A Theory of Linguistic Signs

A Theory of Linguistic Signs

A Theory of Linguistic Signs

A Theory of Linguistic Signs

Synopsis

What does it mean to drive a Cadillac? What does 'cuckoo' suggest about the bird? -- two examples explored in this investigation of the history of language signs and of what philosophers, linguists, and others have had to say about them. Rudi Keller shows how signs emerge, function, and develop in the permanent process of language change. He recombines thoughts and ideas from Plato to the present day to create a new theory of the meaning and evolution of icons and symbols. By assuming no prior knowledge and by developing his argument from first principles, Rudi Keller has written a basic text which includes all the necessary features: easy style, good organization, original scholarship, and historical depth. This is a non-technical book which will interest linguists, philosophers, students of communications and cultural studies, semioticians/semanticists, sociologists, and anthropologists.

Excerpt

This book is about linguistic signs and their dynamics. Its aim is to show how signs emerge, function and change in the process of human communication. Linguistic signs are not a prerequisite for our communicative attempts; they are their (usually unintended) result. My addition to the already innumerable publications dealing with this topic calls for explanation. Derek Bickerton wrote in 1990 that "most of what we know about language has been learned in the last three decades" (1990: 5). If this claim is meant to be more than an autobiographical legacy, it is most likely incorrect. In any case, it does not apply to the study of linguistic signs. Everything that can be said about the signs of language has probably been said between Plato's time and our own. In the field of language philosophy, with a history of more than two thousand years, it is hardly possible to say anything new. In other words, none of the true statements in this book claims to be original. (The false ones might be more so.) Nevertheless, I believe that the rash charge "But so-and-so said that already" should not be given too much weight. On closer examination, it usually becomes evident that at least the connections made in earlier studies are different ones. First and foremost, I see the usefulness of this volume in its recombination of thoughts and ideas, gleaned from a variety of traditions, and in its perspective regarding their choice.

At first glance, the considerations of linguistic sign theory may seem to be empirically irrelevant and useless philosophizing. Martti Nyman clearly states what's wrong with this view: "A theory of language change depends on the underlying theory of language. Therefore . . . it is not at all idle ivory-towering to dwell upon ontological questions about language. For example, if we look upon language as an abstract Platonic object . . . we get virtually no theory of language change at all" (Nyman 1994: 157). Every psycholinguistic interpretation that situates language's existence in the human mind is unable to envisage language . . .

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