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Review of  Signal, Meaning, and Message

Reviewer: Giampaolo Poletto
Book Title: Signal, Meaning, and Message
Book Author: Ricardo Otheguy Wallis Reid Nancy Stern
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 14.224

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Date: Wed, 15 Jan 2003 21:08:09 +0100
From: Giampaolo Poletto
Subject: Review: Pragmatics: Wallis, Otheguy, Stern (eds) (2002)

Reid, Wallis; Otheguy, Ricardo; Stern, Nancy eds. (2002) Signal, Meaning
and Message. Perspectives on sign-based linguistics. John Benjamins
Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia. SFSL 48. ISBN 90 272 1557 X
(Eur.) - 1 5811 289 6 (US).
Giampaolo Poletto, University of Pécs (HU), 2nd year Applied Linguistics
PhD student.
The comprehensive discussion of Columbia School Linguistics conferences,
where the sign-based theory was exposed (see Contini-Morava and Goldberg
1995), lays the premises of this second volume, where a collection of
sign-based inspired studies addresses specialists, aiming to frame the
contribution to linguistics.
The book is in three parts, bibliographical references are provided at
the end of each paper, with tables, eventual appendixes and notes,
indexes of names and subjects follow in conclusion.
Contents cover two domains, familiarity with Columbia School sign-based
theory and elaboration of themes connected to the papers, as specified in
the introduction, where the conceptual axes along which the work unfolds
are clearly defined, together with a brief on the papers below, not in
the order they are presented in the volume.

Part I Theoretical and Methodological Issues

- (What) do noun class markers mean?
- Ellen Contini-Morava, 3-64.
Sign-oriented and cognitive-oriented approaches (see Langacker 1987, Reid
1991) to linguistic structures are integrated in the analysis of
noun class markers in Swahili (see Dixon 1986, Contini-Morava 1996). Far
more numerous than European gender classes, and each with internal
semantic structure, Swahili noun class markers share no single set of
defining semantic characteristics with associated classes of nouns. The
metaphoric, metonymic and associative connections nouns form link them
into a semantic network. Switching a marker may thus alterate the
interpretation of a stem. Markers are impervious to analyses as
straightforward meaning-bearing units, because the variable or
intermittent effect does not allow to yield a consistent semantic value.
They have meaning but class members have nothing in common. By analysing
how three Swahili noun classes are structured semantically the cognitive
perspective of the semantically related senses of a lexical item is
envisioned. By focusing on their communicative function, they are
discovered to maximize the use of pronouns instead of nouns. In the end,
one out the four analytical options provided for the markers is chosen,
because the semantic diversity of each class is recognized and each
marker is posited a single value.
- Rethinking the Place of Statistics in Columbia School Analysis.
- Joseph Davis, 65-90.
As to the role of statistics, Davis rejects chi-square test, often
inappropriately used, due to the lack of statistical independence for
observations in connected texts (see Woods et al. 1986). Inferences are
not reliable because no ideal langue, no linguistic community, no
population to randomically draw tokens from are envisioned. Furthermore,
observations to be accounted for do not need to claim great generality,
and the prevalence of a linguistic feature is of little or no interest in
such studies. After providing tables, references and examples (see Davis
1992), the author concludes the role of statistics in Columbia School
grammatical analysis to be relatively small, and occurring near the end
of a definite modus operandi suitably supportive of a hypothesis, which
may as well include analyzing a variety of genres or using inferential
- The Linguistic Sign in Its Paradigmatic Context: Autonomy Revisited.
- Mark J.Elson, 91-110.
From Bybee and Brewer's hypothesis (see 1980), and with other
sign-based linguists' premise that the distribution of a form is a
function of the meaning it bears, the issue of morphological change in
verbal paradigm is here seen as distributional. The focus is on the
autonomous feature of certain forms of verbal paradigms, supposed to
serve as base to generate other forms, especially on the third, first and
second person singular, in a scale of autonomy. Semantic complexity,
opacity and frequency of occurrence are the factors the above hierarchy
is based on. In a sign-based perspective, a member of verbal paradigm may
be under-specified grammatically, given some circumstances; its
expressive potential is superior to that of more specified forms, which
makes it suitable as a word-level base for formal innovation, as with a
dubbed 'first person singular' compatible with a first person
Part II Sign-Based Linguistic Analyses  

