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a203-11f-21-Language - Introduction to Cultural...

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Introduction to Cultural Anthropology: Class 21 Language Copyright Bruce Owen 2011 - What is language? - a symbolic system - a symbol is one type of sign - sign : something that refers to (stands for, indicates, means) something else - a sign indicates its referent (what it refers to, or stands for) - the ability of a sign to indicate (stand for, mean) something else is called reference - Three kinds of signs: - icon : a sign that resembles its referent - like a stick figure that stands for the concept of “man” - or a linguistic sign that sounds like what it means - “bang”, “cock-a-doodle-doo” - although you have never actually heard a rooster say “cock-a-doodle-doo” - and in other languages roosters make different sounds (“quiquiriqui” in Spanish) - so the “iconicity” of many supposedly iconic signs is debatable - index : a sign that indicates its referent; is directly caused by the referent, or causes the referent - an honest smile is an index of being happy - it is caused by the state of being happy, and we recognize it as indicating that state - a scream is an index of pain - a gesture pointing up directly implies “up” - a gesture pointing at a thing directly indicates that thing - some people do not consider indexical signs to be linguistic at all - because they are not created to refer to something, but instead are simply observed - they are related to the referent by physical causes in the material world, not by a mental construct - a predator charging at you is an index of danger, so you run away – but does that involve a linguistic process? - symbol : an arbitrary sign that stands for something else - no inherent relationship to its referent - the connection is purely by convention or agreement - we agree that a red octagon means “stop”, but people in other cultures could never guess that - words are symbols: the sound “pen” has no inherent relationship to the object; we just agree what it means - icons and indices are extremely limited; you could not communicate much using only iconic and indexical signs - but because symbols are arbitrary, there is no limit on them - you can always invent a new one and assign a meaning to it - so the use of symbols is absolutely necessary for a system that has to express more than a handful of simple concepts
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Intro to Cultural Anthro F 2011 / Owen: Language p. 2 - most linguistic signs are symbols - they do not sound like what they stand for or otherwise have any inherent relationship to their meaning - a system or structure that prescribes how the symbols may be meaningfully combined - actually, language has at least two such systems or structures - more on this below - that is learned from others - that is, it is culturally transmitted - through a process of social learning - rather than being something that each individual invents on his or her own - walking or throwing may be individually learned through experiment and experience - but language has to be learned from others, socially - a language only works if multiple people know it!
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