Re: vive !

From: L. Manning Vines <>
Date: Tue Jan 14 2003 - 19:53:19 EST

John said, beginning with a quotation of me (I'll include the whole message,
since it's not too long and people are likely to have forgotten it -- my
comments way down below):
<<"An added complexity is the onomatopoetic words, of which there are
more than most of us expect."

Actually, Saussure himself writes at some length about this "complexity"
yes, Derrida deals in a number of places with it as well. For his most
interesting discussion concerning this, see pages 91 thru 94 of the English
translation of *Glas*. Here Derrida cites Saussure's work:

"1.) Onomatopeias might be used to prove that the choice of the signifier is
not always arbitrary. But they are never organic elements of a linguistic
system. Besides, their number is much smaller than is generally supposed.
Words like French *fouet* 'whip' or *glas* 'knell' may strike certain ears
with suggestive sonority, but to see that they have not always had this
character we need only to go back to their Latin forms (*fuet* is derived
from *fagus*, 'beech-tree', *glas* = *classicum*). The quality of their
present sounds, or rather the quality that is attributed to them, is a
fortuitous result of phonetic evolution.

"And for authentic onomotopoeias (e.g. *glou-glou*, *tic-tac*, etc.), not
only are they limited in number, but also they are already chosen somewhat
arbitrarily, for they only approximate and are already more or less
conventional imitations of certain noises (compare the French *ouaoua* and
the German *wauwau*) In addition, once these words have been introduced to
the language, they are to a certain extent drawn into the same evolution --
phonetic, morphological, etc. -- that other words undergo (cf *pigeon*, from
Vulgar Latin *pipio*, itself derived from an onomotopoeia): obvious proof
that they lose something of their original character in order to assume that
of the linguistic sign in general, which is unmotivated."

That's Saussure, of course. Derrida goes on to tighten this reading up a
over the next five pages of the Genet column in *Glas*. It's worth reading
if anyone truly believes that such terms pose the problem for the system as
Jim describe it that Robbie suggests.

Also, it should be noted that in fact authentic onomotopoetic terms *do*
quite a bit from language to language. One of the easiest ways to see this
to learn what animals say in different languages. Dogs and roosters, for
instance, say rather different things as you go from country to country.
This suggests that even these terms derive their significance from within
specific system of which they are a part and not strictly from their
relationship to any objective, external world. >>

You said up there: "[. . .] if anyone truly believes that such terms
[onomatopoeias] pose the problem for the system as
Jim describe it that Robbie suggests."

I hope you will notice that I never said it posed a problem. The word
"problem" didn't occur in my post at all, actually -- and I'm not sure what
gave you that impression.

When I was talking about Jim's tree example, I said that I wasn't
disagreeing with the principle, but complaining about the inadequacy of the
example. Jim actually said that a word gets its meaning from other words
around it -- which, I would think, is strictly-speaking false. Otherwise it
would not be sensible that people would have first words, or that animals
can be trained to recognize and understand a referent for one single word,
before ever acquiring others. (Certainly his point is well-taken, and,
especially in the context of more fully complex speech, context and
"internal" concerns of the language play an immense role.)

I think the explanation he gave was simplified to the point of great
inaccuracy. But I did say that I was not disagreeing with what I took to be
the principle he was getting at.

And that was before I even mentioned onomatopoeias. I only called them an
"added complexity." I didn't think I was introducing problems or even
disagreeing fundamentally.

And regarding the onomatopoeias, I don't think your explanations contradict
what I said. The quotations were interesting (and I thank you for them),
but not damaging to my point.

The sort of onomatopoeias that I had in mind (and that I mentioned
explicitly) were not the sort of mistaken identify first mentioned in the
quotation. I was not simply fancying that some word I use sounds like what
it describes -- I was talking about similarities that can be found between
modern and ancient Indo-European tongues on the one hand and modern and
ancient Mesopotamian and Semitic tongues on the other. I was talking about
words spoken by modern speakers of French and German that appear to be of a
fundamentally similar character to words that refer to similar things and
which were probably already archaic when they were written on clay tablets
and goat skins in Asia Minor 3,000 years ago. There aren't many such words,
but there are enough to surprise ME, at least.

And it is certainly true that the onomatopoeia is restricted from the start
by the phonology of the language it resides in, that it reflects aspects of
the language, that it is determined by aspects of the language, and even
that it can evolve within that language like any other word. But it appears
to me UNTRUE that this means the word is perhaps in some way not an
onomatopoeia, or that its resemblance to reality is in some way a fiction.
If this were so, the sounds that dogs and roosters make should be expected
to vary much more than they actually do. You will find that they do vary,
but that they tend also to act in similar ways, to use similar qualities of
consonants, under certain circumstances even similar qualities of vowels,
within the restrictions of the language. You will not, for instance, find
many roosters that say 'weebeespoink' or cows that say 'rachi'. If the
formation were simply arbitrary, we should find as many 'z's and 'w's in the
world's rooster sounds as we find 'c's and 'k's, and cows should have no
preference for palatals or labials. If it weren't quite arbitrary, but
purely an "internal" concern of the language, we should see certain
preferences in formation, as determined by the language, which we do not

(I have just now taken from my shelf a book that lists, among very many
other interesting things, animals sounds in different languages. In case
anybody is curious, of the 30 linguistically representative languages, 25
have cows that make sounds that begin with 'm' -- and of the five odd-balls,
two begin with a 'um'. Roosters are a little more varied, but all begin
either with a palatal or a vowel followed by a palatal, and there is an
overwhelming abundance of 'k's. Similar sameness is apparent in the
thirty-ish other manner of beast listed.)

It seems to me that the reality is more complex than saying, simply, that
words are a purely subjective matter. I would expect principles such as
those Jim described to be MOSTLY true, but, as presented, misleadingly

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Received on Tue Jan 14 19:54:07 2003

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