First Person: What’s in a Word?

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pg71_AfterWord-Van-HillardOften we hear that language provides power, or that words open worlds, or simply that terms matter. Twentieth-century philosopher Susanne Langer went so far as to assert that naming was “the vastest generative idea ever conceived.” Such audacity may well be on target. But how shall we account for this stunning status? Clearly, words sponsor a dizzying array of cognitive, cultural and aesthetic functions: summoning memory, stimulating action and stipulating our perceptions—most of the time sorting, ordering and organizing a world that would otherwise present itself as a “blooming, buzzing confusion” (as William James characterized the world without linguistic classification).

One way to account for word power is to attend to the complex but nonetheless fundamental matter of symbolic representation, more particularly our human propensity to produce, distribute and receive signs in social settings, to access the world and reach out to others by way of terms that name and define phenomena in contingent fashion, thereby conferring to us the quite outrageous inventional capacity to which Langer refers.

The 19th century logician and transdisciplinary thinker Charles Saunders Peirce referred to the process of navigating the world by way of signs as semiosis, the study of how we make meanings using words, collections of letters to which we assign significance. To explain how words come to mean in the ways they do (that is, to account for the “power” that accompanies their utterance), he posited a tripartite relationship among a word (or sign), the phenomenon to which it refers and what he named the interpretant, the human user of the word who seeks to understand the way in which the sign directs our attention to certain features of the phenomenon being referenced.

According to Peirce, words are arbitrary signifiers that have no real function unless and until they are brought into connection with the world by a thinking and feeling user of a word who discerns the way in which a sign represents a worldly phenomenon. Peirce’s conception of language use accounts for humans’ immersion in meaning-making activities. The power lies not in the relationship between the word and the world, but in how we activate that connection which, according to Peirce, involves a measure of translation since our ability to define something to which a term refers depends upon yet more language. Signs beget signs beget signs.

The triadic semiotic (the three-valued relationship of sign, phenomenon and user) is powerfully illustrated in the often-cited episode of Helen Keller’s experience as a young girl at the well outside her home (a moment that now circulates as something of a linguist’s urban legend). As the story goes, Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, frustrated with Keller’s reactivity to whatever words she spelled into Keller’s hand, took her student to the well. She positioned Keller’s right hand under the pump’s spigot, spelled the word w-a-t-e-r into her left hand, and began priming the pump’s handle. Suddenly, Keller reports, she “understood” the meaning of water. No longer was she mired in the limited correspondence of stimulus and response (the term water being traced into her hand, and Keller expecting a sip of it immediately). Envision her there, arms outstretched, the perfect silhouette of the triad of sign, phenomenon and self. In her memoir, Keller calls this moment her soul’s birthday.

My own semiotic awakening, one that I often recount for students, came in 1987. I had just finished my doctorate, so this “soul’s birthday” came embarrassingly late. I had recently moved to Detroit for my first teaching position, and at a welcome dinner hosted by a friend, heard my neighbors talking about something they called the “Detroit Rebellion.” Innocently, I asked: “When did that happen? I’ve never heard of that.”  Patiently, a young man at the table explained that on July 23, 1967, Detroit police made a questionable arrest that catalyzed five days of violent protest on the city’s streets. “Oh, you mean the ‘Detroit Riots,’” I single-mindedly replied.  Solemnly, another dinner guest looked my way to say, “No, we rebelled.” I took his explanation not as a corrective, but as a token of welcome, more abiding than any of the niceties that my neighbors had put in place for me. Importantly chastened, I left that dinner more mindful of word power than my professional training in rhetoric and writing studies—in all of their theoretic  and practical significance—had previously impressed upon me. For me, the choice of riot or rebellion was not merely a matter of “perspective.” What was at stake was something far greater: my incipient membership in a new community and the forging of a new civic self. What was at stake was nothing short of new understanding.

Writing at Davidson inevitably involves our students choosing which term best represents a particular object or issue under consideration. Is the senator’s speech best understood as an example of egoism or courage? Is the rally I am observing the function of a community or a culture? Having such choices in front of us foregrounds word power as a regular feature of rhetorical life. Each of us who teaches first-year writing at Davidson (and there are 40 of us who regularly do so) consider word power one of the liberal arts. In our ways, we invite students to attend to semiotic awakenings, which often arrive unexpectedly in the process of strong reading and in the midst of difficult intellectual writing, where language choices matter and semiotic birthdays regularly get celebrated.


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Visit CommonPlaces, a journal at Davidson dedicated to publishing writing produced in any courses across the college taken by Davidson students in their first year. 

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About Author

Van E. Hillard is professor of Rhetoric & Writing Studies, and director of the Davidson College Writing Program.

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