Sound without Meaning: Language and Disintegration

“The same separation of sight and sound and meaning that is peculiar to the phonetic alphabet also extends to its social and psychological effects. Literate man undergoes much separation of his imaginative, emotional and sense life, as Rousseau (and later the Romantic poets and philosophers) proclaimed long ago.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media,p. 124)”

At the heart of phonetic writing we may find a death in experiential aura and as such, cultural communication. What phonetic writing does, as opposed to the ideogram or pictograph, is separates the letter from any semantic meaning. The ideogram may communicate a whole concept in a pictorial fashion and as such, the semantic aspect of what is said is expressed in the character. By contrast, the phonetic letter has no meaning in and of itself and represents only a sound – itself meaningless. Where pictographic writing can be likened to a cartoon strip and carries within it a degree of emotional, cultural and descriptive investment, phonetic writing carries no such value of itself. A writer may use up a great many pages to express a concept, draw a landscape or express a value and does so in shapes that have no pictorial significance.

McLuhan remarks upon the homogenising aspect of phonetic writing – every language can be translated into formal representations of its sound. Ideogrammatic language is culture specific, whereas in phonetic writing it’s the collected content that expresses any cultural nuance. And it is in fact debatable to what extent this phonetic form is able to express cultural nuance or whether it’s not its ultimate purpose to entirely individuate the writer and abstract him or her from all culture and eventually self. On phonetic language, McLuhan remarks:

“If Western literate man undergoes much dissociation of inner sensibility from his use of the alphabet, he also wins his personal freedom to dissociate himself from clan and family.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media,p. 124)

Does this analysis not culminate in Foucault’s description of his own writing, that he would like his books to be ‘a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area“ (Foucault,. ‘Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir’ in Dits et Ecrits, p. 523–4). Moreover, does the subsequent explosion of discursive and identity production not eventually confirm Baudrillard’s hypothesis that ‘information is directly destructive of meaning and signification’ (Baudrillard , Simulacra and Simulationp. 79)

At the heart of the phonetic alphabet, there is a sound with no meaning. In the first place, these shapes were used to analyse and describe ‘truth’ and nature. Through linguistic evolution, mass-production and the widespread availability of writing’s means of production, we have lost the essence of cultural unity and therefore ‘truth’. The relationship between the phonetic alphabet and abstract ideas is well acknowledged – since the 1950s, china has been developing its language more phonetically so as to better engage with abstract concepts. Ideas, knowledge and information proliferate and abstract; we too with our institutions become sounds without meaning – fluid, relativist, and abandoned to our own esoteric transparency and aleatory whim.

But perhaps something else is visible in this transparency: given the abolition of space signified by the electric age (we are all immediately present to one another via electric media), McLuhan believed the resultant intensification of involvement would see a retribalisation of culture (McLuhan,Understanding Media,p.41). Perhaps this is seen in the collapse of knowledge and information. In transparency and the collapse of personal systems, the desert of language and the meaninglessness of producing its systems, there is an incentive to communicate elsewhere, somewhere more poetic, violent, immersive and involved.

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 26th, 2011

    I don’t think alphabet is the best description of phonetics. Phonetics is a recognition of human speech sound. Sounds are transcribed. The symbols are approximates as all human voice boxes are slightly different. But of course there are enough similarities to group ‘sounds’ and transcribe them into symbols.

    The phonetic symbols do have meaning as they are intertwined with their semantic, morphemic and syntax attributes. A sound by itself usually needs a context provided by other sounds but can stand by itself. For instance, ‘I’ although it can mean ‘eye’!. Most sounds need other other sounds to be understood because they are only part of a word or require a sentence.

    I don’t think we can get the ‘full’ meaning of another language by transcribing but when can we ever achieve full understanding even when we are part of a culture?

    What do you know of Natural Semantic Metalanguage?

    • I agree with most of that and it’s a point of interset that the alphabet doesn’t ever map the full phonetic range. This too is relevant to your final point about ‘otherness’ – that even when embedded in culture, separation persists.

      However, what I was trying to achieve in the above was to draw a connection between our abstract, informational and cultureless/culture-relativist western perspective and the amorphous, mutable language form we use. A good example might be signs on a toilet door:

      Conveyed within the sign is a notion of Male and Female and their otherness portrayed in dress, stance, shape etc. We present ourselves to ourselves in quite a static form with a consistent value system.

      With language however, you may have:


      etc, with each term expressing a set of very different cultural ideas concerning what we are. Moreover, because of this changable nature of words, you can question the underlying concepts – hence, we begin to create more gender neutral, more ambiguous signs – is it good to express the assumption that women should wear skirts? Should we be so blithely attaching that general body form to our concepts of males and females etc? Hence, the advent of more gender neutral toilet signs.

      Moving back to the ideogram, a lot of cultural information is conveyed in a picture which you cannot easily question or challenge (you would need to do so through other culturally prejudicial signs). The static nature of signs keeps culture generally more coherent, less fluid, less open to endless chanllenge, confusion and questioning. So yes, even with a system that promotes cultural consistency, you never know each other entirely, but at the same time, I don’t think you lose each other as radically either.

