Thursday, June 16, 2011

Language and Signs

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Language and Signs

Language has been, is now and will continue to be an important and essential thing in society. Language is the set of rules and norms by which we abide in order to communicate. Without it we would not be able to communicate, express ourselves, or even give or convey information. It is what sets us apart from the animals; it is the primary object of philosophy and humanities. Language consists not only of truths but lies, myths, and ideologies, which Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes both believe play important parts when it comes to explaining linguistic signs.

Saussure starts off talking about the label theory, which says that signs are just labels, attached to things. That language is just a list of words each identical to the thing that it names, just like a noun. Saussure opposes this saying that how would you explain pronouns and adjective and verbs which are also part of our language. He also says that this would mean that the ideas existed before the words did and then no one knows whether a name is expressed or psychological in nature. For example if you take the stop sign which is a red and white octagon. To people that drive in America they know this means you have to come to a complete standstill at the stop line. However if you come from a culture without roads or where they have another language this red and white octagon is going to mean nothing to you.

Saussure also believes that the structure of the linguistic sign can be split two different ways the first being into the signifier and signified. The signifier is the carrier or the manner of the concept. It is what the object actually is. The signified is the concept or a manner of understanding something. Take for instance a photograph. The signifier is the photo itself, for example a picture of your parents. The signified however is the form and content of the picture of your parents. The second form Saussure thinks the linguistic sign can be broken into is conventional and arbitrary. Conventional meaning the language is socially agreed upon by users and arbitrary meaning not necessary.

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Lastly Saussure believes that the mutability or changes of language are mostly brought upon by social, historical and cultural evolution. Therefore that is one of the reasons it is so important. With all these new changes we need to language to describe it. Without this language we would not be able to keep communicating with others and advancing in life.

Instead of breaking the structure of the linguistic sign into the conventional and arbitrary, Roland Barthes breaks it into the denotation and connotation. Denotation, which is the literal meaning and connotation, which is the added meaning. An example of this is an engagement ring. An engagement ring is literally a piece of jewelry with a diamond that is worn around the finger. However the connotation of an engagement ring is love and commitment.

One main difference between the writings of Saussure and Barthes is Barthes speaks a lot of ideologies and myths. An ideology is a set of assumed beliefs or ideas that have no been contrasted to assess their truth-value. A myth is an idea presented as truthful yet does not have fact to back it up. A myth is also a type of speech. Myths and ideologies are presented in the forms of ordinary signs that might be interpreted as truthful. They are not eternal because if they were they would be true. However myths are historically and socially constructed at a certain moment with certain intentions. This is how myths and ideologies differ from the truth because the truth is ideas that have been proven and contrasted with reality.

Myths take the literal appearance of a sign and use it to further a different meaning. Barthes shows this with the example of the black soldier saluting the French flag. The signifier of this is exactly what appears on the magazine cover a young black soldier saluting a French flag but the signified of this is to show that imperialism was good because even other races accepted and respected it. Mythical intentions easily manipulate signs, it is almost like promoting an idea through a sign.

Saussure and Barthes both have similar ideas when it comes to language. It is obvious that a word has to be agreed upon even if it is a private language. If it is not agreed upon by at least two people then it is not a language it is just noise. It is most obvious however after reading the essays by Saussure and Barthes that they feel language and signs are essential in society and almost impossible to live without.

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