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K 2-2 Monemes

Page history last edited by roy williams 2 years, 3 months ago


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Basic Communication Functions

I would like to start with zoo-semiotics, or signs used by animals, or at the least, signs that animals respond to. Animals (dogs, for example) respond to a large variety of 'instructions', so it might be useful to explore some of the fundamental ways in which signs work, at the level of zoo-semiotics, before we go on to socio-semiotics, or the study of signs specifically within human (socio-) ecologies.



Monemes are, first of all, the most fundamental elements of meaning, in a system of differences that distinguishes one meaning from another.  For example: the meaning of the words: 'dog', 'God', 'food', etc - but they can also include elements like 'a' (used as an article, not as a letter). Unlike phonemes, monemes are in principle infinite. But on the other hand, they too are limited by convention, by the consensus of a particular language (and/or social) community, which agrees (more or less) on the set of meanings that they use.


They can also be motivated by 'sound shapes' (as opposed to letter shapes), for example in the kiki / buba experiment, in which nearly everyone who is asked which one represents a spiky shape, or a rounded shape will answer that the former is 'kiki' and the latter is 'buba'.   


Monemes are, in principle, substantially more open, more flexible, more extensible than phonemes.  New meanings are always possible, whereas new phonemes - new sounds in a particular language are not, really;  it is quite possible to 'borrow' sounds from other languages, but there is a limit - and most languages (English for instance) 'domesticate' borrowings from other languages quite quickly and mercilessly. "Paris" for instance, is invariably pronounced in English in a way that the French would say is just plain 'wrong'.


Phonemes, or monemes, are no more than core exemplars of what we mean when we talk of the systems of difference of signifiers (artefacts that can be used to stand in for a meaning) or signifieds (meanings, or elements of meanings). 


Monemes, or combinations of monemes, (or their equivalents in other languages, for instance) form the basis of signifieds, within a community of users (for instance, of users of a particular language).  



Monemes are the 'collective meme', the 'set' of signifieds. This is is infinite, variable, flexible, and contestable. Arguments about meaning can be never ending. However, communities of users of signs (for instance members of a language community) must establish some basic agreements on meanings, or they would not be able to communicate at all.  Monemes cover a variety of types of signifieds, and linguistic monemes are also a useful 'conceptual template', a useful example, of how one can think about 'signifieds', even if the corresponding signifiers vary greatly from one system of difference to another. 




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