A human language is a system of remarkable complexity. To come to know a human language would be an extraordinary intellectual achievement for a creature not specifically designed to accomplish this task.
Chomsky (1975: 4)
Language (from Latin lingua “tongue”) is truly a wondrous endowment. Without its development in the human species, culture as we know it would have been inconceivable. The knowledge preserved in books, and to which anyone can have access if one knows the appropriate verbal codes, constitutes the intellectual scaffold sustaining social and technological growth. It is no exaggeration to say that if somehow all the books in the world were to be destroyed overnight, human beings would have to start all over re-coding knowledge linguistically. Writers, scientists, educators, law-makers, etc. would have to come together to literally “rewrite” knowledge. In oral cultures, too, language is the primary means through which traditions, skills, and knowledge are codified and passed on to subsequent generations. People the world over are told in words how and what things are.
Language has always been felt to constitute the capacity that, more than any other, sets humankind apart from all other species. There is a deeply felt conviction within us that if we were ever able to solve the enigma of how language originated in our species, then we would possess a vital clue to the mystery of life itself. The Bible starts off, as a matter of fact, with “In the beginning was the Word,” in acknowledgment of this deeply-entrenched belief. Throughout the centuries, the debate has revolved around whether the Word was a gift from a divine source or a unique accomplishment of the human mind. In ancient Greece, actually, language and mind were considered indistinguishable. Indeed, the Greek term for “speech”—logos—designated not only articulate discourse but also the rational faculty of mind. For the Greeks, it was logos that transformed the brute human animal into a reflective thinker.
Language is essentially a representational system made up of words (or, more accurately, morphemes). But what is a word? Take, for instance, green. First, a word must be a legitimate verbal signifier structurally. And, indeed, green qualifies as a signifier because it is made up of legitimate English phonemes, joined in an appropriate fashion (i.e. according to English syllable structure). The signifier den, on the other hand, would not be an acceptable signifier because it contains a phoneme, represented by the alphabet character ñ, that does not exist in English. Hence, it would violate paradigmatic structure. Nor would gpeen be a permissible signifier, even though each of its sounds is an acceptable phoneme, because it would violate syntagmatic syllable structure (the sequence gp does not occur in English to start a syllable). Now, green, being a legitimate signifier and having been assigned a particular function in the signifying order, will entail a meaning range that involves denotative, connotative, and annotative dimensions. As a qualisign (chapter 3, §3.3) it denotes, of course, a specific gradation on the light spectrum; its extensional connotations encompass concepts such as envy (“She’s green with envy”), hope (“The grass is always greener on the other side”), youthfulness (“He’s at the green age of eighteen”), etc. Annotatively, green elicits various reactions in its users, within a specific range of meanings: e.g. some people love the color, others find it bland. But language is not just a collection of words with their meanings. It also entails knowing how to join words into sentences and discourses.
Our trip through the cultural landscape has reached a very important site with this chapter—the one inhabited by Homo loquens, the speaking animal and the closest ancestor of Homo culturalis. Studying the properties of language formally is the task of the science of linguistics (chapter 2, §2.5). The focus of the cultural semiotician, on the other hand, is on the relation of the verbal code to the signifying order. As was the case in the study of bodily semiosis (chapter 4), the focus of semiotic research is on the main signifying properties of language and on how language mediates and regulates thought and social interaction.
There is no more effective code for representing the world in its intricate detail and for making and communicating sophisticated messages than the verbal one. Language makes it possible to summon up past events, to refer to incidents that have not as yet occurred, to formulate questions about existence, to answer them, to conjure up fictional worlds, to give thoughts and actions a preservable form. What is this extraordinary code? Is it a species-specific genetic endowment, developed over many years of adaptive trial and error? Or is it something that the human species invented in an attempt to fulfill some basic need?
The answer, in our view, is affirmative to both of these questions. Language is surely the result of some innate faculty; but it is also something that humanity could have easily done without in order to survive as a species. Moreover, there seems to be no biological reason for its utilization by humans to formulate questions about existence and about themselves. Language is not an innate mental organ, as some linguists claim. Indeed, if we were somehow to shut off subsequent generations from language, there is virtually no doubt that the human species would have to start all over reinventing it. Organs, on the other hand, cannot be reinvented in our progeny. What we inherit from our biological heritage is not a language organ, but the capacity for verbal semiosis—a capacity tied to our secondary modeling system (chapter 3, §3.2).
The lengths to which some have gone to throw light on the enigma of language origins are quite extraordinary. It is reported by the Greek historian Herodotus that in the seventh century BC the Egyptian king Psamtik (663–610 BC) devised an experiment to determine the original language of humanity. He gave two new-born babies of ordinary people to a shepherd to nurture among his flocks. The shepherd was commanded not to utter any speech before them. The children were to live by themselves in a solitary habitation. At appropriate hours the shepherd was instructed to bring goats to them, give them their fill of milk, and carry out the necessary tasks to ensure their survival. After two years the shepherd brought the babies, raised in the prescribed manner, before Psamtik. The first word uttered by the two sounded like becos—the ancient Phrygian word for bread. The over-anxious Psamtik immediately declared Phrygian to be the mother tongue of humanity. Whether or not Psamtik’s experiment ever took place at all is an open historical question. But even if it had, it certainly would not have proved anything. The babbling sounds made by the children-in probable imitation of each other-were interpreted, or more accurately misinterpreted, as constituting the word becos by Psamtik.
The enigma of language origins has spawned countless speculations throughout the millennia. This is why the Linguistic Society of Paris imposed its notorious ban in 1866 on all discussions related to this question, as did the Philological Society of London a half century later in 1911. In the early 1970s, however, interest in this conundrum was rekindled, as a result of the intriguing and suggestive findings that were being accumulated in such interrelated fields of inquiry as archeology, paleography, animal ethology, sociobiology, psychology, neurology, anthropology, semiotics, and linguistics. Language scientists came to see these as tantalizing bits and pieces for solving the puzzle of language origins.
