To Claude Lévi-Strauss on his sixtieth birthday
Many early anthropologists were certain that there were universal patterns of culture or universal categories which underlay all cultures; thus Adolf Bastian—who was, incidentally, a staunch critic of Darwinism—contended that, by general law, the “psychic unity of mankind” everywhere produced “elementary ideas” [Elementargedanken; cf. Hugo Schuchardt’s (1912) concept of a linguistic elementare Verwandtschaft, derived directly from Bastian] which, responsive to different external stimuli, then gave rise to areal divisions and, at a further stage of evolutionary development, to cultural variation in history proper; compared to the basic laws, however, he considered the latter of subordinate significance (Lowie, 1937).
Contemporary anthropologists have, on occasion, furnished partial lists of items that seem to occur in every human society known to history or ethnography, and have shown that, when some of these— notably language—are analyzed in detail, the resemblances among all cultures are found to be very numerous indeed: “For example, not only does every culture have a language, but all languages are resolvable into identical kinds of components . . (Murdock, 1945). On the other hand, while Kluckhohn (1953) has underlined that “linguistics alone of all the branches of anthropology has discovered elemental units . . . which are universal, objective, and theoretically meaningful,” he has also questioned whether comparable units are, “in principle, discoverable in sectors of culture less automatic than speech and less closely tied ... to biological fact.” Whatever one may think about the underlying assumptions here about the nature of a relationship between the biological and the social sciences—I join with the view outlined by Tiger and Fox (1966) and endorse the research strategy this implies (cf. Glass, 1967)—an unambiguous resolution of this apparent quandary emerges with the consistent application throughout cultural and social anthropology of the systems concept that is the cornerstone of all modern linguistics. This was pithily reformulated by Lévi-Strauss (1962) when, with the aim of disposing of such vague notions as “archetypes” or a “collective unconscious,” he emphasized the validity of latent relational as against patent substantial invariance: “seules les formes peuvent être communes, mais non les contenues.” The more general slogan of Bateson (Chapter 22), “The pattern is the thing,” once more underlines what all linguists know, that any typology must be constructed by a rigorous elimination of redundancies from the systems assumed to be topologically equivalent. When viewed in this way, any two cultures are seen as superficially different representations of one abstract structure, namely, of human culture; and it is this isomorphism which accounts for the feasibility of communication across cultures. The search for universals thus once again turns out to be a search for the “psychic unity of mankind,” that is, for the fundamental laws which govern human behavior.
In no domain has this search been more diligent—and, after several false starts, more productive—than in linguistics. The early decades of the nineteenth century were suffused by a creative fervor as linguists of that era pursued their single-minded quest to consolidate and order the enormous quantities of concrete language data which had been amassed in the eighteenth century, chiefly under the impetus of Leibniz. Their engrossment with the diversification of language through time and with the concomitant reconstruction of extinct stages of languages by the comparative-historical method temporarily overshadowed, if never quite extinguished, an antecedent tradition of “philosophical” grammar with which the seventeenthand eighteenthcentury students of language were deeply concerned (cf. Sebeok, 1966). As early as 1808, Friedrich von Schlegel—who was a pupil of George Cuviers, the founder of comparative anatomy—proposed a program of investigation animated by a biological metaphor which crudely foreshadowed the key notion of general ethology, that behavior unfolds with morphological growth and differentiation (as a consequence of genetic programming; see, e.g., Lorenz, 1965): “Comparative grammar will give us entirely new information on the genealogy of language, in exactly the same way in which comparative anatomy has thrown light upon natural history” (Pedersen, 1962). The rewarding preoccupation of the past century with problems of linguistic kinship left its scars on the striving for typology in that era, of which perhaps Marrs theory of stadialism—developed through the 1920s as a misconceived Marxist and equally perverted scientific effort to correlate linguistic (especially morphological) types ordered as pseudo-evolutionary stages, with psychological and societal stages arranged in parallel manner—was the last and most thoroughly discredited survival (Thomas, 1957).
