Meaning as sign
Kramsch C. Language and Culture. –
Oxford University Press, 1998. – pp. 15-23.
Language can mean in two fundamental ways, both of which are intimately linked to culture: through what it says or what it refers to as an encoded sign (semantics), and through what it does as an action in context (pragmatics). We consider in this chapter how language means as an encoded sign.
The linguistic sign
The crucial feature that distinguishes humans from animals is humans' capacity to create signs that mediate between them and their environment. Every meaning-making practice makes use of two elements: a signifier and a signified. Thus, for example, the sound /rouz/ or the four letters of the word 'rose' are signifiers for a concept related to an object in the real world with a thorny stem and many petals. The signifier (sound or word) in itself is not a sign unless someone recognizes it as such and relates it to a signified (concept); for example, for someone who doesn't know English, the sound /rouz/ signifies nothing because it is not a sign, but only a meaningless sound. A sign is therefore neither the word itself nor the object it refers to but the relation between the two.
There is nothing necessary about the relation between a given word as linguistic signifier and a signified object. The word 'rose' can be related to flowers of various shapes, consistencies, colors, and smells, it can also refer to a color, or to a smell. Conversely, the object 'rose' can be given meaning by a variety of signifiers: Morning Glory, Madame Meillon, flower, die Rose, une rose. Because there is nothing inherent in the nature of a rose that makes the four letters of its English signifier more plausible than, say, the five letters of the Greek word сьдьх, the linguistic sign has been called arbitrary. Furthermore, because there is no one-to-one correspondence, no perfect fit between signifier and signified, the dualism of the linguistic sign has been called asymmetrical.
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.
All three types of signs correspond to ways in which members of a given discourse community encode their experience.