One possibility is that language developed from echoism, i.e. from attempts of early humans to imitate natural sounds and react vocally to emotions. Indirect evidence for echoism as an originating force can be discerned in the onomatopoeic words and interjections that make up the core vocabularies of all languages. But echoism on its own fails to explain the evolutionary transition from onomatopoeic words to the development of syntax and discourse. Nevertheless, echoism cannot be dismissed entirely as a factor in language origins. After all, there really is no way to determine whether or not sound imitation played a much more pivotal creative role in prehistoric times than it does today. Moreover, as we saw in the previous chapter (§4.6), the probable apposition of manual signs with osmotic vocal imitations of their referents may have been the factor that led over time to the replacement of the former by the latter.
Another possibility is that speech grew out of the chants that the members of the first hominid groups vocalized to maintain harmony as they worked together. As social needs increased, so did the means for communicating them. But, then, what mental feature could have sparked the process by which chanting became full language? Moreover, as Sebeok (1986) suggests, communication is not a necessary function of language, since humans have many nonverbal means of communicating available to them. And as Chomsky (1975: 57) has aptly remarked, “there seems no reason to single out communication among the many uses to which language is put.”
One of the first to investigate the question of language origins rigorously was the linguist Morris Swadesh (1971), who started by dividing the evolution of language into four primary periods that corresponded to the Eolithic (the dawn stone age), Paleolithic (the old stone age), Neolithic (the new stone age), and Historical (the last 10,000 years) periods. He then suggested that all languages in the world today sprang from one source during the Paleolithic period when Neanderthals still survived. This scenario was challenged on several counts. But Swadesh’s method showed, once and for all, that a scientific approach to the age-old puzzle of language origins was conceivable. Using data from archeology and anthropology, together with a detailed knowledge of previous work on language change and reconstruction, Swadesh demonstrated how a credible primal scene could be drafted, and how the transition to contemporary language behavior could be explained plausibly.
Swadesh’s work was also instrumental in rekindling the nineteenth-century interest in language comparison—the meticulous comparison of the structures and systems of related languages in order to make hypotheses about their common ancestor or proto-language. By the end of the nineteenth century language scientists had amassed sufficient evidence to suggest that most of the modern Eurasian languages had evolved from a single language. They called this language ProtoIndo-European (PIE), hypothesizing that it was spoken long before the first civilizations of 5000 years ago, and that it had split up into different languages in the subsequent millennium. The formation of languages from one source came to be known as diversification. Shortly thereafter, linguists started to apply the same comparison techniques to other language families. The motivating idea behind such efforts was that it would be possible eventually to piece together the mother tongue of humanity through the reconstruction of various protolanguages.
The work on PIE has made it the most useful proto-language for modern theories of language origins, for the simple reason that knowledge about it is detailed and extensive. Already in the nineteenth century, linguists had a pretty good idea both of what PIE sounded like and of what kind of vocabulary it had. PIE had words for animals, plants, parts of the body, tools, weapons, and various abstract notions. It is this stock of reconstructed lexical items that has helped contemporary linguists paint a fairly good picture of the semantic range of one of the first vocabularies utilized by human beings.
By going further and further down the branches toward the “trunk” or “roots” of the proto-linguistic tree, modern-day reconstructionists have been better and better able to formulate viable hypotheses about what one of the first proto-languages spoken by humans—which they have designated “Nostratic” (from Latin noster “ours”)—might have been like. Actually, the idea of a common linguistic ancestor was bandied about within traditional reconstructionist circles. Pedersen (1931: 338), for instance, suggested the term Nostratian as “a comprehensive designation for the families of languages which are related to Indo-European.” The value of the current work on Nostratic lies in the fact that it has put in front of contemporary linguists a kind of protolexicon of human language that can be assessed to generate hypotheses about how language originated.
Language vs. Speech
Although in colloquial parlance we rarely distinguish between language and speech, in actual fact the two are different. Speech is a physiological phenomenon. It involves the use of the organs of the vocal apparatus—the tongue, the teeth, the epiglottis, etc.—to deliver language, which is a mental code. Language is commonly delivered as speech; but it can also be expressed through other media, such as the alphabetic and the gestural ones. One can have language without speech, as do individuals with impaired vocal organs, because it exists as a mental code. But one cannot, clearly, have speech without language.
There is a strong possibility that language developed before speech in the human species. The evidence, however, is indirect. At birth, the larynx in human infants is high in the neck, as it is in other primates. Infants breathe, swallow, and vocalize in ways that are physiologically similar to gorillas and chimps. But, some time around the first three to six months of life, the infant’s larynx starts to descend gradually into the neck, dramatically altering the ways in which the child will carry out laryngeal physiological functions from then on. Nobody knows why this descent occurs. It is an anatomical phenomenon that is unique to humans. This new low position means that the respiratory and digestive tracts now cross above the larynx. This entails a few risks: food can easily lodge in the entrance of the larynx, and humans cannot drink and breathe simultaneously without choking. But in compensation, it produces a pharyngeal chamber above the vocal folds that can modify sound.
The lowered larynx makes it possible for human beings to articulate sounds with the vocal apparatus. The specific sounds that are used in a language to make up vocal signifiers are called phonemes. The phoneme is a minimal unit of sound that allows people who speak a language to differentiate its words. For example, what keeps words such as sip and zip distinct is the first sound. The phonemic difference between s and z can be discerned in the vibration of the vocal cords in the larynx. Putting an index and middle finger over the larynx and articulating these two sounds will immediately make the difference between s and z quite evident—the cords vibrate during the pronunciation of z, but not of s. The two sounds are otherwise articulated in the same way.
Phonemic distinctions are perceived by the hearing center of the brain and produced through its motor pathways via a complex system of coordination between brain and vocal organs. There are twelve cranial nerves. Seven of these link the brain with the vocal organs. Some perform a motor function, controlling the movement of muscles, while others perform a sensory function, sending signals to the brain. The larynx controls the flow of air to and from the lungs, so as to prevent food, foreign objects, or other substances from entering the trachea on their way to the stomach. The ability to control the vocal folds makes it possible to build up pressure within the lungs and to emit air not only for expiration purposes, but also for the production of sound.
These physiological conditions were prerequisites for the development of vocal speech in the species too. Interestingly, research on the casts of human skulls has established that the lowering of the larynx did not take place earlier than 100,000 years ago. This is fairly persuasive evidence that there may have been language without speech in pre-Homo Sapiens species. The most probable mode of delivery of language was gesture. When speech became physiologically possible, it is likely that it was used in tandem with the previous gestural signs, not replacing them completely. This is the most likely reason why we still use gesture as a default mode of communication (when vocal speech is impossible), and why we gesticulate when we speak.
