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The meaning of signs


What is the nature of the relation between signifier and signified? In other words, how do signs mean? When Emily Dickinson uses in her poem words like 'rose', or 'rosemary', these words point to (are the referents of) objects that grow in the real gardens of the real world. They refer to a definable reality. Their meaning, that can be looked up in the dictionary, is denotative. On the other hand, the meaning of 'rose' and 'rosemary' is more than just the plants they refer to. It is linked to the many associations they evoke in the minds of their readers: a rose might be associated with love, passion, beauty; rosemary might be associated with the fragrance of summer and the preservation of dried herbs. Both words draw their meaning from their connotations.

In addition to denotation and connotation, there is a third kind of meaning that words can entertain with their objects. For, as with all signifiers, they not only point to, and are associated with, their objects, they can also be images (or icons) of them. So, for example, exclamations like 'Whoops!', 'Wow!', 'Whack!' don't so much refer to emotions or actions as they imitate them (onomatopoeia). Their meaning is therefore iconic. The Dickinson poem makes full use of iconic meanings. For example, the sound link between the /s/ of 'screw', 'summer', and 'ceaseless rosemary' creates a world of sound signs that replicates the crushing sound of a rose press, thus enhancing iconically the denotative and the connotative meanings of the individual words. In addition, by transforming the 'rose' into the word 'rosemary', the poem offers an icon of the metamorphosis it is talking about with regard to roses. As we can see in this poem, any linguistic sign may entertain multiple relations to its object that may be simultaneously of a denotative, connotative, or iconic kind.


Cultural Encodings


All three types of signs correspond to ways in which members of a given discourse community encode their experience. In that regard, the code is not something that can be separated from its meanings.

Different signs denote reality by cutting it up in different ways, as Whorf would say. For example, table, Tisch, mesa denote the same object by reference to a piece of furniture, but whereas the English sign 'table' denotes all tables, Polish encodes dining tables as stol, coffee tables or telephone tables as stolik. British English encodes anything south of the diaphragm as 'stomach', whereas in American English a 'stomachache' denotes something different from a 'bellyache'. Similarly, Bavarian German encodes the whole leg from the hip to the toes through one sign, das Bein, so that 'Mein Bein tut weh' might mean 'My foot hurts', whereas English needs at least three words 'hip', 'leg', or 'foot'. Cultural encodings can also change over time in the same language. For example, German that used to encode a state of happiness as glücklich, now encodes deep happiness as glücklich, superficial happiness as happy, pronounced /hepi/.

The encoding of experience differs also in the nature of the cultural associations evoked by different linguistic signs. For example, although the words 'soul' or 'mind' are usually seen as the English equivalents of the Russian word dusha, each of these signs is differently associated with their respective objects. For a Russian, not only is dusha used more frequently than 'soul' or 'mind' in English, but through its associations with religion, goodness, and the mystical essence of things it connotes quite a different concept than the English. Studies of the semantic networks of bilingual speakers make these associations particularly visible. For example, bilingual speakers of English and Spanish have been shown to activate different associations within one of their languages and across their two languages. In English they would associate 'house' with 'window', and 'boy' with 'girl', but in Spanish they may associate casa with madre, and muchacho with hombre. But even within the same speech community, signs might have different semantic values for people from different discourse communities. Anglophone readers of Emily Dickinson's poem who happen not be members of her special discourse community, might not know the denotational meaning of the word 'Attar', nor associate 'rosemary' with the dead. Nor might the iconic aspects of the poem be evident to them. Even though they may be native speakers of English, their cultural literacy is different from that of Emily Dickinson's intended readers (see Chapter 5).

