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23 Apr Form and Substance in Communication

Substance and FormForm vs. Substance

If the substance is H2O, the form may be solid ice, liquid water or gaseous steam. What about language? We’ve talked about different language phenomena, including spoken, written and digitally stored language. Is the medium the form and the content the substance of language, or is there more? Saussure, a founder of the European flavor of structural linguistics, emphasized two dichotomies:


LANGUE ET PAROLE may roughly correspond to modern comparisons of competence vs. performance. But LANGUE, in the Suassurean sense, embodies more than a simple notion of competence. It appears that Saussure intended to focus on the patterns of formation underlying all utterances in a language system. Perhaps the term “utterances” should be expanded to “communicative acts” in order to accommodate paralinguistic (tone, volume, body language, musicality…) communication systems under the umbrella of language.

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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Section 6 #24

Language Section Icon


Table of Context

Rubics Cube

The second dichotomy, FORM vs. SUBSTANCE, includes the dimensions or strata identified in the table below. I like the term “dimensions” because, in business intelligence, it reflects a model in which edges, representing the vertices that link elements in adjoining dimensions, are very important. I believe that the most interesting, and essential phenomena in language occur at the junctions of these dimensions. I use the word strata because my predecessors in linguistics have proposed grammars that use all of these component dimensions. Lexicon is missing from the table because it is assumed to be present in several of the components. Here is an interpretation of Saussure’s second dichotomy:

1) FORM ==> 2) SUBSTANCE ==>
SYNTAX Conceptual and
Paralinguistic Acts Contextual Dependencies

I wanted to address the important contributions of the structural linguists because they provide a framework for understanding the dimensions of language. As we look at building an ontology as a knowledge representation of human knowledge in a way that supports interpreting human communication, we must consider form, including all the dimensions of form shown above (and below), and substance. Ontology is a wonderful medium for this because it binds content and process together with meaningful associations. The tricky part is defining the patterns present in each of these dimensions in ways computers can process them efficiently, while remaining true to our model of human cognitive processes. Here is my favorite illustration of the dimensions or strata of language. Language Strata As I introduce my ontology-based approach to language analysis, as an extenision of my universal information theory, I will attempt to show how we can create a formalism, a “grammar” if you will, that crosses the boundaries between form and substance to account for the richness present in natural language communication.

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One Response so far.

  1. Manuel George says:

    I think you should also add the next logical sound(utterance). Like in music some chords or notes would not sound like music if combined together, but in another culture it would make perfect sense. To me grammar is like music. I have learned German that way.

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