Language comes naturally to us. We acquire it without effort or training during our infancy. Indeed, the only requirement for learning any language is adequate exposure to samples of it from birth to about two. So natural is speech to us, in fact, that we hardly ever consider what it is that we are doing when we speak. This is perhaps why the linguist Noam Chomsky (1986) goes so far as to claim that language is a physical organ, as congenital to the human being as, say, flight is to a bird. Language is to thinking as our eyes and our noses are to seeing and smelling. Is Chomsky right?
For Chomsky, all languages are designed according to a universal grammar (UG) present in the brain at birth. Exposure to specific samples of speech in infancy allows the child to determine the particular principles of the UG that are relevant to the language being acquired. This implies that all natural languages are built on the same basic neural plan and that differences among languages are explainable as choices of rule types from a fairly small inventory of possibilities—choices impelled by cultural processes. This would explain rather neatly the universality and rapidity of language acquisition—when the child learns one fact about a language, the child can easily infer other facts about the language without having to learn them one by one.
As persuasive as UG theory is, in our view, it is significantly flawed because it has been restricted to accounting for the development of grammar in the child. As such, it ignores a much more fundamental creative force in early infancy—iconicity—which involves a process of creative imitation. Moreover, it is legitimate to ask if there is a UG only for verbal language, as Chomsky insists. A semiotician would instantly ask, however: What about the acquisition of nonverbal representational capacities? Since nonverbal codes are found throughout the world and developed during infancy without any training, does the brain therefore also possess universal nonverbal grammars? If the role of culture is simply to set the parameters that determine the specific verbal grammar that develops in the child, could it not also set, say, the specific melodic and harmonic parameters that determine the specific forms of musical knowledge that develops in the child?
As mentioned, perhaps the greatest weakness in the UG approach to explaining language development is its dismissal of the role that imitation and iconicity play in childhood verbal development. Imitation is observable already at the age of six months when children start to emit monosyllabic utterances (mu, ma, da, di, etc.). These are imitations of what children have heard in social context. They are called holophrastic (one-word) utterances in the relevant literature, and have been shown to serve three basic functions: (1) naming an object or event; (2) expressing an action or a desire for some action; (3) conveying emotional states. Holophrases are typically monosyllabic reductions of adult words—da for dog, ca for cat, etc. Over 60% will develop into nouns, and 20% will become verbs, and during the second year many of them will be doubled—wowo “water,” bubu “bottle”, mama “mother.” These early efforts are, clearly, the result of an innate imitative modeling propensity. The developmental evidence thus suggests that iconicity is a primary semiosic force that guides the early development of language.
Iconicity, however, does not disappear from language after childhood. It can be seen in the tendency of adults to deploy it unwittingly in everyday speech acts. Vocal iconicity, for example, manifests itself typically:
- in the use of alliteration (the repetition of sounds) for various effects: sing-song; no-no, etc.;
- in the lengthening of sounds for emphasis: “Yesssss!” “Noooooo!” etc.;
- in the use of intonation to express emotional states, to emphasize, to shock, etc.: “Are you absolutely sure?” “Noooooo way!”;
- in sound-modeling, as in the language of cartoons and comic books: “Zap!” “Boom!” “Pow!” etc.;
- in onomatopoeic descriptions of people and things: e.g. a snake or person with snake-like characteristics is described as slithery, slippery, sneaky, etc.;
- in the raising of the voice to convey a state of anger; in an increased rate of speech to convey urgency; in whispering to imply conspiracy; etc.;
- in the use of alliterative idioms for effect: e.g. “gaggle of geese,” “huff and puff,” “sterner stuff,” “cute kid” etc.
Morris Swadesh (above, §5.1) was a pioneer in the study of such sound modeling phenomena, which he included under the general rubric of sound symbolism. He drew attention, for example, to such sound symbolic features as the presence in many of the world’s languages of [i]-type vowels to express “nearness,” in contrast to [a]-[o]and [u]-type vowels to express the opposite notion of “distance.” Such coincidences suggested to him that the notion of nearness tends to be represented unconsciously by the relative nearness of the lips in the articulation of [i] and other front vowels, while the complementary notion of distance tends instead to be represented by the relative openness of the lips in the pronunciation of the [a], [ӕ], [u] and other mid and back vowels. Examples of this paradigmatic differentiation abound in many languages. Here are some from English:
The psychologist Roger Brown (1970: 258-273) also studied the influence of sound symbolism in word-formation and word-perception in the 1960s and 1970s. In one of his classic studies, he asked native speakers of English to listen to pairs of antonyms from a language unrelated to English and then to try guessing, given the English equivalents, which foreign word translated which English word. The subjects were asked to guess the meaning of the foreign words by attending to their sounds. When he asked them, for example, to match the words ch’ing and chung to the English equivalents light and heavy, not necessarily in that order, Brown found that about 90% of English speakers correctly matched ch’ing to light and chung to heavy. He concluded that the degree of translation accuracy could only be explained “as indicative of a primitive phonetic symbolism deriving from the origin of speech in some kind of imitative or physiognomic linkage of sounds and meanings” (Brown 1970: 272).
Iconicity is not just a factor in word-formation; it manifests its influence at all levels of language. The linguist Ronald Langacker (e.g. 1987, 1990), for instance, suggests that certain aspects of sentence structure are, in effect, generated by what can be called an iconic reflex system. Nouns, for instance, trace a “region” in mind-space. This is why a count noun is imagined as referring to something that encircles a bounded region, whereas a mass noun is visualized as referring to something that occurs in a non-bounded region. Thus, for example, a noun like leaf evokes a mental picture of a bounded referent, whereas the noun water elicits an image of a non-bounded referent. So, leaves can be counted, water cannot. This entails an iconic reflex systematization in the forms and functions of these signs. This is why leaf has a plural form (leaves), and water does not (unless the referential domain is metaphorical); this is also why leaf can be preceded by an indefinite article (a leaf), water cannot; and so on. Similar reflex patterns can be found in other representational systems—in painting, for instance, water is represented either with no boundaries or else as bounded by other figures (land masses, the horizon, etc.); leaves, on the other hand, can be depicted as separate figures with circumscribable boundaries.
