The Semiotics Working Group was founded in the fall of 2020 and meets monthly. Most of the participants have been students or colleagues of Michael Silverstein, the late professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago.
Over a half century at the University of Chicago (1971–2020), Michael produced a body of work that fundamentally changed the place of linguistics in the human sciences, with foundational contributions to the understanding of language structure, sociolinguistics, and semiotics, as well as the history of linguistics and anthropology. In the 1980s and 1990s, Michael was also intermittently a fellow at the CTS and, with Greg Urban, co-directed the Center’s Language Group. Through the publication of several volumes on linguistic anthropology and psycholinguistics—including the groundbreaking The Natural Histories of Discourse (1996)—the language group has had a major influence on the development of semiotics and linguistic anthropology.
Cognizant of Michael Silverstein’s enduring legacy, the current Semiotics Group builds on the work of the Center’s fabled Language Group of the 1980s and 1990s. However, it has a new mission and agenda. With a diverse background ranging from Terra's work on non-propositional semiosis to Costas and Paul's analyses of indexicality and interpretants, and Greg's analysis of circulation, the group is exploring the possibility of a "continuous-time semiotics." Sound is a continuous-time phenomenon. Linguistics functions by segmenting sound into understandable units and organizing those units into grammar. This process—discretization via grammar—is captured in structural linguistics by the famous Saussurean distinction between paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes and in computational linguistics by the Chomsky hierarchy of grammars. But many of the poetic and creative features of language use cannot be easily segmented. Continuous-time phenomena like rhythm, harmony, and cadence confound linguistic frameworks based on discretization. The promise of analyzing these semiotic phenomena through a continuous-time framework is to understand how the “symbolic” and the “propositional” emerge as discretizations of semiotic processes.
Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Emeritus
University of New Mexico
School for Advanced Research
Center for Transcultural Studies
Professor of Anthropology and Philosophy
The New School for Social Research
Associate Professor of Anthropology and of the Social Sciences
University of Chicago