Features of language that distinguish it from visual representation and music

Father of Medicine and physician of the Periclean period, Hippocrates of Kos (460–370 BC) recognised “markers” of internal processes in language well before Aristotle (384–322 BC). Through a conceptual (ideational) theory, Hippocrates parsed the sign into three dimensions: physical manifestation; “the reinforcement of which it calls attention”; and its evocation of psychological and social meaning (Sebeok, 2001, 4). Subsequently, Plato’s “ideal” invoked also the concept of denotation.

Connotation was seen instead as an extension from this originary meaning, one reflexively constrained, however, by the paradigmatic referent (Sebeok, 2001, 7). Consequently, “thought and language,” according to Geoffrey Leech, “should be treated in the same manner” (1987, p. 2). Later, the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1013), imbued this understanding with Danish linguist Louis Trolle Hjelmslev’s conception, linking, across two planes, the purely psychological signifier (sound pattern) and signified (image-concept) into one spatiotemporal “sign” or representation that denotes—mentally stands in place of—a referent; the actual thing to which it ultimately refers (Saussure, 1983; Ladd, 2012, 262). This is what is meant by signification. Such mental representations exemplify the world through systems of signs or codes (Sebeok, 2001, 8).

Rather than its equivalent, consider language the vehicle through which thoughts (ideas) are translated. Such ideas or messages come in the guise of single signs or combinations thereof—texts (Sebeok, 2001, 7). Language is not, however, the only vehicle in (upon) which ideas travel. Ideas translate—messages communicate—through image and music, among other likely more primitive modes of communication. This transfer of ideas through image and imagery often occurs at the level of the unconscious and in ways, perhaps, that language does not. The unconscious then relates (translates), through language, by invoking conceptual devices, such as metaphor.

St. Augustine (AD 354-430) took on the metaphysical-spiritual mantle to further distinguish between natural and man-made signs, each of which had an interpretive component in-built; each encoded differently (Sebeok, 2001, 4). We use different rules of engagement to decode natural signs and different rules to decode man-made signs, according to Augustine. Meanwhile, John Locke’s (1632-1704) empiricism later determined that signs help man understand “the interconnection between representation and knowledge” (Sebeok, 2001, 4). It was incumbent then upon de Saussure to distinguish between the real-time, cross-sectional and so-called “synchronic” examination of language, or parole, and the diachronic or historical change that language accretes over time. Saussure’s “sign” refers to the combination of concept (signified) and its related sound pattern (signifier), arbitrarily linked through “signification” (Sebeok, 2001, 5). This signification, it is generally argued , is purely arbitrary; purely a matter of convention. Some originary peoples, so the theory goes, came to some agreement that upon articulation of the word tree /triː/ they meant to invoke the concept of “a woody plant that regularly renews its growth” (Enyclopaedia Britannica).

Any discussion of language ought to distinguish between the spoken and written word [thank you, Mr Derrida]. The “universals”, or attributes said to be consistent across all languages by the American linguist, Charles Hockett, remain more apt to the spoken rather than the written word. For instance, the Hebrew abjad—a purely consonantal writing system—potentially represents a pictographic modification of Egyptian hieroglyphs (Hock, 2009, 82). If so, then Hebrew demonstrates distinct iconicity and cannot be said to be truly arbitrary.

Language presumably developed in tandem with human evolution, paralleling the progress and adaptation of the species, and can be traced along with music as far back as 60,000 years (Kirby, 2011). Language purportedly remains exclusive to the human species and there is no community of human beings that is without a (spoken) language (Hockett, 1977, 177). Bloch and Trager define language as “a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates” (Read, 1976, p. 191). While some of Hockett’s “design features” of language are familiar to other modes of communication—visual representations as well as music—more universal markers of language are disputable. An American linguist, Charles Hockett considered certain characteristic “design features” of language that only partly apply to the other modes of representation and distinguished these from other forms of communication more broadly.

These properties include duality, productivity, arbitrariness, interchangeability, specialisation, displacement, and cultural transmission. Hockett’s “defining set” more broadly envisaged invoke also vocal-auditory channel of communication, broadcast transmission and directional reception, rapid fading, complete feedback, specialisation, semanticity, discreteness, openness, prevarication, and reflexiveness. Let me briefly consider these features in relation to each of language, visual representations, and music, with the understanding that Hockett’s characterisation is under scrutiny.


The relationship between any “sound pattern” and its concept  or denotation is arbitrary (Saussure, 1983). In contradistinction to an iconic system of communication, there is theoretically no likeness or resemblance between the sound pattern or signifier and the concept signified or denoted within any sign. In almost all instances (exceptions might include onomatopoeia), linguistic signals are considered arbitrary (Hockett, 1977, 170). Without this arbitrariness, says Hockett, language lacks semanticity.  It is the arbitrary link between signifier and signified, apparently, which gives language meaning.

