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Language as a System of Signs

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 ?????, 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.

Cultural encodings

All three types of signs correspond to ways in which members of a given
discourse community encode their experience. In that regard, the code is
not something that can be separated from its meanings.

Different signs denote reality by cutting it up in different ways,
as Whorf would say. For example, table, Tisch, mesa denote the same
object by reference to a piece of furniture, but whereas the English
sign ‘table’ denotes all tables, Polish encodes dining tables as stol,
coffee tables or telephone tables as stolik. British English encodes
anything south of the diaphragm as ‘stomach’, whereas in American
English a ‘stomachache’ denotes something different from a ‘bellyache’.
Similarly, Bavarian German encodes the whole leg from the hip to the
toes through one sign, das Bein, so that ‘Mein Bein tut weh’ might mean
‘My foot hurts’, whereas English needs at least three words ‘hip’,
‘leg’, or ‘foot’. Cultural encodings can also change over time in the
same language. For example, German that used to encode a state of
happiness as gluecklich, now encodes deep happiness as gluecklich,
superficial happiness as happy, pronounced /hepi/.

The encoding of experience differs also in the nature of the
cultural associations evoked by different linguistic signs. For example,
although the words ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ are usually seen as the English
equivalents of the Russian word dusha, each of these signs is
differently associated with their respective objects. For a Russian, not
only is dusha used more frequently than ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ in English, but
through its associations with religion, goodness, and the mystical
essence of things it connotes quite a different concept than the
English. Studies of the semantic networks of bilingual speakers makes
these associations particularly visible. For example, bilingual speakers
of English and Spanish have been shown to activate different
associations within one of their languages and across their two
languages. In English they would associate ‘house’ with ‘window’, and
‘boy’ with ‘girl’, but in Spanish they may associate casa with madre,
and muchacho with hombre. But even within the same speech community,
signs might have different semantic values for people from different
discourse communities. Anglophone readers of Emily Dickinson’s poem who
happen not be members of her special discourse community, might not know
the denotational meaning of the word ‘Attar’, nor associate ‘rosemary’
with the dead. Nor might the iconic aspects of the poem be evident to
them. Even though they may be native speakers of English, their cultural
literacy is different from that of Emily Dickinson’s intended readers.

ae?/ any such icon at all; for a French speaker the words hache, tache,
crache, sache, cache, vache have no semantic relationship despite
similar final sounds. A French-educated speaker of French might,
however, be inclined to hear in words like siffler and serpent icons of
their objects because of the initial similar sounding /s/, but also, as
we see below, because of the cultural association with a prior text—the
famous line from Racine’s Andromaque: ‘Pour qui sont ces serpents qui
sifflent sur nos tetes?’ (‘But what are these serpents hissing above our

It is important to mention that the differences noted above among
the different languages are not only differences in the code itself, but
in the semantic meanings attributed to these different encodings by
language-using communities. It is these meanings that make the
linguistic sign into a cultural sign.

Semantic cohesion

We have seen how signs relate words to the world in ways that are
generally denotative of common cultural objects, or particularly
connotative of other objects or concepts associated with them, or simply
iconic. But, as a sign, a word also relates to other words or signs that
give it a particular value in the verbal text itself or co-text. Beyond
individual nouns and sounds, words refer to other words by a variety of
cohesive devices that hold a text like the Dickinson poem together:
pronouns (‘it’), demonstratives (‘this’), repetition of the same words
from one sentence to the next (for example, ‘The Attar from the Rose …
The general Rose … In ceaseless Rosemary’) or same sounds from one
line to the next (for example, the sound /l/ in ‘Lady’s Drawer’, ‘the
Lady lie’), recurrence of words that relate to the same idea (for
example, ‘Suns’, ‘summer’; ‘essential Oils’, ‘Attar’), conjunctions (for
example, ‘but’, ‘when’). These devices capitalize on the associative
meanings or shared connotations of a particular community of competent
readers who readily recognize the referent of the pronoun ‘it’ and the
lexical reiteration of ‘suns’ and ‘summer’, whereas a community of less
competent readers might not. Semantic cohesion depends on a discourse
community’s communal associations across the lines of a poem, or across
stretches of talk.

A sign or word may also relate to the other words and instances of
text and talk that have accumulated in a community’s memory over time,
or prior text. Thus, to return, for example, to the Russian sign dusha,
which roughly denotes ‘a person’s inner core’, it connotes goodness and
truth because it is linked to other utterances spoken and heard in daily
life, to literary quotes (for example, ‘His soul overflowing with
rapture, he yearned for freedom, space, openness’ written by
Dostoevsky), or to other verbal concepts such as pricelessness, human
will, inner speech, knowledge, feelings, thoughts, religion, that
themselves have a variety of connotations. When English speakers
translate the word dusha by the word ‘soul’, they are in fact linking it
to other English words, i.e. ‘disembodied spirit’, ‘immortal self,
’emotions’, that approximate but don’t quite match the semantic cohesion
established for dusha in the Russian culture. The meanings of words
cannot be separated from other words with which they have come to be
associated in the discourse community’s semantic pool.

Another linguistic environment within which words carry cultural
semantic meaning consists of the linguistic metaphors that have
accumulated over time in a community’s store of semantic knowledge.
Thus, for example, the English word ‘argument’ is often encountered in
the vicinity of words like ‘to defend’ (as in ‘Your claims are
indefensible’), ‘to shoot down’ (as in ‘He shot clown all of my
arguments’), ‘on target’ (as in ‘Her criticisms were right on target’),
which has led George Lakoff and Mark Johnson to identify one of the key
metaphors of the English language: ‘Argument is War’. Some of these
metaphors are inscribed in the very structure of the English code, for
example, the metaphor of the visual field as container. This metaphor
delineates what is inside it, outside it, comes into it, as in ‘The ship
is coming into view’, ‘I have him in sight’, ‘He’s out of sight now’.
Each language has its own metaphors that provide semantic cohesion
within its boundaries.