As this line of research shows, grammar is really an iconic code, “summarizing,” so to speak, our direct perception of things in the world. Consider further the relation between an active and passive sentences such as “Alexander ate the apple” and “The apple was eaten by Alexander.” In the active sentence, the subject (Alexander) is in the foreground of the mind’s eye, while the object (apple) is in the background. The action implied by the verb (eating) is spotlighted as an activity of the subject. The overall mental view that active sentences convey is, therefore, one of the subject as a “perpetrator” or “executor” of the action. A change from active to passive, however, changes the position of the foreground and the background in the mind’s eye. The passive sentence brings the apple to the foreground, relegating the eater, Alexander, to the background. The action of eating is now spotlighted on the object, the “receiver” of the action. As this simple example shows, passive sentences are hardly just stylistic variants of active ones. They give us, in effect, a different mental angle from which to see the same action in mind-space.
This account of grammar is highly compatible with what is now known about the fixed chronological stages that the child passes through on h/er way to speaking in sentences, and it gives us a good account of how sentence composition reflects the child’s experience of the world. It is beyond the scope of the present discussion to engage in a critical discussion of the relevant research. Suffice it to say here that from a semiotic perspective it suggests that sentence-forming structures such as conjunctions and prepositions are acquired with facility, not because they are built into the brain’s UG as general principles, but because the child learns early on that they are perspectival tools. This is probably why sentence grammar and the ability to draw and to enjoy music emerge in tandem in the child. The child learns early on that language allows h/er to respond to the world in the same way that a drawing or a melody does. Incidentally, this is perhaps why we can understand stories in virtually the same ways that we understand music or paintings. A painting is much more than an assemblage of lines, shapes, and colors, and melodies are more than combinations of notes and harmonies. Similarly, a sentence in language is much more than an assemblage of words and phrases built from some rule system in the brain. We use the grammatical elements at our disposal to model the world in ways that parallel how musicians use melodic elements and painters visual elements to model it.
As we saw in chapter 3 (§3.6), along with iconicity, indexicality is a major property in semiosis and representation. Across the world’s languages, one commonly finds (1) words like this, that, here, there, up, down that allow people to refer to the relative location of things; (2) words like before, after, now, then, yesterday, tomorrow that allow people to refer to events that are in temporal relation to each other; and (3) pronouns like I, you, he, she, the one, the other that allow people to refer to the participants in a situation. In the literature about child language, verbal indexical signs appear later than iconic ones, as might be expected, since they are secondness signifying structures. Indeed, the dimensionality principle can be used to explain rather nicely the sequence of events in child language development, with iconicity (a firstness form of semiosis and representation) emerging first, indexicality (a secondness form) next, and finally full symbolicity (a thirdness form).
The manifestations of verbal indexicality are not limited to the three referential domains described above. They can be seen as well in how people sometimes refer to abstract concepts. We suggested above the term iconic reflex system to refer to the presence of iconically motivated forms in grammar. So too it can be suggested that the forms, or reflexes, indexicality leaves in grammar can be characterized in terms of an indexical reflex system. Verbal constructions such as think up, think over, and think out are products of this system:
- When did you think up that preposterous idea?
- You should think over carefully what you have just said.
- Think out the entire problem before coming to a solution.
- I cannot think straight today.
- Go ahead and think that problem through.
Even though these verbal constructions have abstract referents, they nonetheless evoke images of location and movement. The construction think up elicits a mental image of upward movement, thus portraying the abstract referent as an object being extracted physically from a kind of mental terrain; think over evokes the image of scanning with the mind’s eye; think out elicits an image of extracting something so that it can be held up to the scrutiny of the mind’s eye; think straight elicits an image of direct, and thus logical, movement (from one point to another via a straight linear path); and think through evokes an image of continuous, unbroken movement through space. These constructions allow users to locate and identify abstract ideas in relation to spatiotemporal contexts, although such contexts are purely imaginary. It’s as if these imaginary indexical referents allow us to locate thoughts in the mind, with the mind having the physical features of a territory and thoughts having those of physical objects within it.
The notions of iconic and indexical reflex systems raise the question of the relation of language to thought. Do the grammars of specific languages influence or determine how children come to view the world? Do expressions like think up and think over, for example, condition users of English to think in certain ways? The idea that language and thought are interlinked generally falls under the rubric of the Whorfian hypothesis (WH), after the American anthropological linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), even though versions of this notion can be found before Whorf (chapter 2, §2.5). The WH posits that language structures predispose native speakers to attend to certain concepts as being necessary. But, as Whorf emphasized, this does not mean that innovation in language is impossible. On the contrary, we can use language to invent new categories of reference any time we want. For example, if for some reason we wish, or need, to refer to “adolescent boys between the ages of 13 and 16 who smoke,” then by coining an appropriate word, such as groon, we would in effect etch this concept into our worldview, because the presence of the word groon in memory, as Whorf argued, would predispose us to see its meaning as somehow necessary. When a boy with the stated characteristics came into view, therefore, we would immediately recognize him as a groon.
To see how language and thought are intertwined, it is instructive to compare two languages in a specific way to determine how they encode a particular concept, say, “device for keeping track of time.” In Italian, for instance, the word orologio is used to encode it. In English, on the other hand, two words exist, watch and clock, which are distinguished in terms of the collocation of the referent: watch refers to a device that is carried, worn, or put on bodies (on wrists, around the neck, in pockets, etc.), while clock, on the other hand, refers to an object that is placed in specific locations—on a table, on a wall, etc.—and not carried around. This does not mean that collocation distinctions do not exist in Italian. In this specific case they are conveyed by another language structure: da + place, with da meaning approximately “for": orologio da polso = wristwatch (“watch for wrist”), orologio da tavolo = table clock (“clock for table”), and so on. Historically speaking, the emergence of different categories of language to refer to time suggests different perceptions of time. The word watch originated in the 1850s when people started strapping clocks around their wrists. Since then people in the West seem to have, in a sense, become fixated on “watching” time pass. As the psychologist Robert Levine (1997) discovered, this fixation is typical of cultures that distinguish between clocks and watches, less so of others. Burmese monks, for instance, hardly need watches to inform them when it is time to get up. They get up when there is enough light to see the veins in their hands. In Mexican society, showing up “on time” is often cause for ridicule, rendering watches virtually useless. Language reflects such cultural perceptions at the same time that it projects them into discourse and, thus, reinforces them. So, the gist of the semiotic story of “device for keeping track of time” is that keeping accurate time, at least in the past, has been more of a preoccupation in English-speaking cultures than it has been in Italian and other cultures, and that this has been encoded in their respective language systems.
