[Smt-talk] semantics

mmorse at ca.inter.net mmorse at ca.inter.net
Wed Apr 8 08:43:10 PDT 2009

Quoting Nicolas Meeùs <nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr>:

> More precisely, Benveniste proposes..<
   Many thanks for the wonderfully concise summary of Benveniste,  
Nicolas! You have clarified the issue I was addressing as  
"quantitative" quite admirably. At the joint risk of coarseness and  
arrogance, I think of Benveniste as a bit of a semantic Moses, framing  
the issues of (semiotic) levels forcefully, but trapped in antinomies  
that prevent him from reaching the promised land of meaning. As your  
reading suggests, had perhaps Benveniste really thought through the  
significance of the phrase-structure (and general temporal)  
resemblances between music and language as semiotic systems, he might  
have been able to abandon, or at least minimize the importance, of the  
phoneme as a pre-semantic quantum that mysteriously acquires  
significance when *more*--again, this term understood in a tenaciously  
quantitative sense--is 'added' to it.

   If we understand (and define) 'phoneme' ab origo as "that which can  
be part of a meaningful utterance," and, at the same time, understand  
"meaningful utterance" as "that which can be paraphrased," the shift  
between levels largely disappears as a problem. The temptation is  
great to appeal to some Gilbert Ryle or G.E. moore-like common sense,  
and claim that no one who speaks English would have the slightest  
difficulty understanding the answer to "Are you hungry?," regardless  
of whether it took the form of "Thanks very much for asking, but I  
just finished dining with the Countess D'Agoult at the People's  
Commissariat for Diamond Refinishing," or a plain "no"--or just the  
faintest nod of the head. Against what Benveniste saddles himself  
with, I want to say that there is no *quantitative* transition (to  
meaningfulness) in the comparison of these responses, in their number  
of phonemes or syllables or anything else. In other words; logically,  
we may be at least as well off, or even better to treat phonemes like  
tones (or chords), rather than the latter as if they were words:  
*entirely* context-dependent for their meaning.

>    Benveniste adds the most interesting remark (especially for us)  
> that, in music, level (2) of this articulation is lacking and one  
> passes without transition from level (1) to level (3). What  
> Benveniste did not add, but is pertinent to the present discussion,  
> is that there seems to be no upper limit to the ever larger spans of  
> meaningful articulation in music, up at least to the level of entire  
> movements.
   Amen. I'm not sure I find his attention to the lower limit  
satisfactory, either. Does he ever consider the case of stone silence,  
e.g., as an answer to a question? Is that a case of a pre-phonemic or  
-phonetic utterance? ("Bah! Phooey!" would be my technically-framed  

> (More about that in my paper "Musical articulation", Music  Analysis  
> 21/2, 2002.)<
I look forward to reading this!

> ...let's merely agree on the fact that there exist various semiotic  
> systems, including those of music and language, and that it cannot  
> seriously be maintained that any one of them necessarily must be the  
> model for all others. In several respects, music might be taken as a  
> model for language – especially as soon as one is dealing with  
> artistic aspects of language.
   Again, amen! And as above: taking the semiotic problem seriously  
virtually demands attention to your point. Saussure and Peirce were  
emphatic on the *general* character of semiotics, both considering  
themselves pioneers (wasn't "backwoodsman" Peirce's phrase!?) of a  
field that wouldn't stand up right *until* it was "general"; the  
irreconcilability of that aim with a language-first model, the  
"linguistic arrogance" you rightly excoriate, Nicolas, has been shown  
only too well in the last century.

> Even if the possibility of recursion may be a defining  
> characteristic of semiotic systems, it does not follow that any  
> semiotic utterance must be recursive. Yet, specific types of  
> utterances might need to be recursive. What would you think of the  
> following statement (it's just an example): "Recursion is a defining  
> characteristic of sonata form"?

   Honestly? Nothing, for the very reasons you cite. Recursion is too  
general a property, too close to empty universality, to clarify  
anything about sonata form. Your example is singularly well chosen, I  
dare say, because sonata form itself has a host of definition  
problems; good ones, to be sure, as the many and thoughtful works on  
the subject have shown. But tossing a term like recursion at these  
issues is at best an attempt to cut the Gordian Knot. Unless we're  
planning to invade India, and don't mind fighting warriors on  
elephants in the stifling heat, this is a bad idea..

Much Best,


Trent University
Pbgh, ON

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