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The non-arbitrary nature of signs

Arbitrariness –the random nature of the fit between a linguistic sign and the object that it refers to, e.g. the word “rose” does not look like a rose. The Nativespeakers do not feel in their body that words are arbitrary signs. For them, words are part of the natural, physical fabric of their lives. For example, anyone brought up in French household will swear that there is a certain natural masculinity about the sun (le soleil) and femininity about the moon (la lune). Even though, we can see that signs are created, not given, and combine with other signs to form cultural patterns of meaning, for native speakers linguistic signs are 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. Linguistic sign is a motivated sign.



Symbol is a conventionalized sign that has been endowed with special meaning by the members of a given culture. With the passing 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 “the French Revolution”, “the Holocaust” have simplified an originally confusing amalgam of historical events conventionalized symbols. The reccurence 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.

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 symbolic language. For example, words like “rebels” or “freedom fighters” to denote anti-government forces, “challenges” or “problems” to denote obstacles, “collaboration” or “exploitation” to denote labour, are cultural symbols propagated and sustained by sign-makers of different political meanings in their respective discourse communities. Th eway in which language intersects with social power makes some users of cultural signs seem legitimate, i.e. natural, others illegitimate, unnatural and even taboo. A right-wing newspaper 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”.


· Signs establish between words and things various semantic relations of denotation, connotation, or iconicity that give general meaning to the world.

· 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 guided by the human desire for recognition, influence, power, and the general motivation for social and cultural survival.

· It is 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.


Meaning as action

Date: 2015-12-18; view: 1737

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