thinking self; and (3) language as social/external speech, i. e., vocalized communication with interlocutors. In all three of these respects language at any given stage of its development is the cumulative result of its history, i. e., the teleological outcome of past stages.

Expanding these postulates with respect to linguistic meaning, Plato says that “thought and speech are the same; only the former, which is a silent inner conversation of the soul with itself, has been given the special name of thought” (Sophist 263E). Peirce goes one step further and says that “all thought is in signs.” Synthesizing these ideas, we can say that LANGUAGE IS THE INSTRUMENT OF THOUGHT AND OF SPEECH, both, and consists of semeiotic units––SIGNS––that are, furthermore, to be defined as THE PATTERNED COLLIGATION OF SOUND AND MEANING. The epitomical units of language, words, are units of meaning consisting of a sequence of sounds (called PHONEMES) that are associated in the minds of speakers with one or more meanings. A sign is defined, in language more particularly, as (1) anything that is capable of signifying something else (called its OBJECT) and (2) anything capable of being interpreted as signifying the particular meaning(s) intended by the speaker or language user (called its INTERPRETANT).

Philosophers have agonized from time immemorial about the nature of meaning and how to define it. When it comes to language, there is no difficulty because meaning is the object of linguistic signs, alias words. If I utter the sounds “dog” and intend by this sequence to mean the English word for “a small- to medium-sized carnivorous mammal (Canis familiaris synonym Canis lupus familiaris) of the family Canidae,” any interlocutor with a knowledge of English will know what I am referring to. Saying French chien, German Hund, Russian sobaka, or Japanese inu changes nothing as far as the object signified is concerned: they all mean ‘dog’, differing only in linguistic means of expression.

Meaning is often localized as being “in the head” of speakers, but Peirce had a much more profound idea of meaning’s locus: it is everywhere in the universe around us. From this postulate he draws the conclusion that WE ARE IN MEANING, rather than meaning being in us. Since all thought is in signs, the universe is therefore “perfused” by signs, and we are creatures so constructed by evolutionary biology to make sense of our environment and to communicate to ourselves and to our fellow humans what that sense is. Language is, to repeat, both the instrument of thought and the means by which thoughts are communicated through speech (oral and written).

For those readers of this blog who have enough French, much of what is stated apodeictically above can be discerned experientially to be in harmony with the present approach to language in the splendid, path-breaking new book by Nils B. Thelin, L’aspect, le temps et la taxis en français contemporain: Vers une sémantique de la perspective temporelle (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Studia Romanica Upsaliensia 83. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2016), to whom this post is dedicated in token of friendship and esteem.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 9 (Variations on the Speaking Self)

Riding on the SBSM15 bus down Second Avenue in Manhattan and talking to a recent acquaintance, we were joined in conversation by a woman sitting in front of us who overheard us and wanted to contribute to our discussion of a social topic, so we let her have her say.

The animated character of her words and gestures made me think of the piece of historical information my former teacher Roman Jakobson had imparted to me about the variety of linguistic expression as taught by the great Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, namely his use in acting classes of the last lines uttered by its hero Chatsky in the Russian classic play “Gore ot uma” (“Woe from Wit”) by Alexander Griboedov, “Karetu mne, karetu” (“My carriage, my carriage”). The exercise for students was to say these lines in as many variations as possible, including a whisper. The point was to habituate actors to the near-infinite expressive possibilities of language, where linguistic nuances based on enunciation, emphasis, and intonation embody emotive meaning and thereby necessarily differentiate a whole range of variants.

Especially through such chance encounters (as with the lady on the bus) one becomes more convinced than ever that the dictum “You are what you say” (my formulation) is exemplified not only by trained actors on the stage but by all of us when we speak. Whatever else we do with our bodies when we use language (gesticulate with our hands, turn our lips this way or that, etc.), it is more than anything the nuances of our speech that carve out those parts of the matrix of meaning in which all semiosis is embedded, and hence characterize our selves as speaking beings unlike any other species.


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