Lesson 23 The Structure of Language

        It is commonly agreed that language is the function thanks to which thinking can be expressed using signs.  Yet this definition is perhaps a little fleeting since we still need to think of language as having some sort of content.  When the chimpanzee yells to warn his tribe of a danger is this thinking or is it merely a signal to provoke the flight from a predator?  It has been possible to identify around thirty sounds used by chimpanzees: those of hunger, of alarm, of calling, of warning and so on.  Could we call this “language”?


       It is not the same thing to consider language as a means of expression and to think of it in the light of the model of human tongues, and use human tongues as the model of language.  In the case of man we must define language as the expression of thought.  But is the term expression not wider than the term thought?  What is at stake is therefore no just the difference between animal language and human language, but the specific manner in which meaning is produced when signs are used.  How does language manage to signify? 

 A.   The system of signals.

    If you have ever approached a tree in which there are birds you will have noticed that the modulation of their singing is subject to modifications.   The bird modulates its singing to fit a friendly, hostile or neutral surrounding.  Of course it does not do this for itself: it serves as information for its kin.  This means that as a speaker it emits a certain language, a piece of information aimed at a listener, its family or other members of its species. It is difficult not to think of this as language.  Simple observations show us that mammals and birds express their needs and emotions using screams.  From there to regarding needs and emotions as rudimentary forms of thinking there is but a step and this one is quickly taken once one credits animals with a language analogous to our own.

     1.   Nevertheless, if we follow the analyses of the psychology of behaviour Pavlov makes, it is possible to avoid such a conclusion.  When the chimpanzee sees the panther coming nearer to the tree where it is sitting, it reacts by fleeing.  We say that a stimulus had elicited a response:


A __________________C


Predator                      flight

                                                is seen

     From this point of view, as H. Laborit shows us, the animal is capable of three types of behaviour:  flight, fight and inhibition.  We know that it is possible to provoke stimuli and associate them with a specific behaviour.  This is what happens when an animal is drilled.  The dog that pushes a button every time a lamp is lit has been trained to do so by means of repeated exercises.  In this way a conditional signal can be artificially fabricated in order to elicit a certain behaviour.  The connection between the signal and the behaviour is not a thought, it is purely mechanical, an acquired automatism.  It is enough to render this model just a little more complex to obtain a behaviourist explanation of language.  When the watchman utters a cry, this time aimed at his entire tribe, he emits a signal and this signal plays the part of an indirect stimulus, one that would correspond to the direct stimulus caused by the sight of the predator.  The herd of monkeys reacts and climbs back up the tree.

     A: the predator is seen

    B:  the watchman cries

    C: flight



    One can say that a piece of information circulates among the animals, but then one must not forget that this transmission is a pure reflex.  In dressage one utilises a kind of mounting of reflexes that exist in the nervous system, especially in the spine.  The animal is not aware of the connection between the conditional signal and the primary stimulus, it just reproduces it as a pure reaction.  In other words, the signal is not intelligent, but simply and truly mechanical.  No one will deny that in Nature animals dispose of a system of signals; yet in order to speak of language, one would have to prove that in reality it has a system of signs, and that these signs carry thoughts, and this is not the same thing.  Or else we must revise our former definition and by language mean any system of signals.

     On this Point Pavlov admits that he adheres to Descartes mechanistic paradigm.  In his Letters Descartes effectively says that “our body is not just a machine that moves by itself, but…there is in it as well a soul that has thoughts.”  This implies that the body of an animal is a machine which moves by itself, while the human body is inhabited by thought, and this means two different forms of expression.  Thinking, understood in this way, refers to something totally different from mere reactions originating in the body, such as cries (which Descartes calls passions).  Thought is intellectual, it is reflective thinking.  It is this form of thinking which is proper to man, and which can be expressed using different signs, either verbal or in the form of gestures.  “Mute people use signs in the same way as we use our voice”.  Not only that but we must also consider that the structure of the animal’s nervous system entails that even though we train it, the fruit of the dressage is of the same order as cries. “If one teaches a magpie to greet its mistress whenever it sees her coming(…)this will stir the motion of its hope to eat, if one has accustomed it to some goody when it did the greeting; and this applies to all things one makes dogs, horses and monkeys do.  It is only movements of fear, hope, and joy, in such a way that they can do them without any thinking.”

