The ‘floating’ linguistic sign

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The image of floating, fluctua­tion, waves, and displacement recurs with surpris­ing con­sistency in key descrip­tions of the linguistic sign. Its promi­nence in the theoretical pronouncements of linguists (Michel Bréal, Ferdi­nand de Saussure, Antoine Meillet, Ken­neth Pike) and sociologists (Émile Durkheim, Mar­cel Mauss), Claude Lévi-Strauss) sug­gests a conceptualization of the linguis­tic sign as impor­tant as the much discussed two-sided sheet of paper, or the game of chess, in Saus­sure’s lectures. The fluid, wave-like linkage of sound and thought, the arbi­trary and differential nature of the linguistic sign, and the elusive, vacillating ‘values’ of terms all reflect Saussure’s view of the linguistic sign as ever-fluctuat­ing. This meta­phor also figures in Meillet’s theory of grammaticaliza­tion, in Bréal’s understand­ing of both Humboldt’s inner language form, and the relation of lan­guage to thought in early mytho­logy, in Lévi-Strauss’s concept of the float­ing signifier as well as in Pike’s view of language as a ‘field’ consisting of waves and swells.


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