Linguistic and Literary Semiotics



Tamara Nazarova

Moscow State University





"... a science (be it a hard science or a soft one)
should be able to change the state of things
of which it speaks..."
 - Umberto Eco



    Semiotics is the theory of sign systems. For decades it has been assumed that every sign system in nature, society and cognition belongs to the domain of semiotics. The literature on the subject is voluminous. Semiotic studies are increasingly attractive to whoever is interested in signs at large. At present, however, the attempts to address every instance of semiotics to the general theory of sign systems have unreasonably widened the scope and confines of semiotics. Internationally recognized authorities in the field point to "the agony of semiotics" implying "the crisis of theory" (Blonsky 1991).

    The above pessimistic view of the status of semiotic theory makes one think of the reasons why general semioticians more often than not find themselves "at the crossroads" (Blonsky 1991), doubting the relevance of the elaborated concepts and the validity of research and methodology. This extreme situation is reflective of indeterminacy which resulted from a discrepancy between theory and practice; continual theorizing has liberated semioticians from the burden of practice, practical goals or procedures. It is impossible to suggest a remedy for the whole of general semiotics. With respect to the language and its study I would suggest going back to the empirical basis of linguistics (Waugh 1984).

    In the 1990s linguists are more concerned about the unity of theory and practice. A sophisticated linguist will no longer state that language is a sign system par excellence. He will no longer indiscrimitately relegate language to the domain of general semiotics. On the contrary, a linguist in the proper sense of the word will think of applied semiotics, considering the relationship between the science of natural human languages and the science of sign systems, and addressing the following questions: How much of a natural human language lends itself to semiotic interpretation? What are the signs and sign systems within a natural human language? In what way can the concepts and categories of semiotics be applied to the actual teaching of natural human languages? Expanding the list of questions one could include the following ones: Are we justified in applying the semiotic methodology to literature? What is literary semiotics (the semiotics of literature)?


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© 1996 Nazarova
© 1996 AS/SA

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22.03.1996