Whorf suggested that the function of language was to allow people to classify experience and that it thus was an organizing grid through which humans came to perceive and understand the world around them. When we name something, we are classifying. What we are naming belongs to no class until we put it in one. For this reason, the WH raises some interesting questions about social inequalities and the structure of the language that encodes them. In English, sexist terms like chairman, spokesman, etc. were often cited in the past as examples of how language predisposed its users to view certain social roles in gender terms. Feminist critics have maintained that English grammar was originally organized from the perspective of those at the center of the society—the men. This is why we still tend to say that a woman marries into a man’s family, and why at wedding ceremonies expressions such as “I pronounce you man and wife,” are still used by some. In the not-too-distant past, and perhaps still today in many areas of Western society, women were defined in relation to men. Similarly damaging language is the kind that excludes women, such as “lady atheist” or “lesbian doctor,” implying that atheists and doctors are not typically female or lesbian.
By the way, in some other societies the reverse is true. Investigating grammatical gender in the Iroquois language, Alpher (1987) found that in this language the feminine gender is the default one, whereas masculine items are marked by a special subject prefix. This is the converse of gender categories in most languages with a gender system. Alpher relates this to the fact that the Iroquois society is matrilineal—traditionally women hold the land, pass it on to their heirs in the female line, are responsible for agricultural production, control the wealth, arrange marriages, and so on. Iroquois grammar too is organized from the viewpoint of those at the center of the society—in this case the women.
One of the more interesting implications of the WH is the view that language models the world in the same way that visual art does. To a semiotician this is a particularly interesting implication because it would not only confirm the notion of an interconnectedness among the various codes of the signifying order, but also assign a much more prominent role to the brain’s primary modeling system in language (chapter 3, §3.2). The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), too, saw sentences as representing features of the world in the same way that pictures did. The lines and shapes of drawings show how things are related to each other; so too, he claimed, do the ways in which words are put together in sentences. It is relevant to note, however, that Wittgenstein had serious misgivings about his so-called “picture theory” of language. Before his death he became perplexed by the fact that language could do much more than just construct propositions about the world. So, he introduced the idea of language games, by which he claimed that there existed a variety of linguistic games (describing, reporting, guessing riddles, making jokes, etc.) that went beyond simple pictorial representation.
Like the body (chapter 4), language is felt across cultures to be an extension of persona. This would explain why language is used universally to identify people. Throughout the world people are given names, i.e. words that stand for them as individuals. A name has both indexical and symbolic properties because, like a pronoun, it identifies the person and, usually, h/er ethnic origin; it is symbolic because, like any word, it is a product of historical forces and thus tied to conventional systems of signification. Less often, names are coined iconically. Trivial but instructive examples of this can be seen in the names we tend to give household animals—Ruff, Purry, etc.
The study of names falls more properly under a branch of both semiotics and linguistics called onomastics (from Greek onoma “name”). The phenomenon of name-giving in the human species is indeed a fascinating one on many counts. Across cultures, a neonate is not considered a full-fledged member of the culture until s/he is given a name. The naming of a newborn infant is h/er first rite of passage in society, by which s/he is identified as a separate individual with a unique personality. If a person is not given a name by h/er family, then society will step in to do so. A person taken into a family, by marriage, adoption, or some other means, is also typically assigned the family name. From childhood on, the individual’s sense of Self is felt somehow to be embedded in h/er name. In traditional Inuit tribes, for instance, an individual is perceived to have a body, a soul, and a name; a person is not seen as complete without all three. A few years ago, a British television program, The Prisoner, played on this very same perception. It portrayed a totalitarian world in which people were assigned numbers instead of traditional names—Number 1, Number 2, etc. The idea was, obviously, that a person could be made to conform to the will of the state and to become more controllable by state officials if s/he did not have a name. The whole series was, in a sense, a portrayal of the struggle that humans feel to discover the meaning of Self. The use of numerical identification of prisoners and slaves is, in effect, a negation of their Selfhood and, ultimately, of their worth.
In Western society, the Judeo-Christian influence on first names has been especially strong. In some countries, like Brazil, a child must be given an appropriate Christian name before s/he can be issued a birth certificate. Although this might seem like an extreme measure, in all cultures name-giving is constrained by traditions and conventions. In some parts of Western society, name-giving is a much more open and unregulated process. But even in the West, it is shaped by several customs and trends—e.g. children are often named after the months (May), precious stones (Ruby), after popular contemporary personalities (Elvis, Marilyn), after flowers (Blossom), after places (Georgia), or after personages in the classical myths (Diana, Jason). New names are frequently coined from variant spellings (JoEtta, Beverleigh), or even completely invented. The late rock musician and composer Frank Zappa (1940-1993), for instance, named his daughter Moon Unit and his son Dweezil.
Until the late Middle Ages, one personal name was generally sufficient as an identifier. Duplications, however, began to occur so often that additional names became a necessity. Hence, surnames were given to individuals (literally “names on top of a name”) to keep their identities distinct. These were either indexical, in that they identified the individual in terms of h/er place of origin or parentage, or descriptive (qualisigns), in that they referred to some personal or social feature (e.g. occupation) of the individual (or of h/er family). In England, for example, a person living near or at a place where apple trees grew might be called “John where-the-apples-grow,” hence, John Appleby. Such topographic surnames abound in English-speaking cultures—e.g. Wood, Woods, Moore, Church, Hill, Rivers, etc. Descendant surnames, or names indicating parentage, were often formed by prefixes such as Mac-, Mc- in Scottish or Irish names or Ap- in Welsh names, or by suffixes such as -son in English names, -sen or -dottir in Scandinavian names—e.g. Johnson or Jensen, “son of John,” Maryson, “son of Mary,” Jakobsdottir, “daughter of Jacob.” Surnames reflecting medieval life and occupations also formed a productive source of individualization, Smith being the foremost with equivalents in Spanish (Ferrer), German (Schmidt), and Hungarian (Kovacs). Other surnames derived in a similar fashion are Farmer, Carpenter, Tailor, Weaver, etc.
