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The Non-Arbitrary Nature of Signs


We said at the beginning that signs have no natural connection with the outside world and are therefore arbitrary. It is precisely this arbitrariness that makes them so amenable to appropriation by members of culturally embedded discourse communities. Speakers and writers use those signs that are most readily available in their environment, without generally putting them into question, or being aware, as Sapir noted, that other signifying relations might be available. As we noted in Chapter 1, socialization into a given discourse community includes making its signifying practices seem totally natural. Native users of a language, for example, do not view the linguistic sign as arbitrary; on the contrary, they view it as a necessity of nature. Jakobson reports the anecdote of one Swiss-German peasant woman who asked why the French used fromage for Käse (cheese); 'Käse ist doch viel naturlicher!' ('Käse is so much more natural!'), she added. Only detached researchers and non-native speakers see the relations between signs as mere contingence.

Native speakers do not feel in their body that words are arbitrary signs. For them, words are part of the natural, physical fabric of their lives. Seen from the perspective of the user, words and thoughts are one. For example, anyone brought up in a French household will swear that there is a certain natural masculinity about the sun [le soleil) and femininity about the moon (la lune). For English speakers, it is perfectly natural to speak of 'shooting down someone's argument'; they don't even think one could talk of arguments in a different way. Having once recognized the semantic cohesion of the Emily Dickinson poem, readers may even come to view the interpretation offered in Chapter 1 as the only one possible - the natural one. Even though, as we have seen, signs are created, not given, and combine with other signs to form cultural patterns of meaning, for native speakers linguistic signs are the non-arbitrary, natural reality they stand for.

The major reason for this naturalization of culturally created signs is their motivated nature. Linguistic signs do not signify in a social vacuum. Sign-making and sign-interpreting practices are motivated by the need and desire of language users to influence people, act upon them or even only to make sense of the world around them. With the desire to communicate a certain meaning to others comes also the desire to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be believed, and to influence in turn other peoples' beliefs and actions. The linguistic sign is therefore a motivated sign.




With the passing of time, signs easily become not only naturalized, but conventionalized as well. Taken out of their original social and historical context, linguistic signs can be emptied of the fullness of their meaning and used as symbolic shorthand. For example, words like 'democracy', 'freedom', 'choice', when uttered by politicians and diplomats, may lose much of their denotative and even their rich connotative meanings, and become political symbols in Western democratic rhetoric; signifiers like 'the French Revolution', 'May 68', 'the Holocaust', have simplified an originally confusing amalgam of historical events into conventionalized symbols. The recurrence of these symbols over time creates an accumulation of meaning that not only shapes the memory of sign users but confers to these symbols mythical weight and validity.

The passage of time validates both the sign itself and its users. For signs are reversible; they have the potential of changing the way sign-makers view themselves, and therefore the way they act. The use of signs enables current speakers to place past events into a current context of talk, i.e. to recontextualize past events and thus provide a framework to anticipate, i.e. precontextualize, future events. Ultimately such construction and reconstruction of contexts through the use of signs enables language users to control their environment, and to monitor their and others' behavior in that environment.

We see this controlling effect at work, for example, in the publicity logos, the advertisement jingles of commercial corporations, and in the outward signs of national patriotism, from flags to mottos to mementos (see Chapter 6). Cultural stereotypes are frozen signs that affect both those who use them and those whom they serve to characterize. Much of what we call ideology is, in this respect, symbolic language. For example, words like 'rebels' or 'freedom fighters' to denote antigovernment forces, 'challenges' or 'problems' to denote obstacles, and 'collaboration' or 'exploitation' to denote workers' labor, are cultural symbols propagated and sustained by sign-makers of different political leanings in their respective discourse communities. The way in which language intersects with social power makes some uses of cultural signs seem legitimate, i.e. natural, others illegitimate, i.e. unnatural and even taboo. A right-wing newspaper, for example, would censor the use of 'freedom fighters' to refer to guerrilla forces; its readers would find it quite natural to see them referred to as 'rebels'.

This last example illustrates the problem encountered throughout this chapter of keeping semantics and pragmatics strictly separate from one another. Where does semantics end and pragmatics begin? The meanings of words as they are linked both to the world and to other words establish a speech community's pool of semantic resources; but this semantic pool is constantly enriched and changed through the use that is made of it in social contexts.




Signs establish between words and things various semantic relations of denotation, connotation, or iconicity that give general meaning to the world. In addition, signs establish semantic relations with other signs in the direct environment of verbal exchanges, or in the historical context of a discourse community. The creation of meaning through signs is not arbitrary, but is, rather, guided by the human desire for recognition, influence, power, and the general motivation for social and cultural survival. Since meaning is encoded in language with a purpose, meaning as sign is contingent upon the context in which signs are used to regulate human action. Thus it is often difficult to draw a clear line between the generic semantic meanings of the code and the pragmatic meanings of the code in various contexts of use.




Meaning as action


After years of searching in vain for the meaning of life in philosophy, law, and theology, Goethe's Dr. Faust decides that: meaning is not in words, but in actions. The famous statement in the Bible 'In the beginning was the Word' needs to be replaced, he says, by a statement more appropriate to modern times. 'In the beginning was Action!' he exclaims, and he sells his soul to the Devil. If he does get saved in the end, it is for having accepted that all action is contingent upon the time and place in which it unfolds. Meaning is never achieved once and for all, it must be conquered anew in every utterance through the verbal actions and interactions of speakers and hearers, writers, and readers.

In this chapter we consider the way in which cultural meaning is created through the actions and interactions of speakers in social contexts.


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