Linguistics in semiotics: metaphorical models and methodological innovations

Katre Pärn
University of Tartu

Linguistic theories have had explicit and noteworthy impact on semiotics since the inception of the 'semiology' by Ferdinand de Saussure, who on one hand defined linguistics as a branch of the more general science of semiology - since language is only one particular semiological system among others; on the other hand stated that linguistics can become the master-pattern - or model - for all branches of semiology. To a great extent the semiological project did became the application of linguistics to other sign systems. Although sometimes this "linguistic project" is seen as a historical approach that bears little relevance in contemporary semiotics, underneath the varying terminologies of new developments in semiotics we still often find linguistic influences and theories.

For Saussure, the reason why linguistics should have had this role in semiology/semiotics had to do with the arbitrary nature of linguistic sign that made language a special kind of social institution. When some 50 years later Roland Barthes redefined the relationship between linguistics and semiotics, envisioning the latter becoming a part of trans-linguistics instead, it was mainly because of the centrality of linguistic mediation in culture that does not allow any sign system to bypass the relay of language.

However in closer inspection, the answer to why linguistics has played such an important role in semiotics cannot be reduced to the special status of language or nature of linguistic sign, but has more to do with "how" of the linguistics - how linguistics as science models language as its object of study and constructs linguistic theories as descriptive and explanatory paradigms. This specific, perhaps in the context of humanities even somewhat revolutionary epistemological attitude towards its object of study and way of theory-building is also rooted in Saussure’s Course that outlined this new attitude and provided the theoretical model of language to be used in the study of other sign systems as language-like systems.

I will discuss the key aspects of this model-based approach to point out why linguistics has been in past and still is today through its new developments an important source of methodological innovation for semiotics.