Searching For The Hidden Code-STpaper

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The Hidden Code At The Heart Of Language, Myth, Literature, History, Etc.

The Diachronic Axis Of Language

The concept of “irreducibility” is a universal concern of all structuralist thought. In Kant we witnessed his desire to identify the defining “universals” of all human experience. In Saussure this desire becomes fulfilled in his systematic and holistic interpretation of language. Shortly, we will be talking about how Levi-Strauss, Piaget, and Foucault express this same idea. The credibility of structuralism rests, I believe, on making the synchronic aspect of nature intelligible and accountable to some form of empirical verification. Saussure’s synchronic nature of language, at least in the form of linguistic theory, moves us in that direction. Sensitive to this issue, Saussure believed he was removing the mystery of language and placing it in the material world with his concept of language’s synchronic aspect. And, indeed, this idea that language can be understood synchronically, frozen in time, has inspired many structural investigations into the “hidden code” that the proponents of structuralism believe lies at the heart of language, myths, literature, history, etc.. At the very least, after Saussure, there arose a new skepticism for any investigation of language that had as its goal the disclosure of the “essence” of language.

In addition to its synchronic component, language may also be characterized, in the terminology of Saussure, along its diachronic axis. Language evolves as the expression of a collectivity moving through time. Language is not invulnerable to societal or cultural pressures. The institution of language, over time, becomes violated by dialects and slang. Language changes, but it does so according to its own inertia. According to Michael Lane, this evolution takes place as a result of societal pressures and influences. He says:

“This is apparent from the way in which language evolves. Nothing could be more complex. As it is a product of both the social force and time, no one can change anything in it, and, on the other hand, the arbitrariness of its signs theoretically entails the freedom of establishing just any relationship between phonetic substance and ideas. The result is that each of the two elements united in the sign maintains its own life to a degree unknown elsewhere, and that language changes, or rather evolves, under the influence of all the forces which can affect either sounds or meanings. The evolution is inevitable; there is no example of a single language that resists it. After a certain period of time, some obvious shifts can always be recorded.” [Michael Lane, Introduction to Structuralism, 1970, p.51]

Language, at any given moment in time, may be investigated along its synchronic or diachronic axis. Structuralism, for the most part, prefers to study language in its synchronic aspect. It is for precisely this reason that structuralism opens itself up to attack by those schools of thought which deny the possibility of studying anything whatsoever independent of its social context e.g., Marxism. In general, structuralism, and Saussure’s structural linguistics in particular, have also been criticized for its disregard for human creativity. Noam Chomsky, a leading advocate of structural linguistics in today’s academic environment, has responded to the latter criticism with his discovery and development of transformational grammar.

Chomsky-Deep Structure Is Common To All Sentence Meaning

The Free And Spontaneous Acts Of Inquiry Through Self-Expression

Whereas Saussure dealt with language in terms of a holistic system of differentiation, Chomsky extends this system into the realm of transformational or generative grammar. Saussure’s structuralism did not build bridges between itself and Kantian philosophy. It might even be argued, in fact, that Saussure tried to burn a few of these bridges. Except for his use of certain essential Kantian categories, e.g., identity (memory), plurality, differentiation etc., Saussure’s structuralism restricts itself to organizing and orientating the methodological study of language. Chomsky, on the other hand, developed a differentiating, holistic theory of language that allows for novelty and creativity. Saussure’s langue and parole, in Chomsky’s linguistics, became language competence and performance. With the performance attribute of language, Chomsky took a syntagmatic approach to language which essentially means that Chomsky added to Saussure’s theory a recursive body of rules for the purpose of generating syntax or sentences in the performance of speech. This generative syntax became one component of the two-component aspect of Chomsky’s linguistic theory.

Chomsky believed language to be a product of both a deep and surface structure of mind. In this respect, he split language syntax into two levels, one to describe the deep structure of language and one to show how this deep structure transforms into surface structure.

[Footnote. Chomsky illustrates: To take a simple case, consider the sentences “John appealed to Bill to like himself” and “John appeared to Bill to like himself.” The two sentences are virtually identical in surface form, but obviously quite different in interpretation. Thus when I say “John appealed to Bill to like himself,” I mean that Bill is to like himself; but when I say “John appeared to Bill to like himself,” it is John who likes himself. It is only at what I would call the level of “deep structure” that the semantically significant grammatical relations are directly expressed in this case. Noam Chomsky, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, 1971, p.24]

In this regard Chomsky is giving language analysis a more Kantian perspective. Chomsky was not shy about his belief in innate structures of the mind. Kant’s influence becomes apparent when he says:

“There are, then, certain language universals that set limits to the variety of human language. The study of the universal conditions that prescribe the form of any human language is “grammaire generale.” Such universal conditions are not learned; rather, they provide the organizing principles that make language learning possible, that must exist if data is to lead to knowledge. By attributing such principles to the mind, as an innate property, it becomes possible to account for the quite obvious fact that the speaker of a language knows a great deal that he has not learned.” [Noam Chomsky, Cartesian Linguistics, 1966, p.59]

Chomsky’s concept of “innate qualities of mind” must itself be understood as a form of the creative aspect of mind for, in his analysis of deep structure and surface structure, he describes a system of rules for generating sentences and the sorts of words that may replace any given word in a sentence, in the context of a creative process. He says: (Human language)…”is free to serve as an instrument of free thought and self-expression. The limitless possibilities of expression constrained only by rules of concept formation and sentence formation, these being in part particular and idiosyncratic but in part universal, a common human endowment.”[Ibid. p. 29]

For Chomsky, the deep structure that expresses the meaning of the sentence is common to all languages. It is the transformation rules that rearrange, replace, or delete items of a sentence that differ from one language to the next. In conjunction with language’s deep and surface structures these transformation rules come together in the form of the “organic” nature of language in which, according to Chomsky, all the parts are interconnected and the role of each element is determined by the generative processes that constitute language’s underlying form. Language, from Chomsky’s point of view, even though it is conditioned upon
maturational processes, and interaction with the social and physical environment, is understood to be free from stimulus control as it permits the spontaneous activity of inquiry and self-expression. Chomsky, in this sense, if not totally successful, at least attempts to secure in his structuralist interpretation of language, a place for the free and spontaneous acts of the human spirit.


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