As a student with a communication background that focused heavily on the works of Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, and ideas relating to Media Ecology, I found many sections of “The Grammar of Meaning Systems” to be particularly interesting due to the connections that were made between symbols and language, and how these two topics relate to time. The hypothesis in cognitive science and human evolution that states that language and symbolic cognition have been part of a co-evolution, specific to humans, that is directly connected to the evolution of societies, tools, communication, technologies and media (pg. 2), caught my attention and made me think about McLuhan’s media history. How have language and symbols evolved through the different ages (e.g. tribal age, literary age, print age, electronic age, digital age)?
Perhaps this is where the “ratchet effect” (pg. 5) comes into play. We’ve externalized our symbolic functions into “technical memory systems” (5) such as writing, recordings, art, etc.. The fact that we’ve been able to store and forward symbolic thought through the generations has led humans on a path of continual evolution, or progress, as stated in the reading. Am I wrong to assume that the media that stores and forwards the symbolic thought has evolved over time? And if so, does that alter the way that we understand the symbolic thought? While reading, I also wondered: have different technological innovations changed the way that we perceive and understand language and symbols? In this digital age, has text or instant messaging (or email) changed language and/or created new meanings to phrases that we once would have understood differently? For example, “literally dying” doesn’t mean you’re actually dying, and LOL doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve laughed out loud. “LOL” seemed to have gained meaning only when technology evolved to a certain point. Have humans created new symbols out of emojis? Or do emojis serve as a new language based on symbols that gained meaning long ago? These are the questions, very much biased by my own limited background, that popped into my head while reading “The Grammar of Meaning Systems.”
Continuing on to the sections assigned from the “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings,” I found Aristotle’s definitions quite helpful, particularly the paragraph that focused on the difference between spoken sounds and written marks (2). My naivety may be showing, but I found point number two both fascinating and new. I’ve never thought of nouns in the way that Aristotle describes; they are without time, and they are not naturally a name of something until they have become a symbol. I found these brief points important as the reading intensified into writing from the work of De Saussure and Pierce.
Reading De Saussure’s observations, I never really thought of the difference between speech and language (pg. 5). It is easy to understand where he’s coming from and it also helps me to better understand the depth of the field that is semiotics. Language is not the same as human speech, but language is certainly part of speech and it proves to be essential. In section three, De Saussure writes about language as a system of signs that express ideas, comparable to systems of writing, polite formulas, military signals, etc. He says that language is the most important of all these systems.
Language being the most important system of all leads me on to Pierce’s work. Deciphering the main differences between the two scholars (besides the fact that De Saussure’s dyadic and static model differs from Pierce’s triadic model) is where things began to get fuzzy for me. Pierce states that the human social-cognitive use of signs and symbols in everything from language and math to images and cultural expression (and beyond) provides a unifying base for understanding meaning, knowledge, learning, and what we call “progress” in developments in both the sciences and the arts. The term “unifying” made me think of De Saussure’s statement above, about language being the most important. Could it be said that he did not think everything was quite as unified as Pierce proposes?