SEMIOTIC THEORY


O.T. FORD

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Semiotics and linguistics are properly viewed as neighboring points on a continuum of study, beginning with cosmology and passing through psychology and epistemology. And for the Project, the theory of signs and language is integral to a comprehensive theory of the universe. But without relying on the more controversial aspects of the comprehensive theory, it may still be possible to clarify semiotic and linguistic reality in such a way that the discourse no longer suffers from misconceptions.

The foundation for semiotics must be laid, at the very least, with perception. The objects of perception are percepts. Percepts are not the material objects in the physical realm that the mind imagines (rightly or wrongly) that it is sensing. They are, rather, the actual objects of perception, patterns of sensational qualities. Visual percepts are patterns of area (shape, size, and position) and color (tint and tone) over a two-dimensional field. Audial percepts are patterns of pitch and volume over time. These are the things immediately perceived by the mind; the objects they are taken to represent are a matter of inference. Percepts, in fact, are used to infer the exixtence of the entire material world; since its reality is only surmised, it must technically be considered a perceptual realm.

Interpretation, the true subject of semiotics, begins with perceptual paradigms, which are abstractions from perceptual patterns. Abstraction is the process of defining a concept based on an observation, mental or perceptual, hence all abstractions are concepts. A sign is an association of a perceptual paradigm with another concept. This association is made through memory: two concepts are associated when they occur in the same thought experience; thinking of one will then cause the recall of the entire experience, in which the other concept is also present. Interpretation is the process of fitting observed percepts into recognized paradigms, thereby deriving meaning, which is nothing more than the association of concepts. Interpretation applies to all aspects of the perceptual realm. It is a means of constructing a personal version of the perceptual realm ― an attempt to reconstruct the actual course of events in the world.

We establish sign relationships only by a gradual learning process. We experience things in conjunction and thus form associations in memory. We develop a sense of the functional rules of the perceptual realm by trial and error, and are constantly in the process of revising our personal versions of the course of events in it. In large part this is accomplished using the scientific method ― the formation of a hypothesis and the gathering of data to check the hypothesis against. If the data support the hypothesis, consider it provisionally correct; if they contradict it, it must be revised.

Communication is an attempt by one mind to induce a certain interpretation by another. This includes such things as disinformation, which is an attempt to induce a false interpretation of the course of events in the perceptual realm. But by far the most important form of communication is language, the use of symbols. A symbol is a sign whose association between perceptual paradigm and other concept is one of convention. (The first convention must be established by coincidence, where two interpreters form the same association based on some common experience. That first convention can then serve as the basis for further conventions.) A logic is a system for deriving new symbols from existing ones, by combining or altering them according to certain conventional rules. The set of all symbols and logics understood by an interpreter is that interpreter’s idiolect. The intersection of two or more idiolects is a dialect. It is the linguistic joint product of a group, and such a joint product exists for every possible combination of minds, with the dialect for some groups (a close family, say) being quite large, that for other groups presumably being an empty set. It would be possible to consider fixed dialect groups, linguistic communities, linking persons by chains of intersecting idiolects, but such could conceivably have no common dialect, if two extremes on the continuum have no dialect between themselves.

When we speak of the ‘Southern Dialect’, we are speaking of a dialect, but when we speak of the ‘English Language’, we are also speaking of a dialect. There is no fundamental difference between ‘a language’, a langue, and a dialect; there is only a difference of degree. The broader dialects, the langues, are understood by greater numbers of interpreters because these dialects have looser paradigms or narrower sets of symbols or logics. The theory of a deterministic Langue is nonsensical. Every dialect derives its existence directly and solely from the fact that there are interpreters whose idiolects have something in common. Language is under our control, vice non versa.

Linguistic evolution has primarily been through the process of division, a result of geographical isolation and lack of cultural interchange. With the spread of mass communication, that process has been exchanged for one of assimilation, typically around a broadcast standard. Those dialects today that are still mutually intelligible will eventually collapse, through the tightening of paradigms and the expansion of symbol- and logic-sets.

There are and for some time will continue to be at least three linguistic tiers for the world. The primary form of communication is of course the local or vernacular dialect. In most of the world there is also a regional lingua franca, typically the dialect of the colonial power. The global dialect, as it stands and as it is likely to remain, is basically English. This is a historical accident, resulting from the advent of mass communication and cultural assimilation at a time when two successive states in the leading geopolitical position have been anglophone. But the English vocabulary is drawn from three major sources, and has a history of importing and coining words which suggests that the common dialect will be only distantly related to the Englisc-Seaxisc from which it evolved. The existence of a global dialect, and its use in global institutions and as a bearer of global culture, will lead to its adoption by more and more communities as a local dialect, until it is in fact a common dialect. And though it will continue to evolve, it will do so on a global basis, and remain a common dialect.

Because language is under our control, the obvious conclusion is that we should consider the form this common dialect should take, and begin using it as such. The Stewardship Project advocates and employs the following practices:

reference to persons and places in native form: to persons in the forms used by the persons themselves; to places in the forms used by the residents
use of gender-neutral terms when gender is unknown or unspecified; specifically, use of ‘it’ as the gender-neutral pronoun for humans and other animals
adoption of informal address for all circumstances, and use of a single name of address for all persons (the given name, typically)
preference for common or vulgar terms over scientific terms, particularly in the cases of euphemism and scientific redefinition
preference for Latina pronunciation of vowels over English pronunciation where both forms are used
adoption in anglophone cultures of the prevalent international terms where variants exist
adoption in the US of international units of measurement
use, where appropriate, of the Hellenistic paradigm alphabet ― the basic capital forms from the Hellenic, Latin, and Cyrillic scripts, along with associated diacritics and punctuation marks
dates expressed in year-month-day order; times expressed in twenty-four hour prime-meridian standard
 

 

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