- A Surpassingly Simple Analysis.
- Joseph Davis, 113-136.
Skepticims about traditional categories and the notion of human language
complexity (see Pinker 1994) nurture the author's study on
pronominal reference in Italian, as to the third-person pronouns ess+,
loro and sé, disjunctive demonstrative, reciprocal and reflexive
respectively, characteristics reflected in grammatical categories which
are found not matching the forms' use in texts, where they are all
employed for both reflexive and non-reflexive reference. Davis then
resorts to and tests the notion of information load: each pronoun signals
an amount of - gender and number's information on its referent.
Pronouns are therefore chosen according to what the reader needs to find
their referent in the context.
- Serb-Croatian Deixis: Balancing Attention with Difficulty in
- Radmila J.Gorup, 137-156.
The 2-tiered explanatory role of meaning underlies the analytical focus
Radmila Gorup poses on the grammar-morphological issue of the 3-member
Deixis (D) system of Serb-Croatian pronouns. They correspond to the
English 'this' and 'that', and indicate a High, Mid and Low (HD, MD, LD) level of
attention, depending on the pronoun
referent appearance in discourse, as a speaker's specific signal
(see Garcia 1975). It is part of a referent-finding strategy helping the
hearer to locate the referent, with the formal-semantic correlate: HD,
hard-to-find and difficult to process; MD, of medium difficulty and
recently mentioned through a Noun; LD, with little or no difficulty and
no particular communicative referent. Data are then statistically tested
through contexts with deictic pronouns.
- Do's One Sign, One Meaning?
- Walter Hirtle, 157-170.
Hirtle provides a further example of setting aside traditional
distinctions, here syntactic, after Ruhl, lexical, and Davis,
grammatical, through the analysis of the English do, in the search for
semantic unity in its auxiliary, suppletive and main verb capacity. A
progression of semantic specification is detected, as to duration,
duration and change, duration, change and transitivity respectively. To
capture this and maintain the sign unity, the author makes use of the
concept of ideogenesis (see Guillaume 1984, 1987). A potential meaning
links to operative conditions realizing portions of it in discourse, and
turns out to delineate a semantic trajectory from minimal to maximal
specification, along which the reader moves and stops, when the point for
the degree of actualization of his mentally represented experience is
found. Ideogenesis hence includes the word actual meanings observable in
- Data, Comprehensiveness, Monosemy.
- Charles Ruhl, 171-190.
Aprioristic notions are here set aside in the lexical meaning area of a
dictionary word multiple definitions, mainly borrowed from classical
rethoric and philosophy. Wha alternatively emerges is the
Comprehensiveness Principle, according to which the measure of a
word's semantic contribution is not accuracy (in a single context)
but comprehensiveness (in all contexts). The sign-based principle and
dictionary tradition confrontation parallels monosemic- and
polysemic-oriented research (see Fillmore 1970, Bolinger 1971, Ruhl
1989), with the latter definitely more plausible with a restricted
data-base. When augmented with examples from language use, namely
forty-nine, an interpretive continuum is created between the chosen
items, breaking sticks and breaking in a new man, along with the idea of
two discrete "senses" of break, whose following monosemic analysis,
supported by further eighty-three examples, prove how information comes
from the surrounding context and has been misattributed by the polysemic
- Phonology As Human Behaviour: Initial Consonant Clusters Across
- Yishai Tobin, 191-256.
With a thorough theoretical introduction, by means of detailed
documentary tables (see Diver 1979, Davis 1984/1987, among the others)
to support data provided for a variety of languages, Tobin deals with world
languages as to some word-initial consonant clusters, classifiable as
more frequent, less frequent or non-existent. One syllable words in
English, for instance, have a frequent tr / sl combination of initial
consonants, a rare - three cases - sf, a non-existent tl / sr. Such
synchronic language facts are assumed to be due to diachronic pressures
operating on speakers' selection of lexical items. Pressure
originates from the difficulty of articulating either individual phonemes
or sequences of phonemes in a language. Principles act over time up to a
morphological natural selection which eliminates functionally less
advantageous specimens, namely hard-to-pronounce words, excluded
when lexical alternative exists. In phonological evolution there is an
intrinsic articulatory advantage, lying on three principles: similar
articulatory gestures are easier to pronounce; additional articulators
increase pronounce difficulty; same articulator reuse in near phonetic
environments is difficult. Predictions consequently to be tested on any
language lay on data from these languages: thirty Indo-European, three
Semitic, three Ugro-Finnic and one Caucasian. Sound changes occurred
before completion of the evolutionary process may result in failures.
- Celtic Sense in Saxon Garb.
- Michael P. Wherrity, 257-272.
Another cognitive inspired treatment is displayed in a study of Irish
influence on American usage of a frequently occurring on + personal
pronoun or noun structure, for an event happening to the disadvantage of
the party involved. This parallels Irish Gaelic usage, but neither loan
translation nor calque are suitable explanations to something
structurally innovative in the English of Irish Americans. There is no
semantic change in usage, either. An alternative analysis is offered,
then, following Otheguy's (see Otheguy 1995). Innovative for
English speakers and commonplace for Irish Gaelic speakers, structure and
meaning originate out of 'conceptual affinity', as an
extension of already established on messages, such as to play a joke on
someone. If English was systemically capable of expressing the
Irish-inspired message, speakers were not until exposed to the Irish
- Problems of Aspirations in Modern Standard Urdu.
- Abdul Azim, 273-308.
Aspiration in Urdu, rich in stop consonants, allows the author to ideally
extend Tobin's functional phonology. The p - t - k phonemes,
together with the retroflex t., a palatal c, a post-dursum q, have all
but the last aspirated versions (ph - th - t.h - ch - kh) and voiced
versions (b - d - d. - j - g), which on their turn have an aspirated
version (bh - dh - d.h - jh - gh), a unique feature in Indic families.
The four-way classification - in the paper fully displayed - differs as
both to their positions within the morpheme and the frequency in the
lexicon, accordingly to their articulatory complexity (see Perkins and
Kent 1986) and the functional loads at the word beginning or end. At the
level of a systemic and typological asymmetry of phonemic inventory, two
anomalous facts manifest: no garden variety h phoneme, despite using
aspiration as a 'complicating factor' in two sets; a
typologically rare and articulatorally unnatural voiced h. Due to the
ease of acquisition factor, Azim maintains, a phoneme whose acquisition
facilitates other phonemes's acquisition rightly has an ecological
niche; the complex reasons for simple h absence in Urdu are then given.
Part III Columbia School in the Context of 20th Century Linguistics

