The symbol concept

Terrence W. Deacon

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 The symbol concept

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This article explains the concept of symbolic reference. Symbolic reference is a distinguishing feature of human language, in contrast with species-typical vocalizations and communicative gestures. The symbolic reference must be acquired by learning, and lacks both the natural associations and trans-generational reproductive consequences that would make such references biologically evolvable. The absence of natural constraints also facilitates the capacity for distinct symbol combinations to determine unique references. The asymmetric relationship between features of the sign vehicle and features of the referential relationship explains that conventional typographical characters can refer both symbolically and non-symbolically. A complex sign vehicle such as the diagram of an electronic circuit can serve as an icon even though it is composed of symbols. Once the many symbolic sign components are interpreted, their collective configuration is seen as iconic of the organization of the physical circuit that is relevant to language. The combinatorial organization of symbolic legisigns comprising a phrase, sentence, or narrative may constitute a higher order iconic, indexical, or symbolic referential function. The basis of the symbolic reference of words is the systematicity that unifies the network of indexical relationships that they constitute and depend upon. The network of indexical relationships is also reflexive, circular, and ultimately self-referential. The use of linguistic symbols such as words, to refer to specific objects, events, or properties of things, requires indexical mediation.

Keywords: symbolic legisigns; vocalizations; communicative gestures; sign vehicle; typographical characters

Article.  5253 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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