     However it is quite difficult to see what we should understand by “fear”, “hope” and “joy” if we omit all reference to any form of consciousness!  Fear includes the representation of a danger on its way, hope the representation of a future and joy a momentary fullness of consciousness.  Can these emotions be reduced to mechanical movements of the body?  How could one pretend to see there mere bodily responses independent of any form of consciousness?  My watch does not know joy, fear, hope!  It is just a machine.  On the contrary the animal feels sensations, possesses a memory, and therefore it can establish associations between past and present.  It cannot, it would seem, reflect its thoughts in concepts and express them using abstract language.  Yet all reflection necessarily supposes at its beginning some sort of flexion.  This original flexion of thought is immediate thought.  Immediate thought makes it possible for man to have reflective thought.  The psychology of behaviour must necessarily recognise this dimension of immediate thinking, even when it wants to persuade us that animals cannot think in the sense of reflecting.  It may happen that we find in nature animals endowed with organs able to reproduce human speech, yet possessing such an organ and using it to express thoughts like men do are two different things.  “Deaf and mute people invent particular signs by means of which they express their thoughts”, but “what makes it that beasts do not speak like we do is that they have no thought, and not that they would not have the relevant organ”.  And we could not say that they speak to each other, but that we don’t understand them; because…had they thoughts they would also be able to express them.” 

     Descartes’ text is very clear.  A cry is already an expression, but it is not an idea.  Could this expression yield information?  It cannot be denied that the cries of animals transmit some sort of message to their kin.  Is this more or less than a signal?  The bee dancing in front of the hive seems to be using some sort of very precise code to indicate the direction in space and the distance to a source of food.  It would be rather hard to reproduce this message in a conceptual form in our human speech: “over there, south-west, about three mÊtres, food”.  Could we view the dance as a sign referring to a thing signified, the place where the flowers are?  To express the same idea, man must use several sentences and some kind of syntax.  The question remains open.

     Let us identify, for the time being, the most important differences between animal language and human language according to Linguistics:

     1.  Animal language is innate, hereditary, the same for all individuals of a given species of bees or beasts[1].  It has not changed for millions of years.  It is inherited biologically. On the contrary human language is acquired, it is taught and teaching is possible precisely through the use of signs.  Therefore it is due to cultural factors and not inherited biologically.  It has changed many times in history and this at a pace which is much speedier than that of Nature.  Language is constantly in the making in the history of mankind.

     2.  Animal language is very well adapted to the expression of certain situations in Nature, so well in fact that it makes it rather narrow.  Von Frish, the scientist who researched into the language of bees, thus showed that bees had not means to convey the idea of “height”.  If a bowl of sugar is placed on a pillar, the bees will only be told of its location on the ground, and they will fly around the pillar without finding the bowl.  No flower grows in the clouds and therefore in the language of bees there is no sign for saying “up”.  This is one example of the rigidity of animal language.  On the contrary human words have a great flexibility and therefore they can be used to express almost anything.  It is not limited to a few situations experienced in Nature.

     3.  It is hard to see how signalling systems could become elements of communication.  The bee seeing the dancing bee execute her dance does not reply to her with another message.  Bees reply to messages by their conduct.  The dancing bee therefore gives not so much a message as an order or a piece of information.  The other bees do not reply to this message with another message.  As long as there is no linguistic response there is no dialogue; yet is it not precisely the ability to be able to dialogue that is the very virtue of human language?  Human language is an immediate appeal to thinking:  even when it is rudimentary it is always the beginning of a dialogue.  It is not its primary aim to convey information unilaterally or give orders. 

    4.  Linguists think of these characteristics as structures of language.  We say that animal language is inarticulate and that human language is articulate.  This means that the elements of animal language are stereotypes that cannot be reduced to simpler components one could use to say something different.  The direction and distance conveyed by the dance cannot be separated from the bloc that constitutes the information.  This kind of sign does not resemble words that one can move from one context to another, take literally or metaphorically and so on.  Human speech can be analysed with precision in very identifiable terms.  To sum up, a word has a remarkable ability to symbolise a complex thought and this a system of signals cannot do.

