Accent on Living

I HAVE been reading a textbook recently in an attempt to sample the General Education A course which is obligatory at Harvard for most of the freshman class. Language and informal Logic, so the book is titled, and of its purpose the authors, Robert T. Harris and James L. Jarrett, assert:—

The authors have tried to give a simple but accurate picture of what languages are and do, and to discuss various kinds of meaning and the linguistic vehicles that convey them. It is not their intention to teach composition, rhetoric, or speech but rather to forward learning in those subjects by general discussion of language and informal logic.

We have made abundant use,” they continue, “of studies in many fields: linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and physiology; logic, semantics, and communication theory; lexicography and grammar; speech, rhetoric, composition, poetry, and literary criticism.”

My reading of what they gleaned from so many diverse subjects was rewarded by much that was novel to me — so much, in fact, that I should like to share with the Atlantic reader some of the more unexpected items. I had not gone far when I found Signs, Language and Behavior, Charles Morris, recurring in several of the authors’ chapter lists under the heading “Sources and Advanced Reading.” I recalled that Charles Morris, in the glossary which he supplied to assist readers of his book, had defined an “ambiguous sign” “a sign-vehicle that is not unambiguous,” and although I found nothing quite so piquant as this in Language and Informal Logic, there were many other ideas for me to cogitate.

On page 19 I read: “Despite Longfellow’s lines,

Learned of every bird its language
Learned their names and all their
Talked with them whene’er he met
them ....

Hiawatha learned only pre-lingual sign behavior from the animals.”

I added some dashing new words to my vocabulary. The word “red” is a “ plurisituational” word because it can describe a number of different objects that are red. “Plurisituationality” — another of my new words —is not necessarily the same in all languages, and I learned that to the Russians the “hot” of hot coffee is not the “hot” of hot weather. No plurisit nationalists they. I picked up many facts about iconic signs and their iconicily. The authors tell us:

“Bow-wow‘ is iconic; but it is also in part conventional; the French and German equivalents, ‘Gnaf, gnaf,’ and ‘Wau-Wau,’ are more poignantly onomatopoeic. I was impressed, also, by the possibility that psychological, as hyphenated by Count Korzybski, means something different from psychological without the hyphen. To discover the difference between categorematic and syncategorematic words was a delight, even though both groups seem to have been lurking among the old-fashioned parts of speech under a worn-out system of nomenelature.

Many changes in nomenclature — all for the better, so the authors seem to feel - are remarked in Language and Informal Logic. In a further reference to Charles Morris, I read:–

“Charles Morris, who uses the word ‘signifies’ instead of ‘means, helps us understand the function of signifying by distinguishing four modes. Two of them correspond, roughly, with what Russell called the ‘indicative’ and the ‘imperative.’ Morris’ names are: the designative mode and the prescriptive mode. Another mode is the appraisive. and a fourth, the formative, about which we will say only that it has to do with what in Chapter IV were called the syneategorematie expressions, words which help order discourse.”

The book abounds in definitions of all sorts. Considerable attention is given to “meaning, or rather to what “meaning" means. (One supposes that in the language of Charles Morris this becomes what signification signifies.)

Continuing their explanation of Charles Morris’ terms, the authors tell us: —

“A homely dialogue will help us understand these ways of meaning. Suppose that a tourist is quizzing a service station operator:

”T. Where’s a good place to eat around here?

“O. ‘The Greasy Spoon’ is about the best place in this town.

“T. Where is it ?

“0. Across the street and down two blocks. Tell the manager I sent you.

“The two questions may be taken as prescriptive: they are demands for information, they prescribe a verbal response. The first answer is clearly appraisive: ‘The Greasy Spoon is given a clean bill of health. The restaurant is located for the tourist, and this is a designative matter. And the parting shot is prescriptive in suggesting an action.

“This brief analysis indicates that meaning or signifying is in its broadest sense a matter of the various functionings of signs or more particularly of language. A given use of language has meaning when it is a relatively successful means for the end of communication. A person means; he means through his words, so words subordinately mean; his words have meaning for somebody, the person communicated to; and they mean something: they mean in the sense of designating or indicating, or they mean in the sense of appraising or evaluating or expressing desire or preference, or they mean in the sense of recommending or suggesting or demanding a certain action.”

I am not altogether sure what the final sentence in the authors’ preface means — or signifies. It comes after they have mentioned by name and expressed their gratitude to several individuals who helped them in writing the book. “All made helpful criticisms and suggestions,”the preface concludes. “The latter four read the entire, or nearly the entire, manuscript.”