While linguistic signs are arbitrary, their contextual occurrence, their valence through established convention becomes iconicised (Saussure, 1983, 65). Meanwhile, this iconicity limits the value of representation for any symbol. A system with iconic semantics remains constrained for use about situations that can only be initiated, pictured, or diagrammed (Hockett, 1977, 175). Nida adds here support for Bloch and Trager: “A language needs a basic inventory of symbols which are relatively fixed in meaning and largely arbitrary. If they were too closely tied in form to their referents, they would be too rigid for the dynamic growth and movement essential to a living semiotic system” (Read, 1976, p. 194).

Writing existed in Canaan some two-thousand years prior to Israelite settlement (Paton, 1914, 209). According to Lewis Paton, the Israelites adopted the tongue of Canaan during a conquest that extended over centuries:

It is probable even that the newcomers [Israelites] adopted the language of the Canaanites instead of the Aramaic dialect that they spoke originally. The language that we call Hebrew is the language of the glosses to the Tell el-Amarna Letters, and Isa. 19:18 calls it “the tongue of Canaan.”

Old Babylonian cuneiform script was the principal mode for communication with Egypt but also made good for local use (Millard, 2017, 15). An anonymous individual combined with this a knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs to create an acrophonical abjad based on each Babylonian phoneme, heralding the linear alphabet (Millard, 2017, 15). Later scripts found in texts at Byblos ultimately served as prototypes for Iron-Age alphabets, including Phoenician (Millard, 2017, 17-18 and 20). In such way the Roman alphabet got its start, a combination of Egyptian pictograph (hieroglyph) and Babylonian acrophony. Arguably, alphabetical phonemes may be arbitrary, but their morphemes suggest iconicity—sequential modifications from Egyptian pictographs. Hence the “A” might be read, in turn, as modification from the Greek alpha, the Phoenician and Hebraic aleph, the schematic depiction of the head of an oxen. Tracing origins for the remaining letters of the Hebrew abjad lend credence to this hypothesis.

Figure 1. The Origin of our Alphabet, Wendell H. Hall
Broadcast vocally; received directionally

It bears consideration to view writing as a late ancillary in response to speech’s rapidity of fading. aside, linguistic communication makes use of the vocal-auditory channel (Hockett, 1977, 169). Music, too, is a form of acoustic communication and has a structure (and perhaps history) that parallels that of language. Visual representations involve instead the sense of seeing. Which of these two modes of communication predates—in evolutionary biology—the other, is as yet unknown but cryptochromes and simple hair-receptors both go as far back as 500 million years (Feuda, 2012). Implicit to utilising the vocal-auditory channel, all linguistic (spoken) signals are broadcast and received directionally” (Hockett, 1977, 169): potentially both a blessing and a curse to the transmitter of a warning cry (Hockett, 1977,176). Similarly, music is ambient, transmitted linearly and filling the space within which it is played. Visual representations, on the other hand, are spatially multi-dimensional (Saussure, 1983, p. 70).

Acoustic phenomena are evanescent, the spoken language no different—listeners need to be within the vicinity of the transmitter at the time of transmission to receive the rapidly-fading signal (Hockett, 1977, 169). The acoustic effect of prior messaging, having long since dissipated into the atmosphere, affords the new transmission a “free air” to be received unimpeded—and “emergency signals can get through” (Hockett, 1977, 176). This had necessitated that, failing some sort of recording device (such as writing), important messages had to be stored in the receiver’s memory. This necessarily had implications upon human “attention span”, which might be said to have evolved accordingly. Recording of these vocal linguistic messages “related to the development of displacement” (Hockett, 1977, 176). Visual representations have a sense of permanence that language and music do not.

Individuals can be, at any moment, transmitters or receivers of spoken language (Hockett, 1977, 169-170). This interchangeability affords the ability for internal dialogue—non-vocalised thought (Hockett, 1977, 176). Interchangeability is requisite on complete feedback; transmission of a message allows the transmitter to also receive the message (Hockett, 1977, 170). Humans have a specialised larynx (voice-box) designed for communication transmission that imparts sound with minimal energy expenditure on the part of the transmitter (and receiver); only the triggering effects are important (Hockett, 1977, 170). “The degree of un-relatedness between the trigger consequences and the direct physical consequences is proportional to this specialisation.” One can modulate the power (energy) of transmission, by shouting for instance, but this is not necessarily requisitely proportional to the meaning of the utterance (Hockett, 1977, 176). Linguistic signals are representative, in some way, of the society from which they originate which renders them their denotative meaning – semanticity (Hockett, 1977, 170).