     Hence we can conclude that animal and human languages are not just different quantitatively, in the sense that we have at our disposal thousands of sounds, while the chimpanzee only has thirty five.  The more radical difference is a qualitative one.  These are not languages of the same kind.  Animal language expresses an immediate thought, related to the dictates of needs.  It is directed towards adapting to an environment.  Its primary purpose is as an extension of instinct.

      This however does not mean that the animal would be deprived of intelligence.  It does not mean that language and intelligence are the same thing.  There are at least three different forms of intelligence: one, abstract intelligence, which relates to purely conceptual, e.g. mathematical, ability.  It is the kind of intelligence measured as IQ.  Two, emotional intelligence involved in dealing with people.  This form of intelligence confers great dexterity to some people to cooperate and work as a team.  Three, concrete intelligence, which is the skill and dexterity enabling one to solve practical problems, is the type of intelligence we find in the inventor or clever craftsman.   Our western culture has accustomed us to valorise above all abstract intelligence, the intelligence of the concept; hence, when considering the animal, one thinks that it should be intelligent in the same manner as ourselves, solve mathematical equations or express itself in a conceptual language like our own.  Since it cannot do that we conclude somewhat promptly that it is not intelligent.   If we are unable to understand animal language this is not because animals don’t think, but because man can only with difficulty conceive of a form of intelligence that is not modelled on his own.  Contrarily to human language, which is our reference for comparison, animal language is rather poor and stereotyped.  It would be wrong to think that animals signify like humans do, using sentences, handling concepts and elaborating a representation.  On the contrary we have to understand that many animal species display a very high degree of forms of intelligence that are not necessarily developed in man.  The dolphin has a very acute sense of its relatives, and he is ready to assist them any time.  It perceives by means of ultra-sound, as by volume (rather than say sounds or colours) and maintains a sense of unity with its environment, precisely where humans experience a separation.  Some animals are endowed with remarkable ingenuity.  The beaver is astonishingly clever at building dams.  It knows how to organise a structure, find out if it is the right one or not, repair it where there is a flaw.  Many birds know how to make knots, while monkeys do not seem to know how to do this.  Some insects know how to weave like humans and this with a skill such you would think it had been made with a sewing machine.     Yet how are we to understand this intelligence which does not use concepts?  How are we to understand a mind that does not work out a project before realising it?  Can a non-intentional thought be intelligent?

     Even if the animal does not venture of its own accord outside the realm of immediate thinking, it is important to recognise the intelligence, richness and complexity of immediate thinking.  Adepts of the mechanical paradigm may not like it, yet man is not the only creature with intelligence, sensations, memory and feelings.  Animals are capable of souvenirs, emotions, frustration, jealousy and attachment.  Rousseau in fact conceded that it is through freedom that man is different from animals and not through thinking.  Since the animal is already Life experiencing itself, it has within it the dimension of affectivity.  It would be a mistake to keep too narrow a view of intelligence.  Each living species is endowed with abilities and means of information of its own.  Zoologists today admit that rather than thinking of the animal on a human model, one ought to try to describe what is specific to each species given its form of mind and particular intelligence.  Projects have been undertaken to try to teach human language to chimpanzees with coloured beads, or the sign language used by the deaf-mute to gorillas, but the results are disappointing.  On the whole they are limited.  This language is not natural to them.  It comes from man, the monkey does not invent it.  One is astonished then when the monkey only used it to express a need and not to “think” in the manner of humans.  The chimpanzee cannot reason causally.  It does not know how to use syntax.  It can manipulate words in the form of bits of plastic, but it cannot manipulate them in order to make coherent sentences, while a child does this rather early.  Yet it is quite clever, it is able to use a tool and to resolve practical problems.  The female chimpanzee teaches her little one how one makes (or prepares) a stick and how one uses it to eat ants before being attacked.  Intelligence is not confined to manipulation of concepts, but is a wider phenomenon.  The creative intelligence in Nature is not limited to man’s conceptual intelligence.

