Academic journal article Italica

De Vulgari Eloquentia: Dante's Semiotic Workshop

Academic journal article Italica

De Vulgari Eloquentia: Dante's Semiotic Workshop

Article excerpt

Hoc equidem signum est ipsum subjectum Nobile de quo loquimur: nam sensuale Quid est, in quantum sonus est; rationale Vero, in quantum aliquid significare videtur ad placitum (De Vulgari Eloquentia 1.3.3).

[This sign is precisely the noble subject of my treatise: for it is sensory in that it is sound and rational in that it can be seen to signify anything, according to man's will.] (1)

The De vulgari eloquentia, Dante's treatise on the eminent vernacular, is a major source of Dante's semiotics applied to language. He begins this work by making a distinction between natural and artificial languages. On the one hand he defines the vernacular as a natural language insofar as it is learned by humans from a very young age, specifically from the time in which they begin to articulate words. On the other hand, there is the artificial language or grammatical language, the one which is learned through education, such as Latin and Greek. Dante considers the vernacular nobler than the grammatical language because it is the very first language human beings use as their means of communication due to the fact that it is learned naturally, although natural languages are existent in a variety of types and forms in all parts of the world.

The passage cited above addresses key elements regarding Dante's theory of language. It is important from the beginning to keep in mind that Dante, like St. Augustine, fuses a theory of sign with a theory of language; (2) although in the D.V.E. Dante, unlike St. Augustine, is merely dealing with verbal signs. He defines language as "rational and sensory sign" ("rationale signum et sensibile"). The first distinction the reader should make here is that Dante views words as signs, and the sensory and rational traits of words are tied together by means of a signic relationship. For Dante the "sensory sign" ("signum sensibile") corresponds to the material aspect of words which is made up of the phonic component. The phonic component is different from language to language because languages are formed arbitrarily; they are formed according to ways in which a community of speakers decides to organize its linguistic paradigm. As a result of the sound, each language subdivides the sound continuum in different ways. Therefore we may have many sound continua to refer to the same object of signification, or, said differently, we may have many utterances from different languages to refer to the same "designated" ("designatum") or what is designated by the sound-sign.

Further, on the issue of sound, Dante clearly states the difference between sound as "true language" ("vera locutio") which is proper to humans, from sound as "imitation of our [human] sound" ("imitatio soni nostre vocis") which is proper to animals. He uses the example of the magpies and says that they "imitate us insofar as we emit sounds and not because we speak" ("imitari nos in quantum sonamus, sed non in quantum loquimur", D.V.E. 1.2.7). Such a distinction presents a parallel with Aristotle's De interpretatione 16a, 26-30, (3) in which the philosopher distinguishes on the one hand articulate sounds that are proper to language and, therefore, conventional; on the other hand, the inarticulate ones, those of animals, for example, which are considered natural. Further in De interpretatione 16a, 27-29 and in Poetics 1456b, 22-24, Aristotle describes the notions of divisibility and combinability of sounds regarding names which are proper to human speech because dominated by convention. The function of convention in human speech is to combine the smallest meaningless sounds (letters) into meaningful utterances (articulate names). Instead animal sounds are indivisible and non-combinable and as such cannot be called lettered sounds. They are "unlettered" ("agrammatoi") as he calls them in the De interpretatione 16a, 27-29. They are sounds that cannot be broken down into letters because not governed by convention. Notwithstanding, the shortcomings of combinability and divisibility of animal sounds are nonetheless "significant noise" ("semantikos psophos"). …

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