Triangle of meaning

This year, at the urging of a friend, I presented at the APU Asia Pacific Conference. I was rather impressed with the panel organisation and level of research done there. While my paper did not fit perfectly into the type of research done there, it was enough to fit in with concepts and ideas presented in the same room.

My ideas on the ontological status of concepts and signifiers found application in papers on postcolonial cinema (Yu-Ting Hung’s presentation on director Hou Hsiao-hsien) and television (Aldrie Alman Drajat’s presentation on Japanese dorama and Indonesian cinetron) studies and Jose Rodolfo Aviles Ernult’s presentation on Stephen King’s novel IT.

For Dr Hung’s and Mr Drajat’s presentations it was applicable to the reading in the wider context creativity and homage, the need to define one’s own work against The Other. Similarly, Jose Ernult’s study also consciously defines itself against a Freudian backdrop.

What was important was that they found the idea of gap between signifier/concept and the referential thing applicable to their research, that it can help explain some aspects of their own reading. I, too, found it useful to find for myself how to best explain the discrepancy in general reading and misreading.

Far more detailed explanation will be needed in order to make this reevaluation of the meaning of the triangle of meaning a truly tool rather than being just a self-indulgent intellectual exercise. Now I have my work cut out for me.

Phonemic atomism

SOCRATES: Is a proposition resolvable into any part smaller than a name?
HERMOGENES: No; that is the smallest. 

(Cratylus, Plato)

In language there are levels of units. These are sentence, clause, phrase, word and phoneme. Here Socrates narrows down the meaningful unit to the word or name.

A phoneme in itself has no meaning as such. They are the building blocks of words. The three phonemes (and letters coincidentally in this case) which make up cat (C-A-T) have no meaning in themselves. Only when combined as a particular sequence have they been designated a particular meaning. It is not natural but agreed upon by convention.

In some ways, atoms are like phonemes. Atoms extant in the observed reality have “characteristics” unique to each element. Phonemes have characteristics given to them by language creators. Not all languages have identical number and range of sounds. Some have more. Others differentiate where another may make no such distinction. But one important thing is clear: before a unit is meaningful there are smaller units which have no meaning, but only a play of differences. Socrates (and Hermogenes) pointed this out as did Saussure two millennia later.

Linguistic determinism and relativity

In philosophy determinism is a theory of causation where what precedes a situation determines the outcome. While this is a secular theory is related to its religious cousin, predestination.

Linguistic determinism is the theory that a language determines the way you think of the world. There is a weak version termed linguistic relativity where it influences but not determines thought.

I am a fan of linguistic relativity. There are many things which linguistic determinism cannot explain. For example, when one has speaks two languages which one determines the way they think? Is such a person have a split personality? Does this also suggest that you cannot think without language?

To me, language is a tool that helps thinking but is not necessary for thinking. A beautiful sunset can be appreciated without words. But likely we appreciate it better with words. Language probably defines thinking better by giving it a defined limitation. The name (signifier) categorises it, separates it from some other name and therefore some other concept. It also allows us to share it. I am sure animals have a language albeit a crude one with limited meaning that has aided their survival. Being able to say how beautiful the sunset is is probably not something that would help them stay away from predators. Thus temporal affluence affords us this time to not only appreciate sunsets but to also hone our communication.

I cannot see this as being built into the brain (no language acquisition device as such) but more a generalisation of what sounds can be. The ability to vocalise a greater range of sounds allowed for a larger vocabulary. Generalised pattern recognition again allowed for more sophisticated messages to be made and transmitted. For these reasons vocabulary and grammar will vary between languages and within languages. And it can explain language change as well. Universal grammar simply has too many problems and inflexibilities to explain change and difference. Much of this problem has to do with an obsession with The Absolute or eidos.

Is “language isolate” a misnomer?

If you really think about it languages cannot be an isolate, that is, unless at the creation of the language it developed out of a population that had no language.

It is now accepted that about 70,000 years ago our species spread from Africa into Europe and Asia. As these populations migrated they some settled. It is possible language had yet developed, or least not fully. Nonetheless, there is a protolanguage that probably existed.

The influence of such a language, or influence of subsequent languages must exist. What is not noticed is that that influence remains within the language, much like how scholars noticed the similarities between Sanskrit and the languages of Europe.

And as much as people want to think of Japanese as a language isolate, people or peoples must have migrated from the main Asiatic continent. The idea of ‘peoples’ might explain the difficulty to trace a language like Japanese of its origin. Japan was a crossroad to the North American continent with routes from the south and the north as well as possible reverse migration from America as well.

Whatever the truth, it is now still possible to trace the genetic origins of people “fairly accurately”. And with genetics also comes influence of language, society, and culture.

anata – ‘you’ in Japanese

In English, to address the person you are speaking to, you use ‘you’ (I have just used ‘you’ four times in one sentence. lol). It is impossible to call them by name directly to him or her.

But that is English. In Japanese, you must use their name, or else drop the subject (which is permissible) all together.

In fact, to use the personal pronoun ‘you’ in Japanese can be rude, if it is to someone you are not on familiar terms with. anata is often and exclusively used between husband and wife.

So overgeneralising and then transferring a rule from L1 (one’s first language) to a L2 (one’s second language) is where common errors often come from. L2 often has to contend with the L1 in the brain. This is a sign of deep-seated habits and biases. Memory often interferes with learning. Unlearning is a very difficult process.