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Sign Systems Studies

Volume 34, Issue 2, 2006

Between Semiotics and Anthropology

Richard Pottier
Pages 403-414

Carré sémiotique et interprétation des récits mythiques

Semiotic square and the interpretation of myths. Greimas’ semiotic square is built upon the hypothesis that the concept of elementary structure of signification is operational only if subjected to a logical interpretation and formulation. However, Greimas’ commentaries on that model are questionable. On the one hand, he asserts that logical nature of the connection between any two terms, s1 and s2, is undetermined; on the other hand, he provides the relations s1 – non s1, s2 – non s2, s1 – non s2 and s2 – non s1 with a logical status. Now, since these two statements are inconsistent, a choice must be made: either these four relations have a logical significance, and then the semiotic square is a logical square, so that s1 – s2 has to be interpreted as an incompatibility relation; or s1 – s2 has no logical meaning, and then not only the status of the other relations given in the model is not logical either, but also the simple fact of applying negation to the terms s1 ands2 is meaningless. That dilemma follows from an argument, that Greimas has laid down as a principle, under which linguistic communication depends on the existence of a deep level (or immanent level) of the significance, that is supposed to precede its manifestation in speech. If, conversely, we assume that significance is produced at discursive level, and that consequently the patterning of linguistic codes relies on what could be called a semantic sedimentation process, which comes out from linguistic activity, there is no more dilemma. Such a thesis, which implies that the elementary structure of signification must be seen as the schematization by the describer of speakers’ mental activity, leads to a point of view inversion. Nevertheless, the two conditions which, according to Greimas, are required for catching the meaning are still relevant, except that, contrary to Greimas’ opinion, they now apply at the speech level: two discursive units can be opposed if they simultaneously include a common feature which join them, and a distinguishing feature which disjoin them.

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