Name-giving is extended across cultures to encompass inanimate referents. When this is done, the objects somehow take on, as if by magic, an animate quality of their own. Throughout the world, naming objects and artifacts is felt to bestow upon them a mysterious life force. So fundamental is our association between name-giving and life that this should come as no surprise. So, when brand products or tropical storms, for instance, are given names they seem to take on a human personality that is meant to appeal to specific consumers. The names given to cosmetics and beauty products frequently evoke connotations of beauty, cleanliness, sophistication, and naturalness: Moondrops, Natural Wonder, Rainflower, Sunsilk, Skin Dew. Sometimes they convey scientific authority: Eterna 27, Clinique, Endocil, Equalia. Men’s toiletries are often descriptive: Brut, Cossak, Denim, Aramis, Devin. Cars are also given descriptive names: Jaguar, Mustang, Triumph, Princess.
Language manifests itself as speech, i.e. as articulated sounds (see above, §5.1). But speech can also be represented visually in the graphic medium. The use of visual signs to represent speech is known as writing. In evolutionary terms writing did not develop as a simple substitute for speech. The earliest graphic signs so far discovered were unearthed in western Asia from the Neolithic era. They are elemental shapes on clay tokens that were probably used as image-making forms or casts (Schmandt-Besserat 1978, 1992).
The earliest writing systems were all independent of speech and not alphabetic or syllabic in nature. They were pictorial. In the ancient civilization of Sumer around 3500 BC, for instance, pictorial writing was used to record agricultural transactions and astronomical observations. Most of the Sumerian pictographs represented nouns such as stars and animals, with a few for such qualisigns as “small,” “big,” and “bright.” A few centuries later, this pictographic system was expanded to include verbs: to sleep, for example, was represented by a person in a supine position. To facilitate the speed of writing, the Sumerians eventually streamlined their pictographs and transformed them into symbols for the actual sounds of speech. These were written down on clay tablets with a stylus in a form of writing known as cuneiform.
Pictographs are images of objects, people, or events—for example, a drawing of the sun stands for the spoken word sun. Pictographic forms of writing are still in existence today even in alphabet-using cultures: e.g. the images of males and females painted on bathroom doors are examples of pictographs. More abstract forms of pictographic signs are called ideographs (or ideograms). These may bear some resemblance to their referents, but assume much more of a conventional knowledge of the relation between signifier and signified on the part of the user. International symbols for such things as public telephones, washrooms, etc. are all ideographic. More abstract ideographs are known as logographs (or logograms). These show a highly-evolved form of symbolicity which, nevertheless, has a basis in iconicity. A logographic system combines various pictographs for the purpose of indicating non-picturable ideas. Thus, the Chinese pictographs for sun and tree are combined to represent the Chinese spoken word for east.
By about 3000 BC the ancient Egyptians also used a pictographic script—known as hieroglyphic. But in their case, the pictographs were becoming more alphabetic, standing for parts of words. Hieroglyphic writing was used to record hymns and prayers, to register the names and titles of individuals and deities, and to record various community activities—hieroglyphic derives from Greek hieros “holy” and glyphein “to carve.”
From such pictographic-ideographic systems emerged the first syllabaries. These were systems of signs for representing syllables. They were developed by the Semitic peoples of Palestine and Syria from the ideographs of the Egyptian system during the last half of the second millennium BC. Syllabaries are still used in some cultures. Japanese, for example, is still written with two complete syllabaries—the hiragana and the katakana—devised to supplement the characters originally taken over from Chinese.
The emergence of syllabaries on the scene bears witness to the fact that, once writing became a flourishing enterprise in the ancient civilizations, it was convenient for it to be produced without pictures. The transition from pictorial to sound representation—the alphabet principle—came about to make writing rapid and efficient in its use of space. So, for example, instead of drawing the full head of an ox (1) only its bare outline was drawn; which (2) stood for the ox; which (3) eventually came to stand for the word for ox (aleph in Hebrew); and which (4) finally stood just for the first sound in the word (a for aleph). Stage (4) occurred around 1000 BC when the ancient Phoenicians systematically created the first true alphabetic system for recording sounds. The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and started the practice of naming each symbol by such words as alpha, beta, gamma, etc., which were imitations of Phoenician words: aleph “ox,” beth “house,” gimel “camel,” etc. Alphabetic writing has become the norm in Western cultures. But in every alphabetic symbol that we now use to record our thoughts abstractly, there is an iconic history and prehistory that has become dim or virtually unseeable because our eyes are no longer trained to extract pictorial meaning from it.
Alphabetic writing is a truly remarkable achievement. It has made possible the recording and transmission of knowledge. Indeed, in Western culture to be an alphabet-user is to be literate and thus educated. So close is the link between the two that we can scarcely think of knowledge unless it is recorded in some alphabetic form and preserved in some book form for posterity; nor can we think of a person as educated unless we know that s/he can read and write verbal texts competently. In order to read and write, one must follow a sequence of characters arranged in a particular spatial order. For example, English writing flows from left to right, Hebrew from right to left, and Chinese from top to bottom. In all alphabet-using cultures, the ability to read and write does not emerge spontaneously. The child must be trained to recognize the alphabetic system and use it systematically to encode and decode written texts.
Besides its intrinsic value, the ability to read has economic consequences in modern societies. Adults who are better-than-average readers are more likely to have high-paying jobs. The growing technologization of society has brought along with it increasing demands for literacy, which the schools are hard pressed to meet. The reading ability needed to comprehend materials important to daily living, such as income tax forms and newspapers, has been estimated to be as high as the twelfth-grade level in North America. Some efforts have been made to simplify forms and manuals, but the lack of sufficient reading ability definitely impairs a person’s capacity to function in modern society.
