Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 21

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.


Around 1890, Significs, intended to be a ‘theory of signs’, was developed by Victoria, Lady Welby, in close connection with the work of Charles Peirce, her correspondent. Some followers of Significs, particularly in France, developed the theory into an account of human language based heavily upon meaning and in particular on the international (originally Latin) root sign- as in English signify, etc. Significs constitutes, in effect, a ‘proactive’ version of what is more usually called ‘semiotics’, the overall study of meaning including linguistic meaning (semantics) but also the meanings of non-linguistic symbols of various kinds. As far as language per se is concerned, Significs is a doctrine of etymology and historical word-meaning, with a close focus on the study and classification of semantic terms themselves. It is argued, in fact, that reform of the use of semiotics in education and public policy is needed in response to the changing circumstances of humanity, but that linguistic reform alone, while necessary, is insufficient for this enterprise. Many of the specifics of the proposals are, however, rather abstract and philosophical in character.

In addition, some followers of Significs seem to have seen Ancient Greek and Latin as models for semiotic and linguistic reform, without giving an adequate explanation of this view; this aspect of the proposal appears rather traditionalist.

Stuart Chase was especially concerned with communication issues and the interface between language and other domains of human activity. Chase was troubled by miscommunication arising from the use of words with varied, shifting and largely emotive meanings and the political and social upshots of this effect. He argues (among many other things) that most people in developed societies have lost the ability to ‘translate’ words into ‘verifiable’ meanings and are thus liable to be defrauded. Much argument which is ostensibly about facts is in fact, he claims, about definitions. While there is an element of truth in this view, Chase’s specific version appears exaggerated. He summarizes, for the most part positively, the work of Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics.

Eli Abir claims to have arrived at an algorithmic means of determining and expressing linguistic context in such a way that machine translation can be completely reliable. His method as described is essentially a numerical expansion of existing methods, but if it were technically feasible it would indeed increase levels of reliability (though perhaps not as much as is suggested). Abir does apparently go too far in claiming that this work will revolutionize linguistic theory itself. He also seems to adhere to extreme and quasi-mystical worldviews.

The small book by an unidentified writer styling himself ‘Basilegist’, apparently a solipsist, begins: ‘Difficulties of language abound in the Retection. The simplicity of that, the opening section of the Retection does not mean that the language of Retection introduces linguistic tangles, but is a statement that as clouded thought is inseparable from language, then its apparent appearance even in Retected Thought using language as its medium is inevitable…’. What ‘Basilegist’ calls Retection involves an attempt to free the human mind from confusion allegedly generated by the universal expression of thoughts by means of language and to enable it to access the ‘morphic’ state in which language is no longer thought of as necessary. He dismisses all notions about the past which are ‘known’ through language, including notions about the origin of language itself. Some of his own usage is highly idiosyncratic.

More next time!


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One Response to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 21

  1. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    That was quite interesting. Another naive attempt to create a good and simple language. In order to function well the speakers need an incredibly complicated language. Linguists, who are possibly not dumber than other people and who have been trying to understand and describe languages for a long time, are still not very good at it. Also a language has to be changed all the time, which is a problem for artificial languages. Goran

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