When I began my most recent series of posts on memes, I did so because I wanted to think specifically about language: Does it make sense to treat words as memes? That question arose for a variety of reasons.
In the first place, if you are going to think about culture as an evolutionary phenomenon, language automatically looms large as so very much of culture depends on or is associated with language. And language consists of words, among other things. Further, historical linguistics is a well-developed discipline. We know a lot about how languages have changed over time, and change over time is what evolution is about.
However, words have meanings. And word meanings are rather fuzzy things, subject to dispute and to change that is independent of the word-form itself. Did I really want to treat word meanings as memes? That seemed rather iffy. But if I don’t treat word meanings as memetic, then what happens to language?
But THAT’s not quite how I put it going into that series of posts. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that words have forms and meanings. I don’t know whether it was my freshman year or my sophomore year that I read Roland Barthe’s Elements of Semiology (English translation 1967). That gave me Saussure’s trilogy of sign, signifier, and signified, the last of which seemed rather mysterious: “the signified is not ‘a thing’ but a mental representation of the ‘thing’.” Getting comfortable with that distinction, between the thing and the concept of the thing, that took time and effort.
That’s an aside. Suffice to say, I got comfortable with that distinction. The distinction between signifier and signified was much easier.
And yet that distinction was not uppermost in my mind when I thought of language and cultural evolution. When I thought of memes. When I approached this series of essays, though some papers by Daniel Dennett, I thought of words they same way Dennett did, the whole kit and caboodle had to be a meme. It was the sign that’s the meme.
That’s not how I ended up, of course. That ending took me a bit by surprise. Coming down that home stretch I was getting worried. It appeared to me that I was faced with two different classes of memes: couplers and the other one. What I did then was to divide the other one into two classes: targets and designators. And to do that I had to call on that thing I’ve known for decades and split the word in two: signifier and signified. It’s only the signifier that’s memetic. Signifiers are memes, but not signifieds.
It took me a couple of months to work that out, and I’d known it all along.
What does that have to do with historical linguistics? Historical linguistics is based mostly on the study of relationships among signifiers, that is, relationships among the memetic elements of languages. Which makes sense, of course.
But… Read the rest of this entry →