The meaning language creates, the way it is created
and its unquestioned persuasive and emotional power can be a fascinating
area of study, and for A level study in particular, it's an area where there
are lots of valuable marks hiding! An understanding of what is called
binary opposition can help you develop a
very subtle analysis of meaning indeed, and thus is a stunning way to high
At the heart of this idea is the realisation that we are not born with any meaning; that what we are born with is a nervous or sensory system that responds to the external environment ; and that the mind knows things by their differences from other things. It's as if the mind needs, or creates, a world of "opposites" in order to understand the world. As we grow up and mature, we learn more things, and this sense of "opposites" is refined more and more - but it still stays with us, as if somehow "hard wired" into the mind. This might explain a child's fascination with "opposites" as most children assume that everything has one, thus "up and down"; "girls and boys"; "black and white"; inside and outside"; "sick and healthy" and so on. A moment's thought will show, however, that the two ideas are not "opposites" at all, only when viewed and considered rather superficially. For example, there is no "upside down" in space, and colours are an effect created by electromagnetic radiation on the retina.
Language is especially interesting because the words we use to help us communicate meaning and feeling to others have absolutely no essential relationship with the things or ideas they represent. The word "cat" is, for example, "pisică" in Romanian and you can see that there is no "essence" of cat there at all - it's just a mark on a page, pixels on a screen or a sound in the air: it has physical form; and it is the form that is useful to us as a word because it acts to signify some other form - a furry animal; but the form itself is useful only because of its difference from other form, hence we recognise that "cat" is not "bat" or "cab" by a system of difference. That the Romanian word seems to sound a little like "pussy cat" is surely a coincidence!
When the eyes come across language, the mind - through the senses - perceives no more than its form - and the difference between one form and another. The black ink or pixels of a word separates it from the white of the paper or screen; the sound of a word separates it from the sound of other words and from silence, including the silence we leave between the words, and so on. Thus meaning relies on form (= physical attributes of shape and sound); and on difference.
The meaning this form creates - and
the sequence of form we call structure -
is created by the memory; the form is searched for in the brain's memory
banks to retrieve previously met with form. Thus language works by a process
of "cueing" other previously met with language. This is the
study of psycholinguistics, and you can guess it's a
massively complex area.
Binary opposition - an idea that is a part of a major twentieth century theory of meaning called structuralism - is an aspect of psycholinguistics, but offers us a very straightforward yet very subtle means of working out how we create meaning from language. More interestingly, it also can point to why and how those within a particular group, society or culture share important values, and how these can easily be reinforced by language use, often sub-consciously and thus unknowingly, even unwittingly. Thus binary opposition can be shown to work in ways that maintain and reinforce stereotypical ideas, values and beliefs, what are called a culture's or society's "world view" or dominant ideologies. The idea was developed by various 20C linguists and philosophers including Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. These theorists were fascinated by the work of a famous Swiss linguist called Ferdinand de Saussure; they went on to develop Saussure's work in interesting and useful ways.