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 28th, 2011

    It is difficult not to look at other cultures without some form of ‘cultural baggage’. Our ideas of right and wrong are drilled into us from birth by the society that we find ourselves. The words that we to ‘understand’ other cultures will be dependent upon the purpose of our message. If I wanted to buy a bowl of soup it doesn’t really matter if I have a full understanding of a culture. However if I wanted to talk about metaphysical things like ‘Is this for real this conversation I am having’ then a greater mastery of a foreign language and ‘culture’ are required.

    I’m not sure that there are many signs in English that keep the culture ‘less fluid, more static’. Just how influential are signs?

    Are you suggesting that words are ‘signs’ too?

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 28th, 2011

    You’re not suggesting that! You are saying that because there are many different words for things and that words are forever changing, words are ‘fluid’. While signs which only has one representation is static in meaning. But signs do change. Toilet signs used to say LADIES GENTLEMEN. Some toilets have Men Women. I haven’t seen any gender neutral toilet signs.

    • Yes, this is closer to what I mean. Phonetic letters are meaningless sound elements that fit together to make up words and sentences. It is the words and sentences that convey meaning. This is different to cultures that write using pictograms and signs.


      As a sign evokes a bygone era of gender roles marked by courtesy, dignity etc.


      Loses much of that cultural aura, but still posesses a concept of gender-role. The same things are signified – ‘human with penis’ and ‘human with vagina’, but with different cultural trappings.

      It isn’t so easy to make this sort of transition with languages made up of pictograms (like chinese) as whole concepts are reflected in the static picture rather than built up of conjoining sounds.

      With language production now being in the hands of every individual – via the internet, blogs, widespread avaiability of paper etc – everyone can participate in the game of culture production and hence truth begins to disappear. Phonetic lettering is very much a part of this process as it wouldn’t be nearly so easy to think in new terms if your thoughts were already constrained by the implications of the medium through which you express them.

    • Cathy Elliot
    • April 29th, 2011

    Conjoining sounds and pictograms are they as separate as we think. each word has a different shape, a different picture: a different representation of meaning.

    You didn’t really address my question on the significance of signs in our daily lives. Just how influential are they, if at all.

    • Well Cathy, I can’t really offer you any sort of scientific proof of their effects, but I’d be willing to say the fluid nature of phonetic letters were different to signs in their fluidity.

      If ‘Gentlemen’ as a sign conjours the values of the past and ‘Men’ has less of that aura attached, then you can agree that the signs carry culture.

      If your signs are made up of meaningless sounds that may be endlessly recompiled and reconstituted, even new words invented from combining words with other words, it stands to reason you have a system more inclined to fast and fluid change.

      Doesn’t seem like a big coincidence that Japan and China remain two of the most culturally cohesive civilisations in the developed world and as mentioned in the article, China began changing its language so that it could better adapt to more abstract western notions – in science etc.

      Moreover, the pictogram maintains an aesthetic/tactile aspect that the phonetic word doesnt transmit. It connects you visually to the external object represented – you might draw a hill rather than write ‘hill’. Reading pictures too would be more relational – adding a picture or a stroke may change the meaning of a sentence. In this, reading is not as lineal/sequential, but more pattern based. I’d say you can imagine all manner of sensorial differences. Almost makes me wanna learn chinese.

      • ErnieM
      • August 29th, 2014

      You might like, Cathy.

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 29th, 2011

    Actually InNegative Cathy Elliot was me… I’ve been impersonating her.. in a nice way.

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 29th, 2011

    I’m not sure if you are right with regards to Japan and China being the most culturally cohesive countries. I think Japan is ‘cohesive’ but I think a lot has to do with the low level of immigration rather than the use of kanji. I know bits of kanji because I lived in Japan for five years. But when I recognise kanji I didn’t have a new ‘experience’ it was just like a recognition of a word. Sorry to shatter your illusion. I know that kanji does have its roots in pictures but you can’t see them that clearly.

    And you still didn’t address the problem of whether signs are that influential in society.

    • Mr. Divine
    • April 29th, 2011

    You should look up Innuit language structure .. its really difficult to get your head around. There are sort of long phrases of words to say something. I can’t explain it because I don’t quite understand it.

    Once I studied the Zulu language in a phonetics course. I had to transcribe it and phonetically ‘work it out’. They have things like nasal clicks and tones.

    • ErnieM
    • July 5th, 2014

    ” Perhaps this is seen in the collapse of knowledge and information. In transparency and the collapse of personal systems, the desert of language and the meaninglessness of producing its systems, there is an incentive to communicate elsewhere, somewhere more poetic, violent, immersive and involved.” I have created an ideogram system that is more poetic, immersive, and involved:
    I think it has potential to be a unifying, transcultural means of communication, but intensely personal and private to the degree that one wants to re-create it as such. There is much more life in it than in dead alphabetic scratches, and it engages the mind in a different, fuller, stickier way.

  1. Thanks for this. I must say, I’m pretty pleased you stumbled on this post. I don’t suspect the West will be going back to Ideogrammatic communication though any time soon. The machine equivalent looks like the QR code, which is again about information reading more than a textural, creative immersion. I like the endeavour though

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