R. Culler, “Saussure’s Theory of Language”
…Not only can a language arbitrarily choose its signifiers; it can divide up a spectrum of conceptual possibilities in any way that it likes. Moreover, and here we come to an important point, the fact that these concepts, or signifieds, are arbitrary divisions of a continuum means that they are not autonomous entities, each of which is defined by some kind of essence. They are members of a system and are defined by their relations to the other members of that system.
This quote, though fairly long, was more or less a revelation for me. After I read it, many concepts about languages suddenly made sense. For instance, in Culler’s text about Saussure and also in Hudson’s “The Great Issues (Grey Tissues),” the variation between any two languages was a popular and complicated topic.
French encompasses many terms to describe flowing bodies of water, as does English. Not all of the French terms translate directly to English, and likewise not all of the English terms translate to French. In order to understand any of the French terms, one must learn the meanings of many of the other French terms. The above quote expresses this literary phenomenon and explains the cause for it quite well.
Culler describes the system of choosing words as an arbitrary system, much like the system of choosing names for colors is arbitrary. There exists a spectrum of colors with millions of different shades, hues, etc. The fact that fewer than millions of names for those colors exist in any language is a direct result of this arbitrary process of selecting signifieds for describing the color spectrum’s components. Similarly, there exists a barely-imaginable “spectrum of conceptual possibilities,” which no doubt includes the color spectrum as well. The division of this spectrum is unique to each language, which is why most languages do not translate directly to other languages, word-for-word. Generally, one must learn how words of a language relate to one another before one can understand any of those words.
I have a fair amount of experience with this idea through my years of Spanish in high school and now in college. It always fascinated me when certain words existed in Spanish, especially informal phrases, which seemed to have no English equivalents. I accepted that the languages were created by different in different times and were allowed to have a different set of vocabulary, but I never quite thought about the words as divisions in a spectrum of possibility – probably because that idea is quite abstract.
The idea in the above quote relates very much to the discussion in class about different cultures’ interactions with one another. Not only can two groups of people have trouble understanding each other because of differences in language, but they also may have gaps in understanding simply because of “how” they think. Illustrated by the current “West versus Islamic extremist” crisis in Iraq and surrounding countries, gaps in understanding between cultures can create huge problems. Some of these gaps are surely caused by language differences, but one might assume that differences in thinking could be caused in ways unrelated to language.
For instance, the United States and many Muslim individuals seem to have a very different idea of freedom and how a country should be run. This is probably not a direct result of language, but might be explained in a way similar to how two languages can be so different. The two peoples, as two separate cultures, chose over time how to divide up the spectrum of meaning in a unique way. Consequently, it may not be possible for Americans or Iraqis to completely understand a given idea about one or the other without learning about a broad range of ideas.
This is one thing that frustrates me about world cultural clashes in general. It seems that each side is quick to condemn the other and resort to violence or other means to effect a given policy, but rarely do I get the feeling that two clashing cultures are striving to understand one another, much less to understand one another through a thorough attempt to learn about much of the culture of the opposing side. If Americans and Iraqis or Afghanis put more effort into learning about each other in depth, perhaps there would be more understanding and less killing – but this might be inappropriately optimistic.
Overall, the world is still extremely complicated with its countless cultures and languages, but the above quote has certainly given me a new perspective on many cultural situations. I hope it does the same for everyone else that read it!