[xmca] PoTAYto and PoTAHto

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Wed Oct 08 2008 - 17:21:30 PDT

I'm reading a wonderful but rather puzzling paper about the development of ostension (that is, the "showing" part of "show and tell") in infancy and early childhood (that is, seven to thirteen months).
Moro and Rodriguez point out that ostension is polysemic: it can be declarative, but it can also be interrogative. It can be a sign to others ("Look at this!") but it can also be a sign to yourself ("Now I wonder what the devil this thing is?"). That's what makes it possible for adults and kids to use the same set of signs and mean utterly different things.
But Paula points out this is true of ALL language, else adults and children could not communicate, and communication could not develop: Today, you say poTAYto and I say poTAHto; you say a concept and I say a complex. Tomorrow, I will say po-TAH-to and I will mean a concept.
So what's unique about ostension? Well, Moro and Rodriguez make the following rather inelegant comment:
"Ostension is a sign that is rarely studied by psychologists for itself and which (sic) is geenrally considered as (sic) an indexical sign, which it is not."
(Production of Signs and Meaning Making Process in Triadic Interaction at the Prelinguistic Level, in Abbey and Diriwachter, eds. Innovating Genesis: Microgenesis and the constructive mind in action. Charlotte: Information Age Press. p. 210.)
That's it. No explanation. OK--so according to Peirce, an icon is something that stands for itself, but an index is something that stands for something else, and a symbol is something that stands for something else by virtue of a rule.
So if I'm seven months old an I hold up a block, the block's an icon. It just stands for the block as far as I'm concerned. But for my Mommy, the holding of the block stands for "What the devil is this?" and requires a (symbolic) explanation that I won't understand, but she'll point to the block and then to a hole in the back of my toy truck and I might understand what that means or I might not, depending on my ability to handle indexical meanings.
But doesn't that mean that, microgenetically, the whole ostensive episode contains an icon AND an index AND a symbolic mode of meaning making too? And isn't this true of ALL language?
A word like "potato" has a "sonic envelope" (translated, very confusingly, as "phasal" in Minick's version of "Thinking and Speech", p. 223). Like Grape Nuts, sound is what it is. It also has intonation, which suggests what it does. And of course, it has a symbolic meaning which we can, if we like, define in a dictionary.
What we CAN'T do is pretend that any one of these elements excludes the others: that would be like suggesting that language is pronunciation without vocabulary or grammar, or vocabulary without pronunciation and grammar, or grammar without vocabulary or pronunciation. Some of my dear colleagues behave that way sometimes, but we all know better or we couldn't actually talk to our students.
A potato chip does not stop being a potato. Why should ostension stop being an index? 
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education 
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Received on Wed Oct 8 17:23 PDT 2008

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