Elements of a language must be discrete enough to confer noticeable difference that can be utilised, otherwise elements, be they iconic or arbitrary, would be indistinguishable. In a continuous semantic system, the semantics must be iconic rather than arbitrary. But in a discrete semantic system there is no necessary implication as to iconicity or arbitrariness; therefore, for language, arbitrariness is independent of Semanticity and discreteness (Hockett, 1977, 170-171). “The alternative … is [the] continuous repertories of signals (as the bees)”, such systems “necessarily has iconic semantics” (Hockett, 1977, 176).


Linguistic signals can be representative of concepts from another time and space (Hockett, 1977, 171). Because of this attribute of displacement, signals can refer to future or past events and provide affordances such as planning ahead, historical comparisons, even fictional representations (Hockett, 1977, 175). For instance, animal calls are made in the moment and for immediate effect. “The bee-dance does, however, show some spatial and little temporal displacement.” This versatility, or openness, allows simplicity and ease of creation, transmission, and reception of novel messages (Hockett, 1977, 171), including hypothesising (Hockett, 1977, 175). This can be done by modifying prior messages through use of combining (blending) or analogising and such “grammatical patterning” is a feature of all languages (Hockett, 1977, 171). These novel messages are then contextually unique ascribing to elements of language “new semantic loads” and “new idioms constantly come into existence” (Hockett, 1977, 171).


Contrary to Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar, it is cultural tradition, according to Hockett, which imparts the understanding of language to others, leaving genetics to supply only the potentiality (Hockett, 1977, 171). To this, Saussure was also in no doubt: the “cumulative learning” of culture speeds up and finesses this understanding (Saussure, 1958, 580).


Duality (of Patterning) confers complexity by coupling to a compact cohort of meaningless “sound-bites” (cenemes of the language system) or phonemes a large number of notional elements (pleremes of the language system) or words and morphemes. In this way, human language uniquely—compared to other biological systems of communication—links arbitrary vocalised sounds to elemental ideas (Hockett, 1977, 171-172). A specific packet of vocalised sounds—a “sound pattern” corresponds to a unique “concept” to create a single sign (Saussure, 1983). Grammatical units (morphemes (made of letters) and words) are juxtaposed and coapted against phonological segments (syllables (made of phonemes) and words) such that different phonological combinations refer to different concepts. It is this combinatorial aspect of phonological units of language that confers to its complexity at the most basic level, akin to the differing combination of nucleotide bases (Hockett, 1977, 175). “In every human language, plerematic patterning and cenematic patterning are both (independently) hierarchical” (Hockett, 1977, 178) but “differ more widely in cenematics than in plerematics” (Hockett, 1977, 178).

  • Human language differs more widely, at least in their plerematic subsystems, at small size-levels than at large; suggests that all languages share certain large-scale syntactical patterns, however varied may be the smaller-scale patterns by which the constituents for the larger patterns are built up (Hockett, 1977, 179)
  • Every human language has a stock of elements that shift their denotations depending on elementary features of the speech situation – every language has deictic (“substitute”) elements: in English, the personal pronouns, demonstratives pronouns and pro-adverbs and so on (Hockett, 1977, 179). Among the deictic elements of every human language is one that denotes the speaker and one that denotes the addressee. First and second person singular pronouns are universal. There seems to be no reason internal to our definition of language why this should be so; yet, if we try to imagine a system that lacks them, the results seem quite alien (179)
  • Languages include elements of denotative nothingness required to create strings of plerematic form, for instance the English word “and” (Hockett, 1977, 179).
  • This duality of structure is common also to music
Prevarication and reflexiveness

Meaningless and misleading messages can be purposefully created. This prevarication is a characteristic of human language not shared with other animals, and is a function of its semanticity (meaning vs. meaningless), displacement (immediately or temporally remote), and openness and affords formulation of hypothesis. In a similar way constellations of noise abstractions can be created. Through metalanguage, one can reflexively communicate about language. One can equally communicate about anything, the is the universality of language. Language has the feature of learnability whereby speakers can learn another language. There is probably more of this sort of flexibility or re-adaptation among animals than we give them credit for, but some systems, at least, lack the feature altogether.

Productivity makes use of this convenience of duality by affording the linkage of a string of specific yet potentially novel plereme-ceneme combinations, in a fashion that is analogous and for the most part consistent with rules of linkage, to utter a sentence which is at once understood by both utterer and self. This creates the capacity for complexity from an inherently simple system. Distinction between pleremes governs difference in ceneme and combinations (strings) of pleremes create complexity in ceneme. The DNA base-pair analogy holds. Blending implies no plerematic complexity, that pleremes can be used only individually, not linked together. Language, then, shows both duality and productivity-duality in the plereme-ceneme association; complexity in the affordance of multitudinous linking possibilities of these.

WTH (Pilgrim Bobby) – 18 June 2017

[While they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I confess here to a preference for Platonic to Aristotelian, Augustinian to Thomistic, discourse.]


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