- Cognitive and Semiotic Modes of Explanation in Functional Grammar.
- Alan Huffman, 311-338.
Cognitive linguistics and sign-based theory modes of explanation find a
synthesis by confronting the views on word order, whose use is "iconic"
and "natural" or which is the signal of a meaning respectively. The
full-verb inversion in English is not tackled in non-semantic, syntactic
terms, consistent with paradigms in traditional linguistic analyses,
treating the subject-verb order to attribute post-posed subjects to
syntactic triggers. S-V and V-S are sequences to be viewed as signals of
grammatical meanings relative to the discourse focus (see Birner 1992).
The use of each hints at the speaker's desire precisely to signal
the relevant meaning; consequently the desire hints at the meaning
discourse function in the narrative structuring. That demonstrate the
quantitative and qualitative analysis of 'Pioneers!' and
'Lord of the Flies'.
- The Future of a Minimalist Linguistics in a Maximalist World.
- Robert S.Kirsner, 339-372.
Major criticisms of Columbia School, especially from cognitive linguists,
are here examined: a too reductionist approach, for postulating sparse
meanings for linguistic forms; unconvincing analyses, when pragmatic
factors explain how they convey concrete messages; analytical control,
not psychologically grounded. A first response is that meanings are as
too sparse in Columbia School as too complex when precise out of massive
polysemy for successful communication. A second one is that linguistic
theories are not neurological structure, which is proved by other
theories similar shortcomings in psychological guidance. A final one
considers language not a self-contained representational system, rather a
communicative tool knowledge experience and contextual factors enable to
function. In the end, Columbia School can rightly contribute to
linguistics as to its therapeutic function, in forcing others to look at
problems and data from a different perspective, and its empirical
methodology, involving genuinely experimental techniques to be
continuously developed and refined.
- Saussurean Anti-Nomenclaturism in Grammatical Analysis: A Comparative
Theoretical Perspective.
- Ricardo Otheguy, 373-404.
Saussurean, Chomskyan, traditional and Columbia School positions are duly
exemplified and confronted (see Chomsky 1957, Harris 1988, Nichols &
Woodbury 1984, Reid 1991). The epistemological grondwork for the search
for objectivity is here comparatively laid starting from Saussurean
radical anti-nomenclaturism as to linguistic categories, to be discovered
by linguistic principles, such as the linguistic sign. They are posited
as not deriving from philosophy or logic, without the external motivation
western tradition has been relying on, due to the fact that language is a
system unto itself, thus discarding the concepts of meaning as reference
and language as cognition, and that meaning and structure are both
language internal and language particular. Given the signifiant and
signifié fixed association, a language is to be approached setting aside
all traditional grammatical categories, whereas semantic and structural
ones hold no privileged status, rather develop hypotheses to be tested
out, and looking for categories in regular relation to form.

