Natural and Conventional Signs

A language is a system of symbols through which people communicate. The symbols may be spoken, written, or signed with the hands. People who use a language to communicate with one another constitute a society, a language community—the English language community, for instance. Within that community there are differences in the way different people use the language, chiefly of a geographical or social nature. When people who have the same native language can understand one another but still notice consistent differences in each other’s speech, we say they speak different dialects of that language. It is easy to illustrate dialect differences: vocabulary differences like petrol versus gasoline, lift versus elevator, alternative ways of framing certain questions: Have you a pencil? versus Do you have a pencil? versus Have you got a pencil?, for instance. It is extremely difficult to say how many differences there are between dialects or to recognize where one dialect ends and another begins.

Language is only one of the common activities of a society. The totality of common activities, institutions, and beliefs make up the culture of that society. Cultural groupings are not necessarily coterminous with language communities. In the modern world it is
quite the opposite: cultural features are almost always more widespread than any one language. Native speakers of English belong to the so-called Western culture, which has developed from the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans of the ancient world. If it is hard to specify just what consitutes a ‘dialect,’ it is equally difficult to specify what is included in one ‘culture.’ Our culture includes, for example, eating with a fork, wearing neckties, knowing at least some of the same proverbs, using at least some of the same gestures for the same purposes, celebrating the arrival of a new year, believing in law and democracy, and hundreds of other major and minor customs and beliefs. The point is that communication takes place against a large common background.

A language is a complex system of symbols, or signs, that are shared by members of a community. It will be useful to consider other signs that we know and how we react to them.
Robinson Crusoe, according to Defoe’s novel, was walking along the beach one morning and suddenly saw a human footprint in the sand—made by the man who was later to be called Friday, as it turned out. This experience, after twenty-seven years of living alone on his island, so frightened poor Crusoe that he ran back to the cave that was his home and would not venture out again that day.

A footprint is a natural sign. It is the natural result of a foot treading on a soft surface, and it can communicate a message—that the owner of the foot was recently there—to anyone who observes it. We are all familiar with other natural signs. We see smoke and know that there is a fire, or a fire has just gone out. A black cloud informs us of the possibility of rain. Treetops moving tell us that the wind is blowing. Our own bodies provide such signs as earaches and hunger pangs. In other people we notice and interpret shivering, perspiration, or a head nodding with drowsiness. All sorts of sights, sounds and smells can be natural signs; they communicate to someone who observes and can interpret but their messages are unintentional, the by-products of various events. In modern life we are likely to be less concerned with natural signs than with conventional signs, the auditory and visual devices
that people have created to send routine messages to one another. Day after day we hear such signals because someone intends for us to hear them: horns, whistles, sirens, buzzers and bells. The pop of a gun starts competitive runners, swimmers and jockeys on their respective races. In various sports a whistle or buzzer marks the beginning and end of each period of play. Visual signs are just as prevalent and as varied. We have conventional ways of indicating a slippery road, a bicycle path, the location of a telephone, of men’s and women’s lavatories, where there is access for the handicapped, where smoking is prohibited, and much more. Humans produce not only single symbols but systems of symbols. Different bugle calls, different bell tones, different numbers of toots on a whistle or flashes of light can form a repertory of messages. The traffic light found at numerous city street intersections is a good example of a simple system. None of these communications uses language, though of course devising, installing and learning them could not be accomplished by people who had no language. Unlike natural signs, conventional signs have human senders as well as human receivers; each one has an intention and an interpretation. The message may be personal as when a friend rings your telephone or quite impersonal and general, like the warning siren on a speeding ambulance. We can even use devices like smoke detectors and burglar alarms to send messages to ourselves at a later time, in circumstances that we really do not want to occur.

1 Response on "Natural and Conventional Signs"

  1. Thank you. Very good explanation.

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