While making my way through the assigned readings for today, one subject in particular stood out to me: the arbitrary nature of language. I was already familiar with the idea prior to reading, as I had an anthropology class last semester that studied the relationship between language and culture. One of the first things we covered was the structure and quirkiness of language. However, I had not considered the ideas learned in that class though an English lens, and have since been forced to, which has redefined my understanding of the topic.
For instance, the Bedford Glossary entry on ambiguity first made me rethink what I thought I knew, as it opened me up to the possibility that the arbitrary nature of words can be used to create situations and lines that can be interpreted multiple ways. Then, the Theory Toolbox chapter “Reading” further encouraged me to reexamine the concepts I had learned. I had known that de Saussure wrote on the arbitrary nature of the signs, and had memorized that just because we call the small, furry, whiskered animal that I have as a pet a “cat,” there is nothing innate in the word “cat” that suggests its meaning. However, I had not thought about how a single word can mean several things to several people. That concept is simply an extension of de Saussure’s ideas, and yet, it only came up in this chapter. The explanations offered here have clarified one of the many ways that readers can interpret a text in different ways, considering that individuals interpret symbols, phrases, and even words differently, depending on the person’s personal history and culture.
I enjoy coming across concepts that I learned previously, as it allows me to, as the Theory Toolbox suggests, question everything. I build on my prior knowledge, but get to examine it in a new light, hopefully combining my previous experience with the new information to create a perspective that incorporates both.
Great reflection not only on this whole sign/signified business related to linguistics, but to how this relates ultimately to ideas of ambiguity and interpretation. The repeated idea here–whether we’re talking about canons or authorship or linguistic meaning–is that there is no transcendental signified that can secure meaning, that meaning is always contextual, always negotiated, and always full of blind spots and omissions.
I also appreciated our conversation in class, though, about how the very idea of something securing meaning–ideals like justice or freedom or human rights or unique selfhood–seem as though they are necessary to direct and inspire human actions. Even if these ideals don’t exist in some rarified realm of stable meaning, and even if my “justice” is different from your “justice,” the concept itself keeps us striving towards an ideal. But I guess as they say, the whole point is not that we say “justice” and leave it at that (“justice can’t speak for itself, because it is always imperfectly embodied in earthly forms of justice) but that we explain what we mean by justice, what we think it entails in any given instance, and that we interrogate where we find it lacking.