Tree Is Not Arbol (Unless You Add Silly String)


Bill Readings introduced me to linguistics back in my undergraduate days at Syracuse University. It was only a 200-level Contemporary Literary Theory class, not nearly enough knowledge to rest a proper degree upon, but that wasn’t Bill’s concern—he just wanted us to stop for a second, listen, and think.

Bill had a wonderful way of illustrating his teachings, placing our 19 year-old minds into comfortable arenas where we could casually move towards comprehension and eventually grasp the core concepts of deconstructionism and linguistics that he tossed about with ease.

Aside from choosing Blade Runner as an explicit assignment for visual deconstruction, or his daily call-outs of us “numbskulls” to apply a “bit more apperception to your day-to-day existence,” I’d have to say the strongest, most visceral lesson that stuck with me was the one that centered around the English word “tree” and the Spanish word “arbol.”

An Attempt To Share Knowledge

To monolingual, English speaking people first exposed to the authority of the Spanish translation of “arbol,” a common take is that the two terms for “tree” are representations of the signifier “tree.” Bill quickly made us understand why that surface level assumption was wrong. The signifier of “tree” is much more akin to your personal mental model of the physical representation of this:


Or this:


The choices are immeasurable.

Viewed through the lens of semiology and linguistics, we cannot absolutely assert that the term “tree” = the term “arbol” because the signifier of “tree” has a unique representative interface to each of us, as does the percept of the translation of “arbol.”

In other words, flip the notion of a picture being worth a thousand words— imagine that a single word can be viscerally perceived a thousand different ways, even when the definition is commonly understood. This is because our individual experiences are far too precise to absolutely relate to a singular, explicit paradigm of structured language.

Consider this analogy: Modern cultural constructs consistently nudge us towards silos of explicitly defined knowledge, relationships, and definitions, hoisting upon us universally “accepted” paradigms of world views, ranging from the innocuous to impactful.

In polite society, we’re presupposed to assimilate to relative constructs of our surrounding world in order to find success, happiness, and essentially, contribute towards a shared cultural experience. We feel that the notion of “normality” exists because we assume that there’s an aggregate expectation for how individuals cognitively process and navigate our surroundings.

Back to where we started: how would I know that your mental model of “tree” is as unique to you as it is to me? Or my brother? Or to a person down the street or across the country? Especially when we don’t explore “tree” together?

Language is at the center of all civilization.

About that tree, and the linguistic principles behind what happens when you experience one in the wild, or read about one in text:

Roland Barthes on Saussure:

Until he found the words signifier and signified, however, sign remained ambiguous, for it tended to become identified with the signifier only, which Saussure wanted at all costs to avoid; after having hesitated between some and seme, form and idea, image and concept, Saussure settled upon signifier and signified, the union of which forms the sign.

Whenever I stumble upon a conversation about knowledge and structure—such as Are trees natural? over at David Weinberger’s blog—the Bill Readings inspired information architect within me rests in a state of nirvana.

Each day we rely on our own trees of understanding and navigation—branches sprouting outwards in immeasurable directions and depth, overlapping and crossing one another to form meshed nests of position.

The common sense we feel when connecting with newfound knowledge is through the overlap of our particular understanding of the world with the rest of society. The more we feel overlap, the more we perceive homogeneity, driving civil movement within this complex ecosystem and jungle we’ve created for ourselves.

In the midst of this information revolution, when we engage in the practice of tagging our information objects, we’re not only engaging in an activity to increase the discovery of our position via the use of common signifiers, we’re implicitly participating in a form of expression—painting our personal mental model of our signified constructs upon the sign itself. Enabled by technology, we can now easily add descriptive, structured attributes to objects consisting of words, colors, sounds, and movement, ensuring more direct delivery to the branches of each another person’s… arbol.

In turn, the degree of shared context an individual holds within a receiving interface determines the degree in which her reception of the sign becomes explicit communication.

In this flip scenario of retrieval, we now rapidly stumble across these additions, assigning them as variants of either welcome or disruptive bits of information. Our common trees of knowledge are affected by evolving and exposing opportunities to reconsider position, and more importantly, connect with others, whether for egalitarian, capitalistic, or creative purposes.

These particular words of Ferdinad de Saussure come to mind:

In the lives of individuals and of societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other. For the study of language to remain solely the business of a handful of specialists would be a quite unacceptable state of affairs. In practice, the study of language is of some degree or other the concern of everyone.

Everyone. Saussure would be blown away by how true that statement reads in today’s connected world.

photo by heather allison
photo by heather allison

If Bill hadn’t stepped into the wrong plane at the wrong time in the fall of 1994, he would’ve witnessed exponentially rapid advancements of the inner-workings of the web—specifically the participatory meshing of topics, interests, desires, and perspectives via social tagging through citizen blogging, vlogging, podcasting, etc., not to mention the retrieval and re-presentation of such sowing.

His post-modern, deconstructing, subversive side would be beaming right about now—just about as brightly as the multinational, cricket playing, pub perusing, career for-hire professor.

So in the name of linguistics, knowledge, connectivity, change, and as a hat-tip to my passed mentor, I’ll be busy late into the evening this October 30th, making a bit of a mess in someone else’s front yard, with someone else’s tree.