Is it a boy or a girl? … I think it’s a little early to start imposing roles on it, don’t you?

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Until this week’s reading “Signs and Meanings” I have never really sat down to contemplate how meaning is produced by words, in my head it just was, that is a ‘dog’ is a dog. But when you put this term into different contexts you find yourself extracting a number of meanings from this word, this sign. A dog can be an animal we all know and love (except for those weird looking balding, miniature dogs people like Paris Hilton keep in their handbags, I don’t really care for those things) or if we shake up the context in which we use the term ‘dog’ we can change it to symbolize a derogatory term for a female, or use it to describe a friend who has abandoned you. Already we have found three different meanings for the one word so where do we go from here.

I tend to agree that we need to move away from the idealistic take that Saussure uses (even though many points he raises are true in that “reality, the world, and material conditions are not given, but rather are produced as meaningful through signs”, to agree more with the Marxist take of Volosinov where he advocates that there is “no such thing as an autonomous language system”. The three summarized propositions taken from Volosinov were:

  1. Signs are adaptable and changeable (e.g. the different meanings of the term ‘dog’)
  2. Words have a history of meanings (e.g. using ‘dog’ in a derogatory sense established later in history as part of colloquial language)
  3. The meanings created by signifiers are dependent on context (the meaning we take from the signifier ‘dog’ changes upon the way and situation it is used for)

The 3rd proposition is most important because the context of a symbol can have a powerful impact on individuals in their everyday life and the idea of “politicising meaning” as a result of context can often become detrimental for individuals associated with these symbols. E.g. the idea that the word ‘woman’ is associated with “emotionality, lack of reason, unprofessionalism…” These meanings are not extracted by all of society but there is a large sector that still associates these ideas with the word ‘woman’ and this meaning can affect women on a number of levels while trying to sustain a more worthwhile image within society.

So, inevitably, people are going to take their own meaning from the words (symbols) that are produced in everyday life; my advice is…try to be as careful as you can when raising an argument or point of view because the number of meanings read into what you say can sometimes get you into a lot of trouble..Sometimes, however, the meaning you take is right. Here’s a clip of George. W. Bush bloopers.

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