 B.  The Sign System

     Let us now consider the basic linguistic elements that we have to take in if we are to begin our study of human language.  Linguistics is defined as a branch of semiology, the science that studies cognitive elements such as signals, indices, icons, symbols and other linguistic signs.  

     1.  Human language is a system of signs; however does this mean it cannot also serve as a signal?  Human language does in some cases retain its value as a signal.  When a regiment is marching and the sergeant shouts ‘Stop!’, then the soldiers’ react by tapping their heels and getting in stand.  We can say that the word “stop” is a kind of stimulus capable of eliciting a response, which here is an active response.  The same would go for any word used to provoke an emotional response.  A call for help is of this kind.  Any brief command belongs to this category, as do calls.  The sergeant uses language as a mere signal.  What is remarkable here is that in fact, since it is a signal to act, the man who hears it does not have to try to “understand” it or “interpret” it.  It is enough if he responds to the signal with a conditioned behaviour that has been learnt. 

     Responding to a signal because one has been conditioned to do so is nothing to do with intelligence.  In fact in this case the stimulus may not even be language and yet be just as efficient.  We see an example of this in the High Way Code.  The road sign is first of all a signal before being a sign.  It only requires a conditioned response and not an interprÉtation.  To be efficient it should be simple and suggestive precisely so as not to require the slightest thinking.  One does not want reflection from the driver but reflexes!  Signs call for reflection, while signals call above all for reflexes.  The High Way Code keeps control of the social functioning of road transportation; it regulates it in a nearly mechanical way, according to a theory akin to the physics of fluids. From the point of view of the code the driver is not presumed to be very intelligent, only informed, which is not the same thing.  One even wants him to respond mechanically to the signals in the manner of a well-trained animal, because this is what would make it possible to avoid accidents!  If when facing the road sign “Slow” I react immediately in a conditioned manner by letting go of the accelerator then I do exactly what one wants me to do.  Those who work out the system of road signs know you have to be simple and direct, that you must adjust the sign to a single simple reaction and avoid any ambiguity that might require the driver to think.  Let’s be honest, in principle, we are not far off Pavlov’s dog, before the red lamp just before the electrical stimulus is given!   

         Yet man remains what he is, namely an intelligent being capable, by virtue of his ability to think, to interpret signs; hence in a way even a signal gives rise to a thought, but a minimal one, since it is limited to a set of automatisms that have been acquired.  It is this information that is given when one learns the Code.

     2.  The specificity of human language must reflect human intelligence; hence it must include a certain number of signs with the fundamental traits that characterise such a system.  Man’s conceptual thinking does only truly develop when he uses signs.  This aspect is particularly stressed by contemporary linguistics.  The linguistique structurale[2] studies language as a system of signs.  More precisely it first of all analyses verbal signs. 

         What exactly is a sign?  In order to buy a bunch of flowers I use a bank note or coins.  Concretely the bank note is just a piece of paper.  As such it is not worth much.  Yet this is not how we look upon it in a situation of exchange: then we make it the symbol of a certain quantity of money, or of a certain quantity of gold deposited in the bank.  The note is in fact representing a certain sum of money.  What gives it its value is an abstraction due to what it represents.  In the same way we can say that the word represents an idea; concretely it is a sound that hits the ear and that a parrot can mimic, but it is above all a sound endowed with a meaning in a certain tongue.  Stripped of its representation, the note is a scrap of paper without value, meaningless, and the word a kind of odd chirp with little more than an aesthetic interest.  It would be how we feel when hearing a language of which we don’t understand a word.  The Chinese twitter, the raucous song of the Russians, both have their charm, provided one does not understand them!

     Hence a sign is a symbolic substitution for a reality posited by thought, and this is how thought is expressed by humans.  Speaking with words is akin to giving ourselves an auditory image of the idea they represent, evoking them, uttering them, exchanging them.  Careful: we say ideas, not things!  The word “apple” refers to this sweet thing and tender thing that is the apple.  Yet, when I pronounce it what I have in mind is the idea of the apple.  The word “freedom” does not refer to any thing, it also designates an idea.  Even when we think of the apple we do not think of this or that apple in particular, but of a concept, the kind that this fruit is, the apple.  In its use the concept cannot be separated from the word.  Words enable us to name increasingly complex aspects: the Golden Delicious is neither the Orange Cox nor the Braeburn.  A genre is sub-divided into many species, and is abstract by nature.

