Pictures of language (poorly drawn)

I am not a good artist but sometimes I need pictures instead of words.

Especially and ironically when dealing with language!

The normal picture of language use is of someone talking and the other person ‘receives’ these signs, signifiers or ‘coded messages’ and they ‘decode’ them and act appropriately.  The first person expresses or communicates something (ideas, concepts, cognitions, ?), and the listener finds meaning in those words by decoding or processing. Viz…

Lang Pics 1

As the great man said, every word of what I just wrote was wrong.

The problem is that this is all that we can immediately see in front of us when someone talks to another person.  So the picture seems right.

Here is the (otherwise) great Ferdinand de Saussure’s version of the same (what we see in front of us), but it is a much, much better drawing:



For both Jedis and Fremen, what actually makes things happen when we talk is not usually seen, at least not without a lot of observations, but is HUGE.

Lang Pics 2

What makes language work at all are all of the contexts of that talk and preceding that talk, including the history of those persons, the social exchanges they have had and how this had shaped their behaviours, all the discourses they have been immersed in from other relationships, their communities and the societies which shape so many of our discourses which we then perform individually, the two’s cooperation and conflicts over resources in the past, etc.

This is why I sometimes write (as Mentat summations):

  • The words said are perhaps the smallest or least important part of what is going on when two people talk
  • The material basis or concrete nature of language are the contexts in which the speaker and listener are immersed, not the words or anything ‘mental’
  • What makes language do anything are not so much the words as the total external contexts which cannot be seen in the moment
  • If saying to someone “Please pass the salt” actually works and they do it, this is not about anything to do with the words themselves
  • Words without context have no ‘magical power’ to do anything; you might as well talk to a tree

The problem is that in a few hundred years of trying to explain language use people have been trying to explain the wrong thing!



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