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Language as Semeiotic: The Example of the Russian Verb

Recalling the singular appearance of the word hermeneutic in the title of any article published over the multi-year history of the journal Language, and relying anew on Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticism and his apothegm “My language is the sum total of myself,” a program for reorienting linguistics in the twenty-first century can be sketched, prompted by the conviction that the prevailing conception of language as rule-governed behavior tout court has driven linguistics into barren byways which are powerless to explain speech as it is manifested in nature (in the spirit of the physis versus thesis debate in Plato’s Cratylus). This sterility can be overcome by postulating as a fundamental principle the idea that the locus of linguistic reality is the act, the creative moment of speech––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech. This principle then encompasses the following five postulates: (1) language is like a piece of music or a poem––i. e., a made (aesthetic = L formosus) object, a work that unfolds in time (unlike an art work which is static), always dynamic, while remaining changeable and stable simultaneously; (2) linguistic competence can only transpire in performance, and in ensembles of performances, and is not a work; (3) the ecology of language is constituted by discourse rather than by structural relations; (4) linguistic theory is immanent in the concerted––i. e., syntagmatic––data [=performance] of language in its variety, not merely in its paradigmatic structure; (5) hence the goal of theory is the rationalized explication of linguistic variety.

For those readers of this blog who have an appetite for linguistic theory, offered below is a truncated version of the beginning of the article by Y-H-B in the journal Language (Vol. 56, No. 1 [Mar., 1980], pp. 67-93), which can be accessed in full among the PDFs listed under the links above (see ‘Russian Conjugation: Theory and Hermeneutic’).

Russian conjugation has a rather special place in the history of linguistics, quite apart from its intrinsic interest as a topic of inquiry. Thirty years ago [this article was written in 1978], Roman Jakobson published his celebrated ‘Russian conjugation’ (1948), which became the seedbed for an over-arching concept of language that  was  later known as transformational-generative grammar (cf. Birnbaum 1970:31, Halle 1977:141, Worth 1972: 80). That article was preceded by the equally important ‘Zur Struktur des russischen Verbums’ (1932), which focused on the grammatical categories of the Russian verb and analysed them in terms of markedness, while reserving treatment of morphophonemic alternations for a future  study. The latter was, indeed, executed as Jakobson (1948; and the triptych was completed by Jakobson 1957, representing an innovative synthesis of the earlier panels.

Jakobson’s application of the concept of markedness to morphology was utilized by Trubetzkoy in his path-breaking Das morphonologische System der russischen Sprache (1934), the ‘first structural description of the morphophonemic system of a contemporary literary language’ (Stankiewicz 1976:109). For all its merits, however, this short book makes no real attempt to integrate. the fine discussion of grammatical categories with the thorough analysis of morphophonemic alternations.

In short, neither Jakobson nor Trubetzkoy appears to have implemented fully the requirement of a thorough-going, unified theoretical approach to the problem of form and meaning-specifically, in an explanatory rather than a purely descriptive framework. Unfortunately, the subsequent history of structural linguistics failed to make significant advances toward the solution of this all-important problem (cf. Andersen 1975). This is true no matter how broadly or narrowly the scope of ‘structural’ is construed. Contemporary linguistic practice of all persuasions is notably characterized by a preoccupation with rule formulation-–in concord with the prevailing concept of language as rule-governed behavior, and the presumption that advances in theory are to be identified with the construction of formalisms of maximal generality and abstractness. Even when the overt aim is claimed to be the explanatory understanding of structure, the chief goal of linguistic research-–MAKING SENSE OF GRAMMAR-has never effectively been at the forefront of theoretical concern (cf. Anttila 1975, 1977a).

In the last ten years [i. e., 1968-1978], however, a concept of linguistic structure has emerged that places precisely this goal at the center of its research program. The fundamental assumption of this attitude toward structure is that LANGUAGE IS A SEMIOTIC, A SYSTEM OF SIGNS. Taking Jakobson 1949, 1965c, and 1970 as its basis, the research conducted under the aegis of this concept has striven to give practical substance to the assertion that ‘language is …  a purely semiotic system. All linguistic phenomena-–from the smallest components to entire utterances and their interchange-–act always and solely as signs’ (Jakobson [1970] 1971: 703). This emphasis largely relies on Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of signs (cf. Hardwick 1977). As one modern student of Peirce has put it, ‘The semiotical method is a kind of analytical interpretation which EXPLAINS THE SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHED COGNITION’ (Buczynska­Garewicz 1978:14; emphasis added).

My own explorations of language in a semiotic perspective (particularly 1969, 1972, 1974, 1976) are an attempt to amalgamate Peirce’s thinking about signs with neo-structuralist work in linguistics (e.g. Andersen 1972, 1973, 1974a; Anttila 1977b). Three cardinal interconnected tenets inform this perspective: (1) semiotic universals–-principles of organization-–exist which govern  the  patterning of linguistic data; (2) the patterning is COHERENT, in the sense that the genuinely structured or motivated sets of facts (the STRUCTURE sensu stricto, as distinct from the rule-governed ADSTRUCTURE) are explicable as cohesions or correlations between expression-form and content-form (cf. Hjelmslev 1954); (3) the patterning of form/meaning correlations owes its coherence to a mediating interpretative component of ‘structural cement’ that binds the facts together and allows them to subsist systematically alongside each other. This component is MARKEDNESS. Though contemporary semioticians have taken little notice of it, markedness will be seen to provide the key to the understanding of form/meaning correlations in grammar.

The cardinal question is: WHY are certain specific expressions associated with certain specific contents? Expression and content cannot be compared directly, because the structure of language is such that purely diacritic signs (the ultimate units of phonology), which possess no meaning except ‘otherness’ (Jakobson [1939] 1962: 304), are implemented to constitute content signs  (more precisely, their signantia), which do possess a substantive meaning. Language overcomes this structural disjunction by means of an intermediary component of the sign situation: the semiotic value, Peirce’s INTERPRETANT, which inheres simultaneously and uniformly in the expression-form AND the content-form. The structuralist thesis of isomorphism obtaining between all parts of grammar and lexis reposes on just this kind of concept.

The semiotic values that enable sounds and meanings to cohere in a pattern are markedness values. Just as the phonological structure is determined ultimately by the markedness relations between the sets of oppositions that comprise it, so grammatical and lexical categories organize themselves into a coherent system through oppositions of grammatical and lexical meaning informed by the evaluative dimension that is markedness. The common intermediary, semiotic value, bridges the apparent chasm between expression and content in language.

In an earlier article (Shapiro 1974), dealing primarily with anaptyxis (vowel/zero alternations) in the morphophonemics of Russian derived substantives, I pointed to a major impasse in contemporary linguistic theory brought on by the pervasive recourse to ‘deep structure’.  As is well known, this practice results in the positing of underlying forms, and the derivation of surface forms by a mechanistic application of ordered rules. Collocating the problem of morphophonemic alternation in an explicitly semiotic framework-–that of markedness––suggested the existence of certain principles of grammatical structure, and traced the means of their implementation in the Russian material. My concept of structure prompted me to substitute for the question ‘How does one get from deep to surface structure?’ the question ‘WHY are the facts of grammar as they are?’ Seeking the answer to such a radical question presupposes, naturally, the belief that ‘surface’ variations­–the actual stuff of language-do not vary unsystematically, but rather organize themselves into a semiotic, a system of signs. Surface variants are thus seen not as mere agglomerations of data to be systematized by appeal to formalisms at a putatively deeper (hence ‘truer’) level of reality, but as entering into patterned semiotic relations with each other.


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