Thought, Language, Semiotics and Semantics

For this blog post, I would like to focus on two aspects of the introduction to linguistics that come into confrontation with other theories that I am more familiar with: (1) the concept of thought existing outside of language, and (2) Chomsky’s division between the lexical/semantic and the grammatical/syntactic. Both of these have implications on using linguistics to understand other sign systems.

First, I would like to focus on Pinker’s claim that thought can exist outside of language. The evidence he uses to back up this claim is that (1) tacit knowledge is needed to understand language, and (2) thought must exist prior to language in order to exist—otherwise, where would it come from? Personally, I have neither a strong background in linguistics nor neuroscience, so I am by no means capable of disproving these claims. Instead, I have only questions. For structural linguistics, and those influenced by it, nothing exists outside of language, or rather, something may exist outside of language, but, whatever it is, it’s too murky and indistinct to be of use. “In Problems of General Linguistics,” Benveniste quotes Saussure, thusly:

Psychologically, our thought—apart from its expression in words—is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. […] Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. (45)

Granted, Saussure developed his theory of semiotics about 100 years ago, but such conceptions of language prevailed for a long time afterward (Benveniste published this in the 1970’s). Pinker’s claims rest on the assumption that language is derived from thought, Saussure’s that thought can only exist as such when derived from language. Neither appear to cite scientific evidence to support their claims, but Pinker presents his as if it were not possible for one to disagree. So my question is: has this debate been settled? If so, who won?

Secondly, Pinker identifies three criticisms of Chomsky: (1) no one has proven UG is specific to language itself, (2) he uses a small sample size, and (3) other learning models might be capable of showing how grammar works. However, he overlooks (or omits) what I am finding to be the most interesting criticism of Chomsky, particularly the complication of his division between the lexical/semantic and the grammatical/syntactic. For Chomsky, and many semioticians, there is a clean divide between words (historical, semantic) and syntactic structures (which are perceived as ahistorical patterns, and not semantic). In my Digital Approaches to Literature class, we’ve been discussing how Fillmore challenges this division, and how syntactic structures are also historically and culturally determined. While words have retained a privileged position in the field of semiotics, we can also think of semantic structures as signs. While Saussaurian semiotics have traditionally focused on the semantic function of words, might Peirce’s triadic theory of the sign prove more useful in understanding the semantic function of syntactic structures?

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Coral Gables, Fla: Univ of Miami Pr, 1973. Print.