     When we say that language utilises signs, we thereby want to explain that it enables one to compose symbolic utterances the vocation of which is to signify.  Signification supposes a shared meaning.  Man does not only speak in order to act (for this mere signposts would do the trick) but above all to convey meaning to other people.  At their most elementary the purpose of sign systems is to transmit information, but a complex system of signs can do much more.  In human language the tiniest word can be expressed, understood, commented upon, explained, in short meaning unfolds in all the forms of communication.  This shows us that the practical vocation of language is not its highest degree; language finds its true purpose in the communication of meaning and not in merely spurring action. 

     B..   It remains to account for the structure through which meaning occurs and unfolds in language.  Let us begin considering the smallest element and then continue to the largest.  A musical sound has no meaning.  If one breaks down verbalisation to its most basic constituents one ends up with a sound that cannot carry any meaning.  The sound ‘oo’ in ‘moon’ is just a sound, it is not yet sense.  A language is made from sounds.  This in linguistics is called phonems.  Each language uses its own range of phonems and only those.  It is a little like in modal music in which there is a range of sounds that the musician sticks to.  About thirty sounds are enough to construct a language such as French.  It is noteworthy that other tongues do not use exactly the same phonems, some of their phonems are shared with other languages, others not.  In French and German there is a sound “ü” and another sound “è” that are not found in English.  This may explain some of the difficulties involved in learning another language.  We are accustomed to the phonems of our native language, but stumble on those that we do not find in it.  An English speaker will always tend to bend the “ü” towards a  “oo” because in his language the “ü” does not exist.  Russians have an advantage because their language is rich in phonems, and this enables them to speak practically all European languages without distorting the sounds.  The analytical breakdown of language into phonems is called by linguistics the second articulation of language.

      To find meaning we have to climb up a step or two. If I overhear a conversation I can detect sounds but this will only give me minimal bits of sense.  I will hear appointment, purchase, one…These first elements are the monems or smallest signifying units.  Hence in this conversation I may be struck by a few words and say: “from what I have vaguely understood, it must have been about the selling of a flat involving several people since someone said “one”.  The monem is a kind of atom of meaning, which makes neither a noun nor a root.  The word ‘singing’ does not contain one monem but two:  there is the word ‘sing’ which has a meaning, but there is also the ending ‘ing’ which indicate that singing is taking place now.  The monems of a language therefore comprise all the roots and all the suffixes and prefixes that enable one to decline verbs, adjectives, adverbs etc… With just a few thousand monems on can construe the hundreds of thousands of words that make up a given language.  Linguists refer to this analysis as the first articulation of language. 

     Yet this still is not really meaning.  Words thrown about hurly-burly do not generate sense.  A thought can only find its true expression in a sentence.  Meaning is in fact contained neither in phonems nor in monems.  It emerges in linguistic utterances.  What matters is not the length or brevity of an utterance, but its ability to render the totality of a thought.  If, when something is about to fall on people below, someone cries “Take care!” the utterance is short, yet the idea is clear and expressed in its totality.  The same words could be found in a different linguistic utterance in which they would carry a different meaning:  “I do my job with care”. We will encounter sing, -ing in all sorts of contexts.  What it is important to understand is that meaning manifests in its totality, but this totality is expressed using elements, or parts that are words.  Understanding what others are saying imposes a global grasp and never a fragmented one.  A consciousness’ intention to signify is a totality of meaning that manifests in a totality of expression and that the one who hears can only understand as a totality.

     C.     Language as a system

     Linguistic utterances do themselves belong to a higher level which is that of any given language: French, Japanese etc…  What is our usual idea of what a language is?  From the point of view of common sense, a language is a kind of collection of words from which we draw in order to communicate our thoughts to other people. Until now we have not gone beyond this conception because we have not yet considered language as a global structure and above all as a system.  We could stick to this representation of language as a huge collection of words structured along to the two axes of phonems and meaning.  A language comes with a vast vocabulary that allows one to combine words to make sentences. 