The semiotician seeks information on a culture’s verbal code in itself as a system of representation, and also on how it is used for communication. The study of “language in action,” so to speak, is called discourse analysis. Discourse is coded behavior. Like kinesic codes (chapter 4), it is designed to regulate Self-Other relations in social situations, and to allow individuals to present the Self strategically to Others (Di Pietro 1987). Needless to say, collecting data on discourse must be guided by some theoretical framework. Here, we will describe one framework that is particularly useful for compiling such data, namely the one devised by the Moscow-born linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), who carried out most of his work in the United States. Jakobson identified six “constituents” that characterize all speech acts (Jakobson 1960):
- an addresser who initiates the communication of a message;
- a message that s/he recognizes must refer to something other than itself;
- an addressee who is the intended receiver of the message;
- a context that permits the addressee to recognize that the message is referring to something other than itself: e.g. if someone were crying out “Help,” lying motionless on the ground, then one would easily understand that the message is referring to a concrete situation;
- a mode of contact by which physical, social, and psychological connections are established between the addresser and addressee;
- a code providing the signs and structural information for constructing and deciphering messages.
Jakobson then pointed out that each of these constituents correlates with a different communicative function:
- emotive: implies the presence of the addresser’s emotions, attitudes, social status, etc. in the message;
- conative: implies the intended effect—physical, psychological, social, etc.—that the message is expected to have on the addressee;
- referential: implies a message constructed to convey information (“Main Street is two blocks north of here”);
- poetic: implies a message constructed in some aesthetic fashion (“Roses are red, violets are blue, and how’s it going with you?”);
- phatic: implies a message designed to establish social contact (“Hi, how’s it going?”);
- metalingual: implies a message designed to refer to the code used (“The word noun is a noun”).
Jakobson’s analysis of discourse goes well beyond the positing of a situation of simple information transfer, as the bull’s-eye model of communication discussed in chapter 2 implies (§2.3). It involves determining who says what to whom; where and when it is said; and how and why it is said. This implies that discourse is motivated and shaped by the setting, the message contents, the participants, and the goals of each interlocutor. Discourse thus makes an emotional claim on everyone in the social situation. It can thus be characterized as a form of acting, of presenting persona through language.
An interesting area of discourse that can be used to illustrate how to apply the Jakobsonian model to the study of verbal communication is adolescent speech. Jakobson’s emotive and conative functions are particularly dominant in shaping teenage talk (Danesi 1994). The emotive function shows up, for example, in increased rates of speech delivery, in overwrought intonation patterns, in emphatic voice modulations, etc.—e.g. “He’s sooooo cute!” “She’s faaaaar out!” “That’s amaaaazing!” etc. Utterances such as “We called her up (?) (intonation like a question)...but she wasn’t there (?) (same intonation). . .so we hung up (?) (same intonation)” show a pattern of a rising emotive tone of voice, as if each sentence were interrogative. Called colloquially by the media “uptalk,” this feature is, in effect, an implicit tag questioning strategy. A tag is a word, phrase, or clause added to a sentence to emphasize a point, to seek approval, to ascertain some reaction, etc.—e.g. “She’s coming tomorrow, isn’t she?” “That was a good course, right?” etc. The “uptalk” pattern demonstrated by adolescents is, in effect, a tag question without the tag. This emotive trait probably indicates the need of teenagers to ensure the full conative participation of their interlocutors. There is nothing particularly surprising about this feature of adolescent discourse. Adult speech can also be highly emotive. Adults commonly lengthen sounds for emphasis and regularly use intonation patterns to express emotional states, to emphasize something, to shock someone, etc. The difference between adult and adolescent speech lies in the degree and extent to which emotivity characterizes the discourse.
The poetic function can also be discerned frequently as a feature of adolescent discourse. In the mid-1980s words such as loser, gross-out, air-head, slime-bucket, and others were in widespread use in North American teen language. Words like vomatose, thicko, burger-brain, knob gained currency in the 1990s. But no matter from what generation of teens the words come, the poetic function reflects a need to describe others and meaningful social situations in highly connotative ways. Adolescents are keenly sensitive to bodily appearance and image, as well as to the perceived sociability of peers. At puberty changes in physical appearance are perceived as traumatic. Consequently, teenagers are concerned that everyone is constantly observing them. To offset this preoccupation with Self-image, they talk defensively about how others act, behave, and appear. Language is thus used as an evaluative grid for assessing peer appearance and sociability, as a strategy for deflecting attention away from the Self.
As the brief foregoing discussion shows, Jakobson’s model provides a useful grid not only for classifying and interpreting actual discourse tokens as they occur in real-life situations, but also for understanding the fact that discourse is frequently a highly emotive form of behavior whose primary purpose appears to be the regulation of Self-Other relations in social interaction.
The Interconnectedness of Discourse
Discourse is interconnected with all the other codes and representational practices of the signifying order (interconnectedness principle). For example, it is discernible in ritualistic situations—the Catholic Mass is spoken; sermons, prep rallies, and other ceremonial gatherings are anchored in speeches, either traditionally worded or specifically composed for the occasion; and so on. The use of language in ritual is not to create new meanings, but to assert communal sense-making, to ensure cultural cohesion. Societies are held together as a result of such verbal rituals. People typically love to hear the same speeches, songs, stories at specific times during the year (at Christmas, at Passover, etc.) in order to feel united with the other members of the culture. These are the formulaic texts that the language code allows its users to construct for the occasion. They are passed on from generation to generation with little or no modification.
From the beginning of time, language has been thought to have special powers. The name of God has been a closely guarded secret in many cultures, if indeed it was known or allowed to be uttered at all. Cultural shamans were thought to possess magical word knowledge that could control objects, people, spirits, and natural events. The magical force of language is still woven into the formulas, incantations, and litanies of names of all religions. At a Roman Catholic Mass, for example, the speaking of the words “This is my body” is thought to identify the moment when the communion bread is changed into the body of Christ. Prayer and invocations of various types are thought to be able to cure disease, ward off evil, bring good to oneself and harm to an enemy. And when we give a name to someone in a religious ceremony, the infant is believed to be the recipient of spiritual life. This is why Ernst Cassirer (1946: 34-36) saw language, myth, and ritual as having a common origin:
The word, like a god or a daemon, confronts man not as a creation of his own, but as something existent and significant in its own right, as an objective reality. As soon as the spark has jumped across, as soon as the tension and emotion of the moment has found its discharge in the word or the mythical image, a sort of turning point has occurred in human mentality; the inner excitement which was a mere subjective state has vanished, and has been resolved into the objective form of myth or of speech.
