The linguistic sign

Saussure pointed to that language is mistakenly thought of as a matching of a thing to a name. To him the link is between a concept (signified) and a sound pattern (signifier). The signified is its meaning and the signifier is the “container”. The two together makes the linguistic sign.

The linguistic sign has two characteristics. One is that the link between signified and signifier is arbitrary. There is no natural link or reason that the concept should connected to its “container”. Secondly, the signifier is linear temporally and physically. It is a thing in its own right.

Furthermore, the value of a sign is summarised thus:

A language is a system in which all elements fit together, and in which the value of any one element depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all the others.

And so, “in the language itself, there are only differences“.

Reference: Course in General Linguistics, Saussure.

Actants

In any English sentence there are either zero, one, two or three actants.

Actants are the “participants” of the sentence. They are either people or things. In (1) below the action of “to rain” itself is the “zero” actant.

(1) It is raining.

“It” is the dummy subject.

In (2) and (3) the subjects “Peter” and “Charlene” are the actants respectively.

(2) Peter is swimming.
(3) Charlene is a teacher.

In (2) the act itself is performed by the subject “he”. In (3) “Charlene” and “the teacher” are one and the same person. Only one actant is involved in the description of the situation. In (4) and (5) below there are two actants. In (4) they are “Dave” and “the ball”. In (5) they are “the people” and “Hilary”. Since “Hilary” and “he president” are one and the same person we do not count the president as an actant.

(4) Dave kicked the ball.
(5) The people made Hilary the president.

In (6) we have three actants.

(6) Tony gave Leslie a presnet.

They are “Tony”, “Leslie” and “a present”.

Technically, it is possible to have more actants (and more than likely some languages do) but in English our limit seems to be three. More complex sentences will be simple sentences in disguise.

In praise of lexicogrammar

Lexicogrammar is not a word you hear much but those of a certain following – cognitive linguists, functional grammarians, etc – use this word to describe what is traditionally call vocabulary and grammar as one system rather than being two separate systems.

As a researcher in prepositions this is a big deal. It means I (can) treat prepositions as vocabulary, requiring them to be learnt by students when before they were and still are somewhat relegated to the category of grammar. Vocabulary and grammar should not be studied separately. Vocabulary are not individual words to be studied, or looked up when you don’t know the word. Vocabulary only have full function within a sentence, and shine bright within the context of use within communication. Certainly, in Saussurean linguistics the signifier/signified duality of words are an important and enlightening feature. But words are best understood in communicative units, namely sentences. And Saussure will not have argued against that. In fact he argued for it.

Undoubtedly dictionaries are useful tools. But they generally push the learner to think of words as separate objects with separate meanings. Good dictionaries will give plenty of examples of usage but students will generally use the cheapest or most handy dictionary at hand. Today this is the smartphone dictionary and translator. Rarely do they give examples. And for most of the time they give one translation to one word, suppressing the multiple nuanced (often schematically-related) meanings that most words have. I shall talk about this point in another post.

Form and meaning in linguistics

Form in linguistics and language refers to the symbols used to represent meaning. Each form has a particular meaning in a particular context. This cannot be stressed enough. It implies that a form can have different meanings in different contexts. However, the range of meanings for a form is usually limited to a prototype or prototypes based around an image schema to a set of extensions. This is referred to as polysemy (think of the different meanings listed in a dictionary of a particular word).

Note that the relationship of the form to meaning is largely arbitrary. This is quite easily proven to be true. Firstly, if meaning is linked to form then naturally all languages will have the same form for the exact same meaning. This is obviously not true by observation of any two language. Secondly, meaning changes over time for a form. An example of this is ‘gay’. Two hundred years ago this word had meant ‘happy’. Today it signifies a social group. Furthermore, ‘gay’ no longer has negative connotations that it did just 30 years ago.

But in linguistics, it is not form and meaning but form-meaning, one word. The proper terms used for form-meaning, form and meaning are sign, signifier and signified respectively.

Finally, signs can represent either real things or imaginary concepts. As long as these things or concepts are considered coherent they can be given a form, and turned into a sign by a language community.

Grammar or experience?

What is wrong with the idea of “universal” in the Universal Grammar of Chomsky? It is that what is taken as being universal is wrong. It is not the grammar in the brain that is universal, but rather it is the human experience that is universal. We all have the same set of senses and mental faculty. We all input the same kinds of sensory and perceptive experience. But we also have the same kinds of choices and decisions to make about language which do not necessarily need to be a brain-module specific to operate. 

“Language is transformational” is partly correct, but it is probably at a more a general rather than being a specific mechanism that uses the properties of reality, sound and image to produce what is language. Certainly we are creatures who like to express themselves and to communicate with other creatures. We are undoubtedly social creatures. 

International Phonetic Alphabet symbols online keyboard

Did you know you can type phonetic symbols without needing to install fonts onto your computer’s operating system or word processor? Simply go to ipa.typeit.org and enter the symbols you cannot get normally. Have fun. ;)

Maths and Reading Ability Same DNA Link Shown

So now that math and reading (and presumably language) are shown to be linked to the same group DNA how do we apply this knowledge to the teaching of language? Does developing math skills then improve language skills or vice versa? What implication does this have on content and language integrated learning (CLIL), content-base instruction (CBI), language immersion and bilingual education in general?

My doubts about formal grammar

There is something very similar to the chicken-or-the-egg question about formal grammar in which meaning is ignored and only the formal properties of the string is discussed.

But would that string exist without production of meaning, without the communicative desire to impart something in an instance of existence?

This is also like asking what is the meaning of life as if life needs to have some universal meaning or purpose before life can arise. There is something a priori about this logic.

This is where Chomskyan linguistics, to me, fails to convince – that there can be an explanation of language without meaning. Whether it be a word, phrase, clause or sentence there will always be two sides to a sign (in the Saussurean sense). Phoneme and basic-unit phonology are different in that they are the building blocks of language and not invested with meaning.

By looking at language and variation in the system is a mathematical exercise that cannot explain the inherent meaning of utterances (which, sadly, it is not trying to explain at all in the first place). For me language is about meaning, and about the limitations a language’s form has on expressing meaning and not the other way around. Syntax should therefore take into account semantics or rather syntax should be studied through semantics.

Original Pronunciation of Shakespearean Plays

This is a fascinating introduction to the differences in pronunciation of Modern English and Early Modern English (Shakespeare’s time). Explanations and examples are very clear by linguist David Crystal and his son Ben, an actor.

English Phonetic Chart

phonetic-chart-corpora

Here is an English phonetic chart I had created based on Adrian Underhill‘s Sound Foundations. I highly recommend this book as a workbook for teachers.