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Lexical (semiotics)

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In the lexicon of a language, lexical words or nouns refer to things. These words fall into three main classes:

  • proper nouns refer exclusively to the place, object or person named, i.e. nomenclature or a naming system;
  • concrete nouns refer to physical objects; and
  • abstract nouns refer to concepts and ideas.

Other than lexical words, the lexicon consists of functional or grammatical words which do not refer to objects in the world.


Language is more than a functional system for naming things. Most lexical words refer to classes of things (e.g. 'animals' or 'insects') or to concepts (e.g. 'nonhuman'). Depending on the degree of specialisation, language may create a taxonomy or simple categories, but the act of creating a group by reference to one or more similarities, breaks the natural link between a name and its reality. Hence, "copse" is more than "tree" and less than "forest" and, as spatial areas, both copses and forests contain more than trees.

In semiotics, the initial view was that language creates perceptions of reality. By giving salience to particular characteristics by naming them, the community is differentiating things from their context. Then, by making a qualitative judgement of sameness, all things sharing those characteristics may be considered the same. This creates a form of metareality. These perceptions will also be diachronic, i.e. change over time (see Saussure (1857-1913) and his concept of evolutionary linguistics). The major theoretical question is the extent to which members of a culture can rely on their language to be real.

Saussure believed that language constructs rather than reflects reality. For example, time passes in all cultures but, unless and until a community agrees signifiers for "yesterday, "today", and "tomorrow", there is no conceptual framework within which to discuss the passage of time. Further, even though measurement systems based on diurnal and sidereal observation may produce some degree of scientific universality across cultures, this does mean that different communities will discuss time in the same way. In the Chinese language, the verbs are not inflected and do not conjugate, so time is marked adverbially and through suffixes, and the number of participants must be determined from context and collocation. In contrast to Latinate languages where verb forms enable a substantial range of temporal differentiation, the Chinese express their conception of time using a completely different lexicon of language. Similarly, the Chinese have two concepts of face: lien i.e. each individual must preserve their moral character in the eyes of the community, and mianzi, i.e. personal prestige and personal success. This is a fundamental concept to the culture in that loss of face can incapacitate a Chinese person as a member of his or her community. Hence, conflict avoidance and dispute resolution strategies are very different from their Western equivalents.

Such contrasts suggest that while the relationships between signifiers and their signifieds are ontologically irrelevant, i.e. philosophically, it would not affect the value of the signs if the words lien and face were transposed between Chinese and English, those relationships influence the cognitive processes and establish the levels of connotation that constitute the social reality in each culture. The controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis asserted that people who speak with different phonological, syntactical, and semantic systems construct different world views. Such determinism would now be considered too extreme. The modern theoretical view is that the sign system adopted is simply the means to express all aspects of each culture's evolving understanding of their own reality, i.e. reality is constructed by interaction between mind, perception and meanings. Language is the mechanism through which communities operate a social memory in which common experiences are encoded and decoded. If the experiences or the perceptions of those experiences change, the lexical words used to recall the past must be deconstructed and reconstructed to reflect the new common understanding. It may also lead to the compression of events and the omission of elements of data no longer considered useful. This is also a narrativisation, i.e. the community is constructing a narrative (sometimes of mythic proportions) about its own knowledge and experience that marks some areas of knowledge as more important than others. This changes the symbolic function of the lexical words used to differentiate their value and allows the creation of metadiscourses or metarealities in which communities may reflect upon their knowledge in increasingly more abstract forms. Because this process may be politicised, the values of the lexical words may shift attention away from some areas of knowledge and make that part of the discourse less real.

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