Towards a Perfect Definition of the Term “Sign”
Saussure defined the sign as the union of the signifier and the signified. Steinmetz emphasized the importance of the interactional element. Burma-Shave proposed that a sign could only be understood in the context of adjacent signs. Modern linguistics has elaborated the concept of the sign system.
The Brittanica World Language Dictionary defines a sign as “noun...6 Any mark used in musical notation, as a flat or a sharp...9 In scripture, a miraculous deed as a proof of divine commission or supernatural power; a miracle...11 In hunting, a trace left by an animal; spoor...” The dictionary’s definitions are plainly nearer the truth than those scholarly attempts listed in the first paragraph. Yet there remains a certain inadequacy, a sort of lack, not unlike the lack felt by a man who, at age fifty-three, having achieved financial success, high social standing, and the love of a wife and family, decided to bag his career as a corporate vice-president and take off for the coast with a blonde in a fast car.
Not that we recommend such a course of action. The immaturity displayed by men during their “mid-life crises” is beyond the understanding of the present author, who, himself a man of middle-age, has never felt the desire to have an affair with an empty-headed but well-appointed young fortune hunter. Anyway, if I did, my wife would bankrupt me during the divorce proceedings. Under the circumstances, I can’t say that I would blame her.
None of which brings us any closer to a perfect definition of the term “sign”. I think it is important for us to consider the following:
- Signs, like the lymphatic system, are used daily by literally billions of people who do not even know that they exist.
- We are continuously asked to sign our name to documents without having time to read them. Like last week, when I was renting a car, and the agent said, “Sign here and here, and initial here. Don’t bother to read the agreement. All it says is that if you don’t return our car to us in perfect condition, we get to have your first-born son.”
- Many signs are made out of neon. Someone should put a stop to this.
Taken together, the above points bring us much closer, if not to a solution to our problem, at least to a more perspicuous way of framing the question. We are caused to recall what the poet once said: “Whereat, in the dewy balm of evening, he laid his care-struck love to rest.” Perhaps if more poets were linguists, our job would be easier.
But alas, Sapir is dead, and John Cage is a famous composer. At least we can take solace in the fact that Cage is unable to earn a living from his idiotic antics. I believe he works as a busboy on the side.
To conclude, let us say, that even if we have found no final answers, still, we have explored the truth a little more deeply.
||Cherbourg Naval Institute
||Bivalent Meaning in Matrix Adverbs—Dave Kathman
||Review of Zhang, Jiannan, The Relationships between Processes and Participants in Chinese: A Cognitive Approach—Jan Vanderkeller
||Better Words and Morphemes — JLSSCNC Vol I, No 3 Contents