     Yet this does not take into account the importance of language as a whole.  One doctrine, now regarded as here to stay by structural linguistics, maintains that language forms a system that only refers back to itself.  On this matter in our practical use of language we have some prejudice to which contemporary linguistics wants to draw our attention:

1)      We view language as a kind of nomenclature.  In order to speak it would be enough to search language like one would a box for the pieces of a jigsaw. 

2)      Hence we suppose that thought is constituted before language.

3)      We also think that differences are perceived in reality before they can be translated into words.

4)      We have such faith in language it seems to us there is a natural connection between what it designates and reality.

    Let us consider these ideas in turn.  For today’s linguists language is not a nomenclature, it is not just a collection of words.  To believe this would amount to saying that language is like some sort of multiplication table of which one ought to learn all the formulas in order to use it.  On the contrary linguistics regards language as a whole that makes up a system, a whole in which all the terms are connected within the system itself.  The whole precedes the part.  The child learning its native language does not learn it in a fragmentary way.  The only thing one can learn in a fragmentary fashion are codes such the Morse, yet this presupposes that one has already learnt a language.  Nor can the child learn its native language through conditioning, which it could were it a mere system of signals.  It learns it intelligently through penetrating as it were into the ‘spirit’ of the language that it receives from its parents.  Its intelligence develops within the differentiations laid down by the language it learns, because intelligence works in a global manner.  In is in this manner that the child enters the realm of culture.  It learns the name of things, it discovers that everything has a name and it begins to ask for the names of objects and for the meaning of words it does not know.   This way he is also initiated into the network of social rules, forbidden areas and prescriptions.  Through acquiring language he also acquires a complex array of symbols operative in the culture in which he lives.  Finally one cannot say that language is something outside thinking because we would find it very hard to define what such a thought – one without language – would be. 

  Language is not a collection of words, but a system that has a rigorous structure one cannot do what one wants with.  We could even say, along the lines of structuralism, that we do not speak but are spoken by language.  The structuralist conception of language therefore yields a form of relativism, linguistic relativism.  Similarly, as regards the unconscious, we are under the influence of our unconscious, in the same way as we are controlled by the structures at work in our society and our culture.  The structure is like a pattern on which individuals are sewn.  The network of language and its system are no less important than the other structures, but in many respects more so, because language is at the very heart of culture.  Thinking is therefore relative to culture.


   It would then be tempting to speak of a conditioning of the individual by language. Yet this is the wrong term because it mostly applies to signalling systems.  The system of language does not just provide us with words to express ourselves.  It would be more appropriate to say that linguistics intends to show that language communicates thoughts, ways of thinking and of expressing oneself.  Thinking does not exist individually, differentiated outside language, but develops inside language and this because language forms a system of differences valid within the frame of a given community and this within the general framework of communication.  It is clear that when learning a language we also enter inside the representations of the collective consciousness of the people who speak that language.  As a popular saying puts it: Héritage de mots, heritage d’idées.[3]

       Yet if before language thinking is rather confuse, it cannot overcome this confusion except through the encounter of language.  It is naïve to believe that it would be enough to apply to each object in reality the appropriate designation.  That would be pretending that the world of thoughts is already ordered into categories that language would merely need to mirror.  Linguists say that the categories of thinking can only emerge with language.  Before language is structured the world that is perceived is just an undifferentiated magma of sensations, images and souvenirs.  It is not even a confuse collection of “things” since the very concept of a thing calls for a designation by a word.  It is language that enables one to at all discriminate anything in this confusion.  The child that learns a language gets out of this sensorial confusion in order to set up its own world by means of the words it learns, in such a way that it discriminates in reality at the same time as it learns to discriminate words.  The child who learns to speak does not find thinking ready made.  It learns to distinguish  and sort differences within the structure of language.  Hence it does not learn a catalogue of words, its intelligence penetrates the soul of the native language and wakes up inside it.  It is from the moment that the child begins to speak that it becomes genuinely more intelligent than the baby chimp.  The child experiences the creative possibilities inherent in language.  One cannot say that language is learnt through conditioning like a system of signals.  Language is an intelligent structure that addresses the child’s intelligence and the child who learns the language discovers little by little the power of thought.  It is by the means of language that reality can be analysed.  The phenomenon of homeostasis is identified this way, by the word that sets it apart as a specific phenomenon.  The word indicates that a phenomenon has been characterised.  The more progress goes forward, the more it develops a technical vocabulary.  This is the case with all areas of technology and this is partly the reason why it is difficult for us to access a field that we may well consider to be scientists’ jargon.