As Cassirer (1946: 38) goes on to explain, the power of language lies in its ability to fix something in the mind, so that it does not “fade away again when the spoken word has set its seal upon it and given it definite form.” This impulse to name is at the root of religious experience; and indeed a large number of creation myths feature the Word as the force behind creation.
Words in their origin were probably perceived as sacred acts. Those who possessed knowledge of words also possessed supernatural or magical powers. In many early cultures, even knowing the name of a deity was purported to give the knower great power—e.g. in Egyptian mythology, the sorceress Isis tricked the sun god, Ra, into revealing his name and, thus, gained power over him and all other gods. In some cultures, the name given to the individual has a life and a historical reality independent of the individual, bringing with it all the qualities of the previous individuals who shared that name. The ancestors bearing that name are perceived to weave a sort of magical protective aura on the individual named after them. The Inuit, for instance, believe that a newborn baby cries because it wants its name, and will not be complete until it gets it. In some traditional Inuit tribes, an individual will not pronounce h/er name, fearing that this senseless act could break the magical spell of protection that it brings with it. As Espes Brown (1992: 13) puts it: “the fact that when we create words we use our breath, and for these people and these traditions breath is associated with the principle of life; breath is life itself. And so if a word is born from this sacred principle of breath, this lends an added sacred dimension to the spoken word.”
Belief in the magical powers of language is not limited to oral tribal cultures. It abounds even in modern technological cultures. “Speak of the devil,” we say in common parlance, and “he will appear.” When someone sneezes, uttering “Bless you” is meant to ward off sickness. Verbal contact—“Hi, how’s it going?”—which Malinowski (1922) called phatic communion, is so common that we have forgotten that it has a basis in ritual. As Ann Gill (1994: 106) puts it, language and magic are intrinsically intertwined:
By portraying experience in a particular way, words work their unconscious magic on humans, making them see, for example, products as necessary for success or creating distinctions between better or worse—be it body shape, hair style, or brand of blue jeans. Words create belief in religions, governments, and art forms; they create allegiances to football teams, politicians, movie stars, and certain brands of beer. Words are the windows of our own souls and to the world beyond our fingertips. Their essential persuasive efficacy works its magic on every person in every society.
The other side of sacredness is taboo. This word comes from the tribal language Tongan where it means “holy, untouchable.” Taboos exist in all cultures, because there are certain forms of language that a society prefers to avoid. These are generally related to sexuality, the supernatural, excretion, death, and various aspects of social life. For example, among the Zuni of New Mexico, the word takka “frogs” is prohibited during ceremonies. In our own culture, so-called four-letter words are generally considered obscene, but they can be perceived as taboo if uttered in sacred places like churches, sanctuaries, etc.
The poems, stories, and plays that individuals throughout the world have created, and continue to create, are testaments to the need for verbal art in human life. Of all the verbal art forms, poetry is the most fundamental. Poetry can be defined as verbal art based on the acoustic, rhythmic, and imagistic properties of words so as to provide insight into the intrinsic nature of things. The philosopher Vico (chapter 2, §2.1) saw poetry as the primordial form of language. Vico called the first speakers “poets,” which etymologically means “makers,” because he claimed that they formed their first concepts poetically—e.g. as images of a god or a hero. The ancient Greeks, for instance, formed the concept of “valor” poetically through the character of the hero Achilles in the Iliad. This same pattern of knowing is noticeable in children, who invariably acquire their first concepts through poetic story figures—through god-like and heroic characters who embody them. But these embodiments are not merely fanciful nor principally subjective.
Poetry is essentially “vocal music,” since it is marked by rhythm and tone. Although poetry eventually gained an independent existence in our culture, in many others poetry and music are still conceived of as identical. Some of the earliest written examples of poetic texts found by archeologists in ancient Sumer, Babylon, and other areas of the Middle East appear to confirm that poetry originated alongside music and drama as a communal expression to seek favor from, or give praise to, the gods. The musical aspect of poetry is still visible in many cultures. For example, in the Navajo culture, poetic forms are still used as incantations for rain. But even in our modern technological culture, ritualistic uses of poetry abound—e.g. we use poetic language on greeting cards, on special kinds of invitations, to impart knowledge to children, in advertising jingles, and so on.
The poet’s words reverberate in our minds. Sound is what shapes the sense in poetry. Poetry is thus evidence that the senses work intermodally in the production of fundamental meanings. The term that is used to refer to intermodality is synesthesia—the process by which several sensations are evoked in tandem. Synesthetic effects can be discerned in expressions such as “loud red,” “bright tone,” etc. The term aesthesia, on the other hand, is commonly used to refer to the activation of all the sensory modalities in a holistic way. When we call the appreciation of art an “aesthetic experience,” we literally mean that we sense and feel the meaning of a work of art as a whole.
Interest in the nature and function of poetry goes back to ancient times. In the Republic, Plato asserted that poets were divinely inspired, but he regarded poetry as a pallid imitation of the actual world. Aristotle, on the other hand, in the Poetics, argued that poetry was the greatest of all the creative arts, representing what is universal in human experience. The Roman poet Horace (65–8 BC), in his critical work Ars Poetica, maintained that the function of poetry was to please and instruct. In his essay On the Sublime, the rhetorician Longinus (213–273 AD) stressed that poetry was a means through which spiritual, moral, or intellectual knowledge could be achieved. In the Middle Ages, the great Italian poet Dante (1265–1321) showed the world how poetry was intertwined with the human spirit and the flux of history. In his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, which he began around 1307 and completed shortly before his death, Dante took his readers on an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. In each of these three realms Dante meets with mythological, historical, and contemporary personages. Each character is symbolic of a particular fault or virtue, either religious or political; and the punishment or rewards meted out to the characters reflect, annotatively, Dante’s portrayal of human actions as meaningful in the universal scheme of things. Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by Virgil, who is, to Dante, the symbol of reason, and through paradise by Beatrice, the woman Dante loved. The work of modern poets throughout the world has been inspired by Dante’s masterpiece.