Baffling Disparity Between the Sound of the Word and its Surprising Meaning

“Stéphane Mallarmé, amazingly sensitive to the sound texture of language, observed in his essay Crise de vers that the word ombre is actually shady, but ténèbres (with its acute vowels) suggests no darkness, and he felt deeply deceived by the perverse attribution of the meanings ‘day’ to the word jour and ‘night’ to the word nuit in spite of the obscure timbre of the former and the light one of the latter.” (Jakobson, 1965, 34)
I surely did have this kind of wonder before, and articulated it.

Some Words

Some words mean just what
You would expect,
Like, onomatopoeia,
Struggle, breakthrough, dance, cooing,
Coconut, disguise, and latte.
They are transparent
In their look, sound, and the path of syllables alternating
Between stressed and unaccented
In an enduring rational succession;
On the chessboard of vowels and consonants
Former and latter
Measured in a reasonable balance.
Other words
Are just more elusive.
They seem to pretend to appear to be something
They are really not.
For instance, love*,
And dash`.
*evidently, «love» should mean «a sort of yellow stretchy marmalade,» based on the way it sounds and looks
°a screeching of the wheels on the sharp turn
^tin pipes of the old red-brick houses
`a small golden fish hiding under the green log in a gleaming round pond shadowed by a willow
How much this feeling is amplified when you study a language that is not your native, is hard to convey. When I started speaking English, it was a constant source of feeling deceived and cheated on. Clearly “itch,” “notch,” “luminosity,” and “glory” are on the right places; but what about “vanguard” (a heavy fog), “darkness” (whiskers), “agglomeration” (a gluten-free sweet of sorts) and other ridiculous things? One can imagine a text written in this manner, but for it to be read it should be supplied with an ample commentary produced by the author.

Saussurean guess of “arbitrariness” of assigning the meaning to sound is not of much help. How does this arbitrariness come to life? Who orchestrates it and how? Language is perfected by all its speakers day and night, now how can it have this vortexes of inexplicable disparity between the sound and its meaning?

Jakobson, Roman. (1965) “The Quest for the Essence of Language.” Diogenes. 13(51): 21-37.

Speech Genres: Individual vs Social

I think Bakhtin [intentionally, for his own purposes] misreads Saussure when he says: “Therefore, the single utterance, with all its individuality and creativity, can in no way be regarded as a completely free combination of forms of language, as is supposed, for example, by Saussure (and by many other linguists after him), who juxtaposed the utterance (la parole), as a purely individual act, to the system of language as a phenomenon that is purely social and mandatory for the individual.” (Bakhtin, 1986, 81; cursive is author’s).



Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

City as Language

The city and the language we speak are both the products of human activity preceding us. By the time we are born, they are already there. Saussure pointed out that despite the ultimate arbitrariness with which a sequence of sounds starts to denote an object, once the word is assigned to its meaning, or a meaning to a word, the use of it far from being arbitrary (Saussure, 1998). Voloshinov adds that the multiplicity of the word’s meanings is such that it is equal to the multiplicity of the contexts in which the word is used (Voloshinov, 1973). The meaning of the word is, therefore, engendered by the context. The word is still a word, it retains its unity, its singularity, because the variety of its meanings fall into some area, but there are no two contexts where the word’s meaning is quite the same.

Likewise, applying this logic of thought to the city, one can suggest that it might be more or less of an occasion that the street laid in one direction, but once it is there, its functioning is no longer random, the street is liable to the certain logic of its development and use, it offers the type of activities, gestural patterns, paths, entertainment, business, speed of walking, et cetera. The environment shapes our experience in an endless multiplicity of ways.

City is a text written in an architectural language, and it is readable and decipherable, can be edited and re-written.

American cities have their own peculiar logic of development. In the younger cities, where there is no historical neighborhood built by the pattern of medieval European cities with their narrow streets, accurate churches and houses, the streets often cross one another at the ninety degree angles, forming the net of sorts. There is has some futuristic functionality in this principal reduction of the entangled streets of the European city as we know it, which was built with a different idea behind it. The architects ruthlessly invade the space with the embodiment of their fancies, phantasms, and fantasies, but in the old times they had to convince the sovereign in the sustainability of their ideas.

Visual sociologist Luc Pauwels suggests: “The city can be looked upon as a huge, out of control syntagma—a combination of numerous paradigmatic choices made by many semi-independent actors, with different, often conflicting interests. Some signs have lost their meaning but remain to send their obsolete message (to buy a no longer existing product of an out of market manufacturer). These remnants of the past together with the uncontrolled combination of numerous signs that are competing for attention create a visual data overload and ‘noise’ that may prove highly confusing, while at the same time they may become a source of entertainment for the attentive observer.”

Finally, a city which is ruining because of decline and subsequent gradual abandonment is like the language going out of use.




Pauwels, Luc. 2012. “Street Discourse: A Visual Essay on Urban Signification” (6.1), an essay in his essay “Conceptualising the ‘Visual Essay’ as a Way of Generating and Imparting Sociological Insight: Issues, Formats and Realisations,” Sociological Research Online, 17 (1) 1, [retrieved 1/11/2016]

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1998. Course of General Linguistics. Reprint Edition; Open Court Classics

Voloshinov, V.N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Seminar Press, in liaison with the Harvard Univerity Press and the Academic Press Inc.