An initial impression of rich and seemingly inexhaustible diversity—assigned primacy by empirically inclined anthropological and other descriptive linguists of (roughly) the second quarter of our century— is now again being gradually superseded by the growing conviction of pervasive and significant invariance in the midst of surface variety. The history of linguistic thought has ever oscillated between a predominant preference for data collecting and the view that languages are separate objects to be described, compared, and interpreted, as against a concentrated search for universals of language as their defining properties. This latter goal—especially in its contemporary development— necessarily involves an understanding of the neurophysiological (Darley, 1967) and the even more broadly biological (Lenneberg, 1967; Chapter 21) characteristics of man, his modes of perception, categorization, and transformation, in order to account for the behavior of this unique language-using species and, more immediately, for the processes of linguistic ontogeny. As Zvegintsev (1967) has insisted, the study of language universals becomes meaningful “only when viewing them as interconnected with other sciences, and the results of this study acquire equal importance both for linguistics proper and for other sciences.”
The study of language universals—whether substantive, as traditionally pursued (and as exemplified in Greenberg, 1963, and by Greenberg, 1966), or formal, as recently proposed by generative grammarians (Katz and Postal, 1964, Chomsky, 1965)—reveals that all known natural languages are relatively superficial variations on a single underlying theme—what Humboldt, in 1821, explicitly recognized as “an intellectual instinct of the mind” (Cowan, 1963)—a model which is, moreover, both species-specific and species-consistent. The fruitless (but apparently still not altogether resolved) antithesis between “innate” and “acquired” categories of behavior (cf. Hinde, 1966) is reconcilable in our domain if we assume that the universal glottopoetic scheme (deep structure, intended as an approximation to the Humboldtian notion of “inner form”) is hereditary, while the environment contributes the behavioral variability (reflected in surface structures or “outer forms”). In other words, the development of a normal neonate’s faculty of language, which presumably includes a set of the universal primes of the verbal code, is wholly determined by the genetic code, but in such a way that this identical genetic blueprint can then find a variety of expressions in phenogeny through space and time. The feedback from man’s environment to his genetic constitution, the interaction between his nature and his culture, yields the thousands of natural languages, but neither parameter can account for more than a portion of the formative rules which led to their création. The conclusions seem inescapable that the faculty of language— le langage—emerged only once in the course of evolution, that its basic ground plan has remained both unaltered in and peculiar to our species, and that the multiform languages—les langues—concretely realized in human societies became differentiated from each other later on through the miscellaneous, more or less well recognized, processes of historical linguistics.
While language, in its several concrete manifestations, notably speech (but also in its derivatives and transductions, e.g., into script or electrical pulses) is, of course, mans signaling system par excellence, indeed, the hallmark of his humanity [or, as Simpson (1966) put it, “the most diagnostic single trait of man”], it is by no means his sole method of communication—only a particular, uniquely adaptive case. The other devices at his disposal, together with those properly linguistic, constitute an important part of semiotics, rapidly burgeoning into an autonomous field of research. The term semiotic, confined in earliest usage to medical concerns with the sensible indications of changes in the condition of the human body, that is, symptomatology, later came to be used by the Stoics with a broader meaning and seems to have been introduced into English philosophical discourse by John Locke, in Chapter XXI of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke considered the doctrine of signs as that branch of his tripartite division of all sciences “the business whereof is to consider the nature of signs, the mind makes use of for the understanding of things, or conveying its knowledge to others.” For communication and for recording of our thoughts, “signs of our ideas are . . . necessary: those which men have found most convenient, and therefore generally make use of, are articulate sounds. The consideration, then, of ideas and words as the great instruments of knowledge, makes no despicable part of their contemplation who would take a view of human knowledge in the whole extent of it. And perhaps if they were distinctly weighed, and duly considered, they would afford us another sort of logic and critic, than what we have been hitherto acquainted with.”
The real founder and first systematic investigator of semiotic, however, was the subtle and profound American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce: “I am, as far as I know,” he observed, “a pioneer, or rather a backwoodsman, in the work of clearing and opening up what I call semiotic, that is, the doctrine of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis; and I find the field too vast, the labour too great, for a first-comer. I am, accordingly; obliged to confine myself to the most important questions” (Peirce, 1934 [ca. 1906]). It is, incidentally, to Peirce that we owe the classification of signs into icons, indexes, and symbols which (with some essential modifications) has proved to be of great utility in several recent studies of both human (Jakobson, 1964, 1965, 1967) and animal communication (Sebeok, 1967b).
The unique place of semiotic among the sciences—not merely one among the others, “but an organon or instrument of all the sciences” —was stressed by Charles Morris, who proposed (1938) to absorb logic, mathematics, as well as linguistics entirely in semiotic. Morris’s trichotomy of semiotic into syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics has also proved generally very useful and particularly so in stimulating various approaches to animal communication (cf. Marler, 1961, and Altmann’s and Sebeok’s chapters in Altmann, 1967). “The whole science of language,” Rudolf Carnap then reaffirmed in 1942, “is called semiotic,” and, in 1946, Morris introduced further refinements that are valuable for mapping out the field of animal communication (Sebeok, 1967a), such as the distinction among pure semiotic, which elaborates a language to talk about signs, descriptive semiotic, which studies actual signs, and applied semiotic, which utilizes knowledge about signs for the accomplishment of various purposes. The variant form semiotics —by analogy with semantics and its congeners, rather than with logic and its—seems lately to have gained currency on the initiative of Margaret Mead, as a term that might aptly cover “patterned communications in all modalities” (Sebeok et al., 1964).
As a scientific discipline, general semiotics is still in its infancy. When de Saussure postulated (in one version of his posthumous book, 1967 ) the existence of a science devoted to “la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale,” he further remarked that, since sémiologie (as he called it then; nowadays the French term is being increasingly replaced by sémiotique, because the former more commonly means “symptomatology”) did not yet exist, no one could foretell what it would be like; one could only be certain that linguistics will be a part of it and that the laws of the former would govern it as well. Even today, semiotics lacks a comprehensive theoretical foundation but is sustained largely as a consistently shared point of view (Barthes, 1964), having as its subject matter all systems of signs irrespective of their substance and without regard of the species of emitter or receiver involved. As Mayenowa (1967) has correctly observed, since the semiotic disciplines, excepting only linguistics, “are themselves of recent origin, more or less contemporary with semiotics, we cannot as yet be said to have developed adequate and universally accepted theories for sign systems, other than those developed in linguistics for the natural languages.” It remains to be seen whether a general theory of semiotics can be constructed such that the problems and solutions relating to the natural languages can themselves be reformulated in an interesting way. At present, the trend continues in the opposite direction, that is, the descriptions of other sign systems tend to more or less slavishly imitate—despite occasional warnings, e.g., by Lévi-Strauss (1945)—and more often than not quite erroneously, the narrow internal models successfully employed by linguists. The literature of semiotics is thus replete with mere restatements rather than solutions of problems, and the need for different kinds of theory at different levels of “coding” appears a most pressing task.
Man’s total communicative repertoire consists of two sorts of sign systems: the anthroposemiotic, that is, those that are exclusively human, and the zoosemiotic, that is, those that can be shown to be the end products of evolutionary series. The two are often confused, but it is important to distinguish the purely anthroposemiotic systems, found solely in man, from his zoosemiotic (Sebeok, 1967c) systems, which man shares with at least some ancestral species.
Anthroposemiotic systems are again of two types: first, language, plus those for which language provides an indispensable integrating base; and second, those for which language is merely—and perhaps mistakenly—thought to provide an infrastructure, or at least an analytical model to be approximately copied. Obvious examples of systems of the first type are furnished by any of the arts qualified, for this very reason, as verbal (Stender-Petersen, 1949), where a particular natural language necessarily intervenes between the source of a message and its destination (cf. several articles in Lotman, 1965, 1967). Among such complex macrostructures, which may be considered secondary semiotic systems (cf., however, the discussion of Kristeva, 1967), belong also forms, for instance (cf. T. Tsivian, in Lotman, 1965), of normative etiquette behavior, as well as those assemblages of objects that man has elevated to the status of sign systems as he filtered them through his languages. Thus clothing serves at once a protective and a communicative function (cf. Laver, 1964), and food satisfies both a need for calories and a craving for information; the nomenclature of fashion (Barthes, 1967) or of cooking (Lévi-Strauss, 1966) is the untranslatable signans, to be understood in relation to the use to which the objects are put in this or that society, in brief, to the corresponding transmutable signatum. (It is interesting to note in passing that clothing, in its duple function, is not a universal, but bodily adornment, constituting a system of signs with no evident protective function, is.)
To the contrary, such is not the case when addresser and addressee are coupled, e.g., in the acoustic channel by music (Ruwet, 1967), in the visual channel by chalk marks (internationally used by mens tailors), or in the chemical channel by manufactured perfumes (Sebeok, 1967b): semiotic systems of this type, although uniquely human, do not imply any particular linguistic code. Myth and ritual, which function in situ as mutually redundant (although not necessarily homologous, cf. Lévi-Strauss, 1956) components of a single culture complex, illustrate, in the sense implied here, typological opposites.
Zoosemiotic systems found in man, inter alia, are sometimes classified under such labels as paralinguistics and kinesics (see bibliography of Hayes, in Sebeok et al., 1964), proxemics (Hall, 1968), or simply in terms of the sensory channels used, as gustation for proximal and olfaction for distal chemical signaling (Sebeok, 1967b), or tactile (Frank, 1957), more specifically cutaneous (Moles, 1964), communication. Although there seems to be no compelling reason to assume, and some evidence (supporting intuition) to the contrary, that sign systems of this sort are language-like in any but trivial ways—chiefly arising from the evident fact that they, like language, are classified as semiotic disciplines—yet they are often prejudicially modeled according to one fashionable theory of language or another. Thus kinesics, to take one glaring example (but others could readily be cited), was deliberately and closely drawn by analogy with a design considered temporarily serviceable by a dominant school of American descriptivists of the late 1940s. This adherence has severely constrained the presentation of a wealth of valuable data on body motion, as well as distorted, in consequence, the proper perspective on kinesics in the hierarchy of semiotic systems in general. The particularism of linguistics of the previous generation, already mentioned, has led even one of the acutest observers of human postures and movements, Birdwhistell (e.g., 1963), to deny altogether the existence of universal gestures, and this in spite of Darwin’s (1872) empirical analysis of displays, ineluding a thorough treatment of human expressions, and Birdwhistell’s own avowed attitude when he first began to formulate a research strategy without the benefit of linguistics. As a matter of fact, and as one would expect a priori, recent pilot studies have confirmed that Darwin was quite correct in asserting that certain human expressions do occur cross-culturally and are probably universal: for instance, film documents of flirting girls from five cultures “show in principle the same type of facial expression and ambivalent behavior” (Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Hass, 1967).
There are, indeed, compelling reasons for sharing Chomsky’s skepticism (1967) for studying animal communication systems, human gestures, and language within the same framework, unless one is willing to rise to a level of abstraction where there are “plenty of other things incorporated under the same generalizations which no one would have regarded as being continuous with language or particularly relevant to the mechanisms of language.” To establish this level of abstraction is precisely the challenge of semiotics, but diachronic continuities are not material to the theory. Tavolga (Chapter 13) is also quite correct when he states that it is “erroneous to use the methods and theory developed for the study of human language in the investigation of a kind of communication found in another species at a different organizational level,” and in his insistence that levels of integration in behavior are qualitatively different, requiring, as such, “distinctive instrumentation, experimental operations, and theoretical approaches.” Nevertheless, his assertion that “Communication does not exist as a single phenomenon” simply does not follow; on the contrary, highly insightful cross-phyletic comparisons have already been made (e.g., by Marler, 1967), and will, we may confidently anticipate, continue to be made, provided that the analytical framework used is that of a well-developed theory of signs and not just of linguistic signs.
Parenthetically, it should be pointed out that the claim that a semiotic system, at any given time, functions independently of the processual forces that led to its formation (cf. the linguistic opposition of synchrony to diachrony) is not to say that a holistic analysis of, say, human gestures can afford to ignore their evolutionary antecedents. These can be traced in painstaking detail at least to the zoosemiotic behavior of primitive primates and insectivores, as Andrew (1963) has persuasively shown that many human facial displays have evolved from such mechanisms as responses by which vulnerable areas are protected and those associated with respiration or grooming. On the other hand, there are two schools of thought about the origin of language, impartially represented in this book (e.g., Chapters 5 and 21): “There are those who, like Darwin, believe in a gradual evolution, but there have been others who have believed that speech is specifically a human attribute, a function de novo, different in kind from anything of which other animals are capable” (Pumphrey, 1951). At any rate, there can be no facile generalizations overarching both language and the many well-identified zoosemiotic systems found in man, such as the territorial, including temporal, spacing mechanisms he shares with the rest of the organic world (Hall, 1968).