 Hence language plays a fundamental role in establishing culture, so much that we can say that language and culture coincide.  What we know is thus predetermined by language. What can then be said about perception and what it can give us?  In the rainbow a Frenchman (and this in agreement with most Westerners) distinguishes purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. These distinctions are in fact concepts that belong to a certain culture and that are deposited in language.  The phenomenon itself of the rainbow is continuous; without any neat frontiers or precise areas. It is we who posit distinctions through analysis.  From there it follows that it is possible to find languages that do not make the same analysis of reality. (See Hopi language).   Language proposes a system of differences.  The Welsh use a single word to say both blue and green.  By extension it is tempting to say that all real phenomena are in fact identified first of all through language.  What language is better apt than Arabic to speak of the desert?  Arabic has an immense variety of terms to designate the desert environment.  Where an Englishman will say « camel », an Arab will be able to employ hundreds of different words rendering all the different shades of meaning: a camel of this or that race, at this or that stage of pregnancy and so on.  The Eskimo can speak of the snow and its different states with much complexity.  In both these cases language proposes a very developed analysis that would not be possible in other languages, and this analysis is a headache to translators.  This does not mean that the Arab or the Eskimo sees something different than the Englishman.  No.  His language helps him above all to distinguish elements of reality.  The Englishman is just as able to learn to see and name, only he finds it that his native language has not taught him as much detail about a phenomenon to which he is not accustomed. 


     On the other hand, although a system of signs imposes a specific meaning, it also gives scope to much expression and interprÉtation.  Language’s creative powers make possible an ongoing invention of new sense.  Every individual speaking a language acquires a certain knowledge from his language that becomes his linguistic competence; this is an internalised system of rules upon which – according to Chomsky – every performance, or effective utterance in the form of a sentence, depends.  The more completely someone masters a language, the more this enables him to complex and refined expression.  There is a faculty in language the universal characteristic of which is creativity. It is this creativity that makes possible a) paraphrasing, that makes it possible for us to renew the designation of an objective reference b) criticism that enables us to improve upon it c) this one also enables language to make itself the object as is the case in answering d) or to make itself the reference as is the case in the comment and finally e) it is the creativity of language that enables it to found communication and dialogue.


   We therefore see that linguistics modifies our idea of the connection between sign and reality.  In the natural attitude the sign is spontaneously perceived as commanding reality and ends up one with reality. This is the origin of the common belief of the magic power of words.  The linguist considers as a form of animism the idea that one can manipulate reality by manipulating words. The magic power of words supposes a relation between the name and the form that linguistics precisely rejects.


   Linguists posit the signs of language as arbitrary with respect to reality.  The sounds “h-ou-se”(the acoustic image) has nothing to do with the concept of a house, it might just as well be represented by “horse” or “string”.  Ferdinand de Saussure[4] proposes the term signifier to designate the acoustic image in use in a language and the term signified to designate the concept it refers to.  From one language to the next the signifiers used to refer to one and the same signified will be different.  This is the famous theory of the arbitrary sign.  It does not contradict the idea of language as a set of fixed rules: the speaker of a language does not have the freedom to do as he pleases with the designations present in this language.  These designations result from a convention between the speakers of any given language.  The word arbitrary as understood by the theory of signs as arbitrary “should not make one think that the signifier has been freely chosen by the speaker (we shall see further down that the individual does not have the power to change a sign once it has been established in a linguistic group); we mean that it is unmotivated, that is arbitrary with respect to the signified with which it has no natural connection in reality.”  The sign forms the totality of signifier and signified.  There is a duality, but not one between name and form.  “The linguistic signs do not unite a thing and a name, but a concept and an acoustic image”.   In the relations that it establishes language only relates to itself and not with reality.  The duality between the level of nature, or reality, and the level of language is such for the whole area of linguistics.  Language forms a system of meaning such that the speaking subject is not in touch with reality when speaking, but with his culture, through the system of differences found in his language and his relation to it.