In all these examples, the semantic meanings of the code reflect
the way in which the speech community views itself and the world, i.e.
its culture. They are intimately linked to the group’s experiences,
feelings and thoughts. They are the non-arbitrary expression of their
desire to understand and act upon their world.

The non-arbitrary nature of signs

We said at the beginning that signs have no natural connection with the
outside world and are therefore arbitrary. It is precisely this
arbitrariness that makes them so amenable to appropriation by members of
culturally embedded discourse communities. Speakers and writers use
those signs that are most readily available in their environment,
without generally putting them into question, or being aware, as Sapir
noted, that other signifying relations might be available. As we noted
in Chapter 1, socialization into a given discourse community includes
making its signifying practices seem totally natural. Native users of a
language, for example, do not view the linguistic sign as arbitrary; on
the contrary, they view it as a necessity of nature. Jakobson reports
the anecdote of one Swiss-German peasant woman who asked why the French
used fromage for Kaese (cheese): ‘Kaese ist doch viel natiirlicher!’
(‘Kaese is so much more natural!’), she added. Only detached researchers
and non-native speakers see the relations between signs as mere

Native speakers do not feel in their body that words are arbitrary
signs. For them, words are part of the natural, physical fabric of their
lives. Seen from the perspective of the user, words and thoughts are
one. For example, anyone brought up in a French household will swear
that there is a certain natural masculinity about the sun (le soleil)
and femininity about the moon (la lune). For English speakers, it is
perfectly natural to speak of ‘shooting down someone’s argument’; they
don’t even think one could talk of arguments in a different way. Having
once recognized the semantic cohesion of the Emily Dickinson poem,
readers may even come to view the interpretation offered in Chapter 1 as
the only one possible—the natural one. Even though, as we have seen,
signs are created, not given, and combine with other signs to form
cultural patterns of meaning, for native speakers linguistic signs are
the non-arbitrary, natural reality they stand for.

The major reason for this naturalization of culturally created
signs is their motivated nature. Linguistic signs do not signify in a
social vacuum. Sign-making and sign-interpreting practices are motivated
by the need and desire of language users to influence people, act upon
them or even only to make sense of the world around them. With the
desire to communicate a certain meaning to others comes also the desire
to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be believed, and to
influence in turn other peoples’ beliefs and actions. The linguistic
sign is therefore a motivated sign.


With the passing of time, signs easily become not only naturalized, but
conventionalized as well. Taken out of their original social and
historical context, linguistic signs can be emptied of the fullness of
their meaning and used as symbolic shorthand. For example, words like
‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘choice’, when uttered by politicians and
diplomats, may lose much of their denotative and even their rich
connotative meanings, and become political symbols in Western democratic
rhetoric; signifiers like ‘the French Revolution’, ‘May 68’, ‘the
Holocaust’, have simplified an originally confusing amalgam of
historical events into conventionalized symbols. The recurrence of these
symbols over time creates an accumulation of meaning that not only
shapes the memory of sign users but confers to these symbols mythical
weight and validity.

The passage of time validates both the sign itself and its users.
For signs are reversible; they have the potential of changing the way
sign-makers view themselves, and therefore the way they act. The use of
signs enables current speakers to place past events into a current
context of talk, i.e. to recontextualize past events and thus provide a
framework to anticipate, i.e. precontextualize, future events.
Ultimately such construction and reconstruction of contexts through the
use of signs enables language users to control their environment, and to
monitor their and others’ behavior in that environment.

We see this controlling effect at work, for example, in the
publicity logos, the advertisement jingles of commercial corporations,
and in the outward signs of national patriotism, from flags to mottos to
mementos. Cultural stereotypes are frozen signs that affect both those
who use them and those whom they serve to characterize. Much of what we
call ideology is, in this respect, symbolic language. For example, words
like ‘rebels’ or ‘freedom fighters’ to denote anti-government forces,
‘challenges’ or ‘problems’ to denote obstacles, and ‘collaboration’ or
‘exploitation’ to denote workers’ labor, are cultural symbols propagated
and sustained by sign-makers of different political leanings in their
respective discourse communities. The way in which language intersects
with social power makes some uses of cultural signs seem legitimate,
i.e. natural, others illegitimate, i.e. unnatural and even taboo. A
right-wing newspaper, for example, would censor the use of ‘freedom
fighters’ to refer to guerrilla forces; its readers would find it quite
natural to see them referred to as ‘rebels’.

This last example illustrates the problem encountered throughout
this chapter of keeping semantics and pragmatics strictly separate from
one another. Where does semantics end and pragmatics begin? The meanings
of words as they are linked both to the world and to other words
establish a speech community’s pool of semantic resources; but this
semantic pool is constantly enriched and changed through the use that is
made of it in social contexts.










%ation, or iconicity that give general meaning to the world. In
addition, signs establish semantic relations with other signs in the
direct environment of verbal exchanges, or in the historical context of
a discourse community. The creation of meaning through signs is not
arbitrary, but is, rather, guided by the human desire for recognition,
influence, power, and the general motivation for social and cultural
survival. Since meaning is encoded in language with a purpose, meaning
as sign is contingent upon the context in which signs are used to
regulate human action. Thus it is often difficult to draw a clear line
between the generic semantic meanings of the code and the pragmatic
meanings of the code in various contexts of use.

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