I Heart Indies

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Signified and Signifier

We owe these terms to the Swiss linguist Saussure who said that the relationship between a word and its meaning was purely arbitrary, the result of historical chance.  (By the way, "historical chance," is that a redundancy or an oxymoron?)  The word "dog" seems especially doggy to English-speakers, but that's only due to long association of the word and the animal.  After all, to a Frenchman, "chien" seems just as evocative of dogginess, as "perro" is to a Spaniard, or "hund" to a German.
But Saussure is wrong, or at least partly wrong.  The way I know he is wrong is that there are some English words that aren't as satisfactory as their foreign counterparts.  The word "water" for example, just doesn't do.  My friend John Blair pronounces it with a liquid sound in the middle so it's almost like "walter."  He's careful to enunciate the hard "t" and the "r."  When he says "water," it sounds like water.  You can imagine it spilling over a smooth boulder into a pool beneath.  But the rest of us say something more like "wadda."  Bottled water comes out like "boddle dwadda."  Good Lord, no wonder I never drink that stuff.  It doesn't even sound liquid.  "Boddle dwadda" is a name you'd give an arrangement of semi-round stones.  The Spanish "agua" is much better; it at least feels like a good mouthful of water, although it does tend to cloy at the back of the throat.
And "snake."  There's very little snakelike about the word.  It's long and skinny, I'll grant you, but there are no curves in it.  It stretches out in a straight line.  It is a wooden snake, and a badly-carved one at that.  Now the Spanish "culabra," there's a snake for you!  It's all muscles and coils.
And as for the dog example at the start of the essay, yes, I will affirm, there is something uniquely doglike about the word "dog."  You can tell it has a belly and heavy paws.  The word has weight.  In the South, where our dogs are especially well-fed and content, the word sags in the middle and takes long naps, "dawg."  And "perro" is a perfectly suitable word for a dog as well.  You can feel the pressure of that moist nose in the "p" and who wouldn't recognize the growling double-r in the center.  "Chien" is clearly a different kind of dog, although oddly enough, not a French poodle.  Chien is a little black dog with a spikey tail.  I believe he may be forced to wear a little dog sweater in the wintertime.  And "hund."  What can you say?  A hund is big and regal.  When it is calm and alert, it lies in front of the fireplace, with its head raised, and paws folded beneath its chest like a lion.  No one would dream of calling a "hund" - a Great Dane, for instance- a "chien."
Well, a Frenchman might.  But in his heart, he would know it was wrong.

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