Sign Language

I will freely admit that I found the Saussure essay “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” very dense and difficult to follow.  The part I feel I’ve grasped is what we discussed in class (and read about in Culler) is Saussure’s proposition that the “linguistic sign is arbitrary” (843).  In other words, it doesn’t matter if we call the thing with pointy ears and fur a “cat” or a “crocodile”, the relation of the sign to the thing signified is a product of repetition, culture, and practice, not something intrinsic in the relationship of the object and the word.

Saussure makes a point of showing how this is true across languages (he mentions Latin, Greek, French, English, German, and Russian in this essay) but he does not mention sign language.  I have currently been dabbling in learning a little sign language, both because I’ve read that it’s a useful tool to communicate with pre-verbal infants and because my babysitter is profoundly deaf and has been since birth.  Unlike spoken language, I would argue that American Sign Language (ASL), which uses gestures instead of phonemes or sound-images, does use signs that are not arbitrary in nature but in fact have a direct relationship to the thing being signified.

Take, for example, the sign for “eat” (which is also almost identical to the sign for “food”):


I would not call this an arbitrary sign– it mimics pretty directly the action of eating, and subsequently implies that there is food present as well.  Not all ASL signs are so obvious, of course, and many are just as arbitrary as “cat” or “crocodile”.  But enough signs mimic actions or nouns in order that with some helpful context, I can generally understand my babysitter and communicate back to her using my limited knowledge and signs I invent on the spot.  It’s also been interesting to me to observe my babysitter’s relationship with language in general.  When I hired her, I figured it would be very easy to communicate via text (I’ll use this moment to apologize for checking my phone in class!) but her texting habits are as visual as the way she communicates in person.  While I know she is literate, and definitely understands what I write to her, she is more likely to answer me with a photograph of what is going on (most memorably my daughter’s full diaper) then she is of writing out a complete sentence.


The Connection Between the Signifier/ Signified Relation and the Materialism/ Idealism Relation

On p. 41 Johnson writes about theorists of writing that have drawn a connection between the signifier/ signified relation and materialism/ idealism relation.  I didn’t quite understand the connection when I read this and went over it.  I am hoping that in examining it here I will be able to make sense of it.  On page 40 Johnson introduces Saussure’s concept of signifier and signified: “…sign as the unit of the language system.  The sign is composed of two parts: a mental image or concept (the ‘signified’), and a phonic or graphic vehicle (the ‘signifier’).”  Wikipedia explains it as “the signifier (or “sound-image”) and the signified (or “concept”).”  So if someone says “car,” that utterance would be the signifier, and the concept or mental image of the common, four wheeled road vehicle would be the signified.         —

This signified/ signifier relation is supposed to correspond to the materialism/ idealism relation with the signifier representing the the material condition of the existence of ideas.  So as the signifier, the material condition of the existence of ideas should have a corresponding signified, or mental image or concept.  Johnson writes “privileging of the signified resembled the fetishization of commodities resulting from bourgeois idealism’s blindness to labor and to the material conditions of economic existence.”

The signifier/ signified relation, and the privileging of the signified represents a materialistic mindset behind linguistics.  With the example above the image of the common four wheeled road vehicle is the signified.  This is the concrete material entity that we have a shared understanding of.  Placing more importance on the signified displays a materialistic mindset, just as materialism dominated the economic framework of France in the 1960’s.

It appears that in this relation signifier/ signified and materialism/ idealism do not operate in a way where signifer represents materialism and signified represents idealism.  It seems like instead there is a relation because in both cases the relationship has an underlying sense of material dominance.

Moving forward, the signifier/ signified relation seems to resemble the relation between writing and speaking.  The idea that we privilege the signified in linguistics looks like Derrida’s idea of logocentrism, the privileging of speech as self-present meaning.

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