   So where then is the relation between the sign and Nature?  Of course there are two categories of signs: the natural sign and the artificial sign.  For instance smoke is the natural sign of fire.  When perceiving the sign one’s thought is logically taken to its object, through a relation that is present in Nature.  On a purely logical level the natural sign is mostly some kind of clue.  We call clue a fact that is immediately perceptible and that makes us know something about another fact, which is not immediately perceptible.  More important, in a human relation the body and face of the other person signify by virtue of a natural language of expressions.  The natural sign is the one the connection of which arises from Natural laws.  This is not the case with human language.  Language is above all artificial signs, in which the connection between the signifier and the signified is not engraved in the laws of Nature but are dependent upon the sphere of culture and its conventions.  Such too are the signs of Mathematics, Logic, Music.  The symbols +, -, <, ö, are signs that only result from a convention and not from the nature of things.  The same goes for musical notes.  There is only one case in which human language could make one think that it is also a natural language, one in which words imitate natural sounds.  In English the word “cuckoo” seems copied on the song of the bird it designates.  “Flow” sounds a little like the movement of water.  This mimetic phenomenon is encountered in all languages.  Yet they do not reflect the general rules for the formation of words, these are only exceptions, which we might say confirm the rules.  One doesn’t see in what way ‘tree’ would sound like the thing it refers too.  It does not more so than the French ‘arbre’.  The connection between sound and form is not at all apparent in these cases. 

     But it is precisely this question of the connection between language and reality that is a problem to the philosopher, that is the relation between name and form.  The linguistic point of view consists in refusing to have a position regarding so fundamental a problem.  We may acknowledge the merit of linguistics in that it makes of the relation of name and form a real problem that the empirical subject ignores.  Here we are presented with difficult problems.  One might think that meaning implies communicating to others differences recognised in reality or experienced through living and not reality itself, since this reality without a language to express it is precisely only confusion.  Meaning manifests as a sort of effect inherent in the very functioning of language. This explains why translations are so difficult.  What does a French text mean?  It is essentially meaning unfolding through and within distinctions we find in the French language.  The analysis of real phenomena would be totally different in another language because it would be another system of meanings.  Let us call linguistic relativism the general tendency to want to refer all meaning back to language.  It is clear that linguistic relativism does not really solve the fundamental problem of the relation between language, thought and reality.  It leaves this to Philosophy.


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We are facing two difficulties:


1)      Meaning must carry sense and pertain to a system of signs.  When behavioural psychology speaks of a signalling system of animals, this enables it to discard any form of animal awareness, and therefore to speak of animal consciousness.  Yet is it really possible to speak of language in the absence of any form of thinking?  Does not the very idea of expression necessarily call for meaning and thinking?  Reducing animal mind to one that could not access thinking and meaning is an arbitrary decision.  If there is a mind there is already meaning, even though this one may be very basic.

2)      Linguistics does not solve the problem of how meaning is possible by stating that human language can signify within the framework of the system language constitutes.  Many questions remain unanswered.  Indeed we must specify: 1° what distinguishes thought from language?  2° To what extent is there meaning beyond language?   3° How does language relate to reality? 



[1] In fact this may not be quite accurate: modern zoologists have identified regional accents and dialects in animal speech.  Birds of the same species may not twitter in exactly the same way in different regions of a country or of the world. Ducks of the country side quack differently from ducks in Hyde Park in London, and whales sing differently depending on the tribe they belong to.  The same appears to go for chimps and gorillas belonging to different tribes in different parts of Africa.

[2] Linguistique structurale: this expression has not been translated as it refers to a specific branch of linguistics founded by the structuralists such as Claude Lévy-Strauss.

[3] Could be translated something like a heritage of words is a heritage of ideas.

[4] Ferdinand de Saussure : Swiss linguist who founded linguistics as a new field of study and knowledge in the beginnning of the 20th century.