Hongbing Yu

Quo Vadimus in the 21st-Century Studies of Linguistic Sign Systems?

De Gruyter Mouton | Published online: March 11, 2016

Sixteen years into the 21st century, global semiotic and linguistic studies are now at a new threshold, facing a drastically different era than the so-called golden age in the latter half of the past century. The new opportunity/challenge for both semioticians and linguists nowadays is an increasingly salient “inward shift” of academic attention in the quests of the fields of semiotics and linguistics, as much as in many other fields of inquiry. The many foci of these disparate areas are now showing a tendency, if not only a necessity, of convergence, the range of which is large enough to cover what used to be studied separately, such as language, script, literature, communication, biology, and neurology. The central converging point is none other than human cognition.

If we take into consideration the fact that the trichotomy of contemporary linguistics, i.e. syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, was actually only devised as the three branches of semiotics by Charles Morris in the 1930s, we are inevitably facing a seemingly awkward dilemma that can be seen in the wording of the title of this special issue, “the study of linguistic sign systems”, which is almost the same as “linguistic study”. However, it should not be forgotten that language is still universally regarded as a sign system, albeit the most sophisticated one as is believed by a considerable number of scholars. This fact has remained unshaken for exactly a hundred years until now since the publication in 1916 of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de Linguistique Générale. The issue we have at present is whither semiotics? Its obvious interdisciplinary analytical power raises the question: in what way will semiotics be different from such homogenous areas as communication and linguistics? Can it be simply said that semiotics should and will in fact remain a de facto umbrella term for both itself and communication, given the fact that linguistics has to be left alone?

As Noam Chomsky envisions in his paper “Minimal computation and the architecture of language”, in this special issue, “some problems may be permanent mysteries for us”. This can hold true of most known disciplines. However, what might be achieved by semiotics as an interdisciplinary methodology is an inherent multi-modal key to fundamental problems that traditional sciences, for instance cognitive linguistics, are now failing to address unless they fully recognize the multi-modal/semiotic nature of human cognition, which is different from that of other animals in various minor degrees. What is needed and indeed is happening in our attempts at answering those fundamental questions is the incorporation of interdisciplinary contributions from various fields of human communication and cognitive studies, requesting theoretical formations and empirical studies of larger corpora. It is in this light that we proudly present some latest works by a selected group of scholars in this special issue of Chinese Semiotic Studies.

Published Online: 2016-3-11
Published in Print: 2016-2-1

© 2016 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston