The arbitrariness of the sign

A few days ago I was reading a book late in the evening. I managed to stumble on the following sentence: Constructivism debuted with Suprematism in the same exhibition in Petrograd, Russia, in 1915.

In my tired state I just could not recognise the word debuted. In my head I was sounding it out as de-boo-ted and thinking ‘what on Earth is de-boo-ted?’. This lead to a conversation with a friend questioning the very concept of language. The idea that a random collection of squiggles can represent some elegant and complex concepts.

Taking that logic one step further, every language in the world will have its own signifier for ‘train’, a picture is recognisable internationally as ‘train’, a model would also be recognised internationally. In fact a piece of track, or the diagram of track will also conjure the image of a train for most people by association. UK drivers will recognise any of the following symbols as warnings that there is a train crossing ahead:

Level crossing with barrier or gate ahead Level crossing without barrier or gate aheadLevel crossing without barrier

Source: The Highway Code

This is all without considering the numerous meanings of the word ‘train’.

The quote in the notes from Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by P. Barry (1995) Manchester: Manchester University Press about the arbitrariness of the sign is very thought provoking:

“If language as a sign system is based on arbitrariness of this kind then it follows that language isn’t a reflection of the world and of experience but a system that stands quite separate from it.”

An interesting thought is whether the world around us is more a reflection of our language. For instance the often negative association with the term asylum seeker. Is the negativity somehow associated with the use of the term asylum for mental health institutions in the Victorian era which certainly seemed to be frightening places? This is somehow intrinsically linked with the fearful stereotype of immigrants which somehow disappears when our own citizens become emigrants despite the word immigrating and emigrating both coming from Latin and being introduced in the 18th century. [according to the Oxford Dictionary]

If language is inherently vague or changeable then surely once a thought is committed to words then the author has lost control over the meaning. Each reader will comprehend the words differently depending on their personal experience. This multitude of readings is fascinating in itself as a written work can take on a life of its own, in some cases almost literally with the rise of FanFic.

What is interesting is the difference between communicating a message through the written word and art. In art, the audience will often work hard to try to uncover the artist’s meaning as it is less obvious. When a message is written I would suggest that people often take it at face value and rarely attempt to deconstruct it with the phrase “say what you mean and mean what you say” springing to mind.

[All links accessed on 14/08/2017]

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