Words can also serve as culturally informed icons for the concepts, objects, or persons they signify. For example, English speakers who belong to certain discourse communities may intensify denotative meanings by iconically elongating the vowel of a word, for example, 'It's beau::::::tiful!. In French, intensification of the sound is often done not through elongation of the vowel but through rapid reiteration of the same form: 'Vite vite vite vite vite'. Dépêchez-vous!' (Quick! Hurry up!). These different prosodic encodings form distinct ways of speaking that are often viewed as typically English or French. Similarly, onomatopoeia links objects and sounds in seemingly inevitable ways for members of a given culture. For example, the English sounds 'bash', 'mash', 'smash', 'crash', 'dash', 'lash', 'clash', 'trash', 'splash', 'flash' are for English speakers icons for sudden, violent movements or actions. A speaker of another language might not hear in the sound /æò/ any such icon at all; for a French speaker the words hache, tache, crache, sache, cache, vache have no semantic relationship despite similar final sounds. A French-educated speaker of French might, however, be inclined to hear in words like siffler and serpent icons of their objects because of the initial similar sounding /s/, but also, as we see below, because of the cultural association with a prior text - the famous line from Racine's Andromaque: 'Pour qui sontces serpents qui sifflent sur nos têtes?' ('But what are these serpents hissing above our heads?').

It is important to mention that the differences noted above among the different languages are not only differences in the code itself, but in the semantic meanings attributed to these different encodings by language-using communities. It is these meanings that make the linguistic sign into a cultural sign.


Semantic Cohesion


We have seen how signs relate words to the world in ways that are generally denotative of common cultural objects, or particularly connotative of other objects or concepts associated with them, or simply iconic. But, as a sign, a word also relates to other words or signs that give it a particular value in the verbal text itself or co-text. Beyond individual nouns and sounds, words refer to other words by a variety of cohesive devices that hold a text like the Dickinson poem together: pronouns ('it'), demonstratives ('this'), repetition of the same words from one sentence to the next (for example, 'The Attar from the Rose ... The general Rose ... In ceaseless Rosemary') or same sounds from one line to the next (for example, the sound /l/ in 'Lady's Drawer', 'the Lady lie'), recurrence of words that relate to the same idea (for example, 'Suns', 'summer'; 'essential Oils', 'Attar'), conjunctions (for example, 'but', 'when'). These devices capitalize on the associative meanings or shared connotations of a particular community of competent readers who readily recognize the referent of the pronoun 'it' and the lexical reiteration of 'suns' and 'summer', whereas a community of less competent readers might not. Semantic cohesion depends on a discourse community's communal associations across the lines of a poem, or across stretches of talk.

A sign or word may also relate to the other words and instances of text and talk that have accumulated in a community's memory over time, or prior text. Thus, to return, for example, to the Russian sign dusha, which roughly denotes 'a person's inner core', it connotes goodness and truth because it is linked to other utterances spoken and heard in daily life, to literary quotes (for example, 'His soul overflowing with rapture, he yearned for freedom, space, openness' written by Dostoevsky), or to other verbal concepts such as pricelessness, human will, inner speech, knowledge, feelings, thoughts, religion, that themselves have a variety of connotations. When English speakers translate the word dusha by the word 'soul', they are in fact linking it to other English words, i.e. 'disembodied spirit', 'immortal self', 'emotions', that approximate but don't quite match the semantic cohesion established for dusha in the Russian culture. The meanings of words cannot be separated from other words with which they have come to be associated in the discourse community's semantic pool.

Another linguistic environment within which .words carry cultural semantic meaning consists of the linguistic metaphors that have accumulated over time in a community's store of semantic knowledge. Thus, for example, the English word 'argument' is often encountered in the vicinity of words like 'to defend' (as in 'Your claims are indefensible'), 'to shoot down' (as in 'He shot down all of my arguments'), 'on target' (as in 'Her criticisms were right on target'), which has led George Lakoff and Mark Johnson to identify one of the key metaphors of the English language: 'Argument is War'. Some of these metaphors are inscribed in the very structure of the English code, for example, the metaphor of the visual field as container. This metaphor delineates what is inside it, outside it, comes into it, as in 'The ship is coming into view', 'I have him in sight', 'He's out of sight now'. Each language has its own metaphors that provide semantic cohesion within its boundaries.

In all these examples, the semantic meanings of the code reflect the way in which the speech community views itself and the world, i.e. its culture. They are intimately linked to the group's experiences, feelings and thoughts. They are the non-arbitrary expression of their desire to understand and act upon their world.


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