Thursday, July 19, 2007

"That which we call a rose . . . "

In my first post here I put forth the idea that - in some sense - language "creates" reality. It does not, of course, actually turn things into things, if you will. It's just that we need the names for things in order to see them as such, in order to see them for what they are.

A good way to see this is to recall a child asking, say, her father questions like "What's that?" The child is usually satisfied when he or she is told the name of the thing. "That's a horse, my son," as the case may be. Thereafter the child knows what a horse is. Language works like that, kind of.

Now Juliet's famous remark about the sweet smell of a rose regardless of its name is not as innocent as it may seem. She is arguing with herself against seeing Romeo as her personal enemy, when it's just his family name that's supposedly an enemy of her family's name. She would rather that Romeo renamed himself. That way their love would have no obstacles in its way. Wish things were that easy.

The fact is that we can't just rename things. And the reason why is itself interesting. Ferdinand de Saussure made a significant dual contribution to linguistics. His first is the definition of the linguistic sign, and his second is an assertion about it.

He defined the linguistic sign - the word - as consisting of two elements, a signifier (sound/image) and a signified (concept). Now these two elements are both within the linguistic sign, to put it this way. In other words, the signifier is not by itself the word. And the signified is not the thing the word names out there in reality. No, for a word to be meaningful, it needs at once to be both a signifier and a signified, combined.

Here's an example: The word "tree" consists of the letters I just spelled out. In this case this is the "image" of the word (the signifier), because it is written (if I had spoken it, it would have been the word's "sound"). For an English-speaking person to understand the word, he or she needs to have - always already - its concept (the idea of a tree) as well as its sound/image (the spoken or written form of the word).

When you hear a foreign language that you don't understand, you don't understand it because you don't know the concepts the sounds/images carry with them. You understand your own language because you have learned which sounds or images go with what concepts. Clear?

Now here is the whammy: Saussure has also put forth the idea that the connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary! There is no reason why the concept "tree" should have "tree" as its sound/image! If the connection between the signifier and the signified were "natural" rather than "cultural," we would all speak the same language! To learn a language is not just a matter of learning its sounds, but to also learn the "concepts" (the meanings) that go with each of its sounds. I hope that this is clear, too.

But there is more: once the connection between the signifier and the signified has been "established," it becomes conventional. And you can't break it! That's why a rose is a rose is a rose, and not some other name. Sure, it would look and smell the same no matter what its name happened to be, but once its name is rose, it's rose, period.

Steven C. Scheer


Merel said...

O my gosh, you have no idea how much you have helped me with writing my essay on the significance of the relationship with words and the things to which they refer in Romeo and Juliet.

Tnx a bunch ^^

durfo said...

Hi there!

Today, a teacher of mine gave me this example, regarding to the arbitrariness of the connection between the signifier and the signified:

Pôr-do-sol (Portuguese)

Sunset (English)

Tramonto (Italian)

Coucher du Soleil (French)

If you look up the etymology of each of those words, you will verify that not only do they differ in sound, but also in concept, even if they mean the same. It's fascinating. Another interesting example is the fact that Eskimos have about thirty-three different words to describe different types of white. This means that they are able to actually see thirty-three different kinds of white just because they have names for them. For the ordinary person, snow is just white.