Marcel Danesi: "The Interconnectedness Principle and the Semiotic Analysis of Discourse"

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Discourse Circuits

Like an organism, language is a highly adaptive and context-sensitive instrument, susceptible to the subtle connotative nuances that the discourse situation entails. The internal structures of language are pliable entities that are responsive to these nuances. Although there is much leeway in the linguistic choices that can be made to match a function, the choices are not completely open to personal whims. Indeed, speech act theory argues strongly that language is cut out to match each situation with appropriate categories, and that the number of categories is constrained by cultural and historical factors.

The claim to be made here is that the choice of language structures in conversations is shaped by a circuitry of connotata. In traditional theories of language, denotation is considered to be the primary shaper of the cognitive flow of meaning during discourse, and connotation only a secondary, context-dependent option within this flow. But this type of "dictionary" model of meaning yields very little insight into the nature of verbal communication, as the data collected for this study (and the plethora of findings on discourse in general) strongly suggest. What is saliently obvious is that denotationis a limiting point of meaning; i.e. it is the meaning that must be excogitated on purpose in the use of a word or expression. In actual discourse, it is the connotative dimension of structures that guides the "navigation" of meaning through the discourse situation, a point that Roland Barthes (1957) made persuasively over four decades ago. One connotatum suggests another which, in turn, suggests yet another, and so on. The ability to navigate mentally through these connotative circuits constitutes, arguably, discourse fluency. Someone who studies a foreign language has, initially, little or no access to such circuits, given that language teaching tends to be based on denotative models of meaning, and thus can rarely be a participant in real discourse situations until he or she has acquired the underlying connotative "maps" that chart the flow of meaning in discourse. Michel Foucault (1972) characterized such circuits as consisting of an endless "interrelated fabric" in which the boundaries of meanings are never clear-cut. Every signifier is caught up in a system of references to other signifiers, to codes, and to texts; it is a node within a network of distributed signifieds. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself. To extract meaning from a discourse act, one must have knowledge of this network and of the connotative signifieds that constitute it.










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AS/SA Nº 6/7, Article 6 : Page 2 / 8


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1999.07.14