The question now arises whether a truly comparative science of signs is possible. We have argued that all natural languages are elaborations from a single template. If this is so, it would appear that the linguist’s knowledge of “deep structure” suffers from the handicap of being restricted to a sample of one. The rules of language can, in some measure, be described; but, being unique, can they be explained, in the sense that these are logically deducible from a higher-level set of semiotic laws? The study and characterization of mans other semiotic systems, and especially of the signaling behavior of the two million or so other extant species, are such immediately appealing tasks because they can perhaps point the way to an escape from the dilemma posed by the necessity for extrapolation from a sample of one and, in this way, enable us to discriminate what is necessary and what is contingent in systems of communication (cf. Moles, Chapter 23). This hope has fueled my own researches in these areas and motivated both the assembly of a volume on human communication (Sebeok et al., 1964) and this collection of papers on animal communication that includes exploratory inquiries concerning their implications for anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and the theory of communication.
Ultimately, however, zoosemiotics as a whole must face the identical problem of extrapolation from a sample of one. This is because terrestrial organisms, from protozoans to man, are so similiar in their biochemical details as to make it virtually certain that all of them have evolved from a single instance of the origin of life. A variety of observations support the hypothesis that the entire organic world has descended lineally from primordial life, the most impressive fact being the ubiquity of the molecule DNA. The genetic material of all known organisms on earth is composed largely of the nucleic acids DNA and RNA that contain in their structures information that is reproductively transmitted from generation to generation and that have, in addition, the capability for self-replication and mutation. In brief, the genetic code “is universal, or nearly so”; its decipherment was a stunning achievement, because it showed how “the two great polymer languages, the nucleic acid language and the protein language, are linked together” (Crick, 1966; details in Clark and Marcker, 1968). The Soviet mathematician Liapunov has further argued (1963) that all living systems transmit, through definitely prescribed channels, small quantities of energy or material containing a large volume of information that is responsible for the subsequent control of vast amounts of energy and materials. In this way, a host of biological as well as cultural phenomena can be comprehended as aspects of information handling: storage, feedback, message channeling, and the like. Reproduction is thus seen, in the end, to be in large measure information replication, or yet another sort of communication, a kind of control that seems to be a universal property of terrestrial life, independent of form or substance.
Five years ago, I called attention to a vision of new and startling dimensions: the convergence of the science of genetics with the seience of linguistics, remarking that both are emerging “as autonomous yet sister disciplines in the larger field of communication sciences, to which, on the molar level, zoosemiotics also contributes” (Sebeok, 1963). The terminology of genetics is replete with expressions borrowed from linguistics and from the theory of communication, as was recently pointed out by Jakobson (1968), who also emphasized the salient similarities and equally important differences between the respective structures and functions of the genetic and verbal codes. These, of course, urgently need further elucidation and precision. Yet it is amply clear even now that the genetic code must be regarded as the most fundamental of all semiotic networks and therefore as the prototype for all other signaling systems used by animals, including man. From this point of view, molecules that are quantum systems, acting as stable physical information carriers, zoosemiotic systems, and, finally, cultural systems, comprehending language, constitute a natural sequel of stages of ever more complex energy levels in a single universal evolution. It is possible, therefore, to describe language as well as living systems from a unified cybernetic standpoint. While this is perhaps no more than a useful analogy at present, hopefully providing insight if not yet new information, a mutual appreciation of genetics, animal communication studies, and linguistics may lead to a full understanding of the dynamics of semiosis, and this may, in the last analysis, turn out to be no less than the definition of life.
Note added in proof: the transcript of the highly pertinent televised discussion, conducted by Michel Tréguer and Gérard Chouchan, with François Jacob, Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Philippe L’Héritier, under the title “Vivre et parler,” appeared when this chapter was already in page proof, and thus too late for me to take into proper account; see the two successive issues of Les lettres françaises, for February 14 and 21, 1968.
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