Abundant signs of confusion

Encyclopedia of Semiotics
February 11, 2000

What you might expect to be able to look up in an encyclopedia of semiotics is almost anybody's guess. This one has an entry under "baseball" but none under "cricket" or "rugby". Nor under "chess", which is even more surprising in view of the frequency with which the game of chess has been cited in theoretical discussions of signs and sign systems. "Buddhism" is apparently worth an article, but not "Christianity". Likewise "apartheid", but not "fascism"; "text", but not "context"; "space", but not "time". The senses get disparate treatment. "Vision" has an entry of its own, discussion of touch is hidden away under the label "haptics" (never use a plain word where an obscure one will do), but in the sanitised universe of signs there is apparently little to smell, although one contributor goes as far as to lament the lack of "olfactory models".

The semiotic penchant for pretentious verbiage is seemingly incorrigible. Here we find such Pseuds-Corner coinages as "cultureme" and a whole article on proverbs under the title "paroemiology". The diagnosis given in the editor's own article on "semiotic terminology" is not altogether convincing. He puts it down to the "marked tendency of western scientists and philosophers to coin new words based on Greek and Latin radicals". The explanation is, allegedly, that raiding defunct classical languages is easier than inventing or redefining existing terms in the languages of today, and he cites with approval the claim made by the fabricators of the term "culturgen" that such a neologism "can be defined more precisely". But this is to compound rebarbative etymologising with even worse semantic theory. What the editor cannot afford to admit is the scientific snob value of such terms in a field of inquiry that would like to be a science but is not.

Language is generally reckoned to be the most important domain of human activity that not only involves signs but is structured by signs. A major article on "language" was clearly called for in any serious reference work of this kind. Instead one finds only a curiously out-of-place entry on "language change", which summarises the traditional approaches taken in historical linguistics, with a heavy emphasis on problems of sound change, and says virtually nothing about such things as lexical borrowing, bilingualism and other forms of language contact. Nor is the language gap filled in the more general article on "communication". Here, where a major overview was called for, there is a feeble and superficial piece. One gets the feeling that the editorial committee chickened out of the task of finding contributors willing to tackle these difficult but vital general topics on the scale required.

Many of the entries are devoted to the work of individual scholars. Those selected for special treatment range historically from St Augustine to Thomas Sebeok (to whom the volume is dedicated). Again, however, the selection often seems arbitrary. John Locke, for instance, who actually proposed semiotics as one of the three great branches of science ("the business whereof is to consider the nature of signs") gets only two brief mentions in the entire 700 pages (if the index is reliable). It is difficult to see why Augustine gets his own entry, whereas anyone interested in Aristotle's contribution to semiotics is obliged to look up at least half a dozen different articles written by various hands. That fact alone indicates that an entry devoted to Aristotle was called for. Similarly, whereas Frege has his own article, references to Freud are scattered around all over the place. On that score Freud too deserved special attention.

This unevenness may in part be the result of weak editorial planning. On the other hand, it may also be seen as reflecting something about semiotics. No one seems clear about what exactly semiotics includes. Reading a selection of articles chosen at random gives a strong impression of intellectual fragmentation. According to the editor's preface, however, fragmentation is the very opposite of what the "trans-disciplinary" semiotician seeks. But the claim rings hollow when confronted with this evidence. Constant reference to the same "big names" (Peirce and Saussure outstrip all rivals, but Barthes, Eco and Jakobson also feature in the top half dozen) does not conjure a coherent perspective out of an academic kaleidoscope. The disjointedness evident in this compilation cannot be papered over by intertextual allusions or concealed by the plastic surgery of cross-referencing, for it is of quite a different order from the diversity that strikes one on consulting current reference works in art, philosophy or literature. There the field may be subdivided into specialisations, but at least most of the contributors seem to be on the same wavelength. Nothing like "the same wavelength" seems to obtain in semiotics. Nor can one expect it, because the basic problem is that the concept "sign" is open to too many diverse interpretations to give rise to any unified theoretical framework. That is perhaps the message unwittingly signalled by the most obvious "zero sign" in this publication: the absence of any entry on "semiotics" itself.

Roy Harris is editor, Language and Communication .


Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Editor - Paul Bouissac
ISBN - 0 19 512090 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £98.00
Pages - 702

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