The knowledge of the fist volume contents, here constantly recalled, is
necessary to tie together and frame otherwise distant points. There is a
unique methodological empirical perspective and many objects of
investigation to support mainly comparative theoretical approaches. To
embed all in a coherent framework is not an easy task: there are past
linguistic theories, actual studies and the future of Columbia School.
The scenario is diachronically wide and sinchronically complex, as each
paper displaying the analysis of a specific issue shows. Just the gap
from general premises to very particular insights may result hard to fill
sometimes, unless basic notions provided are immediately clear. Accuracy
and documentary thoroughness are on the other hand remarkable; that
testifies - and is mostly to appreciate - how concreteness is extremely
relevant in this functionalist approach, resulting in analyses which
supply with a variety of valuable data, perspectives and suggestions.

Birner, Bety j. 1992. The Discourse Function of Inversion in English.
Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University.
Bolinger, D. 1971. "Semantic overloading: a restudy of the verb remind"
Language 47: 555-73.
Bybee, J. and M. Brewer. 1980. "Explanation in Morphophonemics: Changes
and Provençal and Spanish preterite forms." Lingua 52(3/4): 201-242.
Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.
Contini-Morava, Ellen and Barbara Sussman Goldsberg (eds). 1995. Meaning
as Explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory. Berlin: Mouton de
Contini-Morava, Ellen 1996 "‘Things’ in a Noun Class
Language: Semanic functions of grammatical agreement in Swahili". In Edna
Andrews and Yishai Tobin (eds), Toward a Calculus of Meaning: Studies in
markedness, distinctive features and deixis. Amsterdam and Philadelphia:
Davis, Joseph. 1984/1987. "A Combinatory Phonology of Italian." Columbia
University Working Papers in Linguistics 8: 1-99.
Davis, Joseph. 1992. Italian egli and lui: Grammatical meaning and
inference. Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University.
Diver, William. 1979. "Phonology as Human Behavior." In D. Aaronson and
P. Reiber (eds), Psycholinguistic Research: Implications and
applications. Hillside NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 161-186.
Dixon, R.M.W. 1986. "Noun classes and Noun Classification in Typological
Perspective." In Colette Craig (ed), Noun classes and categorization.
Amsterdam: Benjamins, 105-112.
Fillmore, C. 1970. "The grammar of hitting and breaking." In R. Jacobs
and P. Rosenbaum (eds), Readings in Transformational Grammar. Waltham,
MA: Ginn, 120-33.
Garcia, Erica. 1975. The Role of Theory in Linguistic Analysis: The
Spanish Pronoun System. Amsterdam: North Holland.
Guillaume, Gustave. 1984. Foundations for a Science of Language.
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.
Guillaume, Gustave. 1987. Leçons de linguistique de Gustave Guillaume
1947-1948, série C: Grammaire particulière du français et grammaire
générale III. Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval et Lille,
Presses Universitaires de Lille.
Harris, Roy. 198. Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein: How to pla games
with words. London and New ork: Routledge.
Langacker, Ronald. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.
Nichols, Johanna and Anthony Woodbury (eds). 1984. Grammar Inside and
Outside the Clause: Some views of theory from the field. Cambridge
University Press.
Otheguy, R. 1995. "When Contact Speakers Talk, Linguistic Theory
Listens." In E. Contini-Morava and B. Sussman Goldberg (eds), Meaning as
Explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory. Berlin: Mouton de
Perkins, William H. and Raymond D. Kent. 1986. Functional Anatomy of
Speech, Language, and Hearing. San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.
Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Istinct. New York: Harper Perennial.
Reid, Wallis. 1991. Verb and Noun Number in English: A functional
explanation. London and New ork: Longman Publishers.
Ruhl, C. 1989. On Monosemy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Woods, Anthony, Paul Fletcher, and Arthur Hughes. 1986. Statistics in
Language Studies. Cambridge University Press. 1993.

Bachelor in Foreign Languages and Literature, English and Russian, and Humanities in Italy, Giampaolo Poletto is a second year PhD student in Applied Linguistics at the University of Pécs, in Hungary, with teaching qualifications for secondary schools in English and in Italian, taught in Italy and abroad for ten years, with a research project which, by focusing on humor, combines linguistics and teaching, with a pragmatic and semantic analysis of a corpus of texts and a didactic synthesis through the production of possibly multimedial material for Italian S/FL students; that should sort of collect past personal teaching experiences and studies, feed a linguistic and thematically oriented research programme, open new work and study perspectives.P