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Semic Analysis

By Louis Hébert

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski

louis_hebert@uqar.ca

with Lucie Arsenault's collaboration

1. Abstract

Rastier

François Rastier

Conducting semic analysis on any semiotic act - a text, for example - is a way to identify the semes (semantic features or elements of meaning), to find groupings of semes (isotopies and molecules) and to determine the relationships between the groupings (relationships of presupposition, comparison, etc., between the isotopies). When a seme is repeated, it creates an isotopy. For example, in "There was a fine ship, carved from solid gold / With azure reaching masts, on seas unknown" (Émile Nelligan, "The Golden Ship"), the words "ship", "masts" and "seas" all contain the seme /navigation/ (as well as others). The repetition of this seme forms the isotopy /navigation/. A semic molecule is a grouping of at least two semes appearing together in a single semantic unit (a single word, for instance) more than once. For instance, in the poem we just quoted, there is a semic molecule formed by the semes /precious/ + /dispersion/. It appears at least in the "streaming hair" ("cheveux épars") of the beautiful Goddess of Love (Venus) who was "spread-eagled" ("s'étalait") at the ship's prow, and also in the sinking of the ship's treasure, which the sailors "disputed amongst themselves" ("entre eux ont disputés").

This text can be found in extended version in this book:
Louis Hébert, Dispositifs pour l'analyse des textes et des images, Limoges, Presses de l'Université de Limoges, 2007.

Click here to obtain the English translation of this book.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Louis Hébert (2006), « Semic Analysis » with Lucie Arsenault’s collaboration, in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec), http://www.signosemio.com/rastier/semic-analysis.asp.

2. THEORY

Conducting semic analysis on any semiotic act - a text, for example - is a way to identify the semes (semantic features or elements of meaning), to find groupings of semes (isotopies and molecules) and to determine the relationships between the groupings (relationships of presupposition, comparison, etc., between the isotopies).

In this section we will simplify some of the material found in the chapter on Rastier's Interpretive Semantics (Rastier, 1997 [1989], 1991, 1994, 1996 [1987] and 2001; Hébert, 2001).

2.1 SEMES AND ISOTOPIES

It will be helpful to review the definition of the sign. The sign is composed of a signifier, which is the perceivable part of the sign (for example, the letters s-h-i-p) and a signified, which is the understandable part of the sign, or the semantic content associated with the signifier (for example, the meaning of the word "ship"). The signified may be broken down into semes. For example, the signified 'ship' contains semes such as /navigation/, /concrete/, etc. An isotopy is formed by repeating one seme. For example, in "There was a fine ship, carved from solid gold / With azure reaching masts, on seas unknown" (Émile Nelligan, "The Golden Ship"), the words "ship", "masts" and "seas" all contain the seme /navigation/ (as well as others) and thus create the isotopy /navigation/.

2.2 CONVENTIONAL MARKERS

The conventional markers shown in the table below allow us to distinguish between (1) the sign (the word) "concrete"; (2) the signified that it conveys, 'concrete'; (3) the signifier associated with this sign, concrete, which is composed of the phonemes k-o-n-k-r-E-t and the letters c-o-n-c-r-e-t-e; and (4) the seme /concrete/ (in 'knife', for example) or the isotopy /concrete/ (in "steel knife", for example). In other places, a single slash indicates an opposition (for example, life/death). There are other conventions used in semiotics than the markers we will present and use here.

Conventional Markers
Conventional Markers

2.3 SEMIC MOLECULES

A semic molecule is a grouping of at least two co-recurrent semes (semes that appear and reappear together). Corresponding to a molecule is a group of isotopies (an isotopic bundle) that indexes more or less the same signifieds. In the poem we quoted by Nelligan, there is a semic molecule made up of the semes /precious/ + /dispersion/. It appears at least in the (1) "streaming hair" ("cheveux épars") of the beautiful Goddess of Love who was (2) "spread-eagled" ("s'étalait") at the ship's prow, and also in the (3) sinking of the ship's treasure, which the sailors "disputed amongst themselves" ("entre eux ont disputés").

It is essential to distinguish between the molecule in the abstract (the type) and its manifestations (the tokens). The manifestations of a molecule do not necessarily all possess the same number of semes as the abstract molecule. For example, we consider the molecule /body/ + /precious/ + /dispersion/ to be valid for the three manifestations given above, although the third manifestation is less representative of the abstract molecule, since the treasure bears no relationship to the human body (possible metaphorical meanings aside).

2.4 ACTUALIZED/VIRTUALIZED AND INHERENT/AFFERENT SEMES

Semantic units operate on two levels. The type is an abstract unit that is manifested to varying degrees through its tokens, or manifestations. For example, the content of the sign "water", independent of context, is a type, whose actual content tends to vary depending on its occurrences in different expressions and sentences ("firewater", "drinking water", "water ballet", etc.).

Inherent semes are semes that are included in a signified independent of context (in the language system, or dictionary, to use an image), and in context they are actualized (activated) by default, unless there is some instruction to virtualize them (neutralize them). Afferent semes are semes that are actualized in signifieds only in context (in a specific phrase, for instance). To simplify, we will say that if a seme is present in context, it is actualized; if it would normally have been present but is not, it is virtualized.

For example, in "albino crow", the inherent seme /black/ found in the type for the signified 'crow', is virtualized in context, whereas the afferent seme /white/ is actualized, because this crow is said to be albino. The concepts of actualization and virtualization come in very handy in describing rhetorical figures such as the oxymoron, where a seme is virtualized due to its incompatibility with another seme (as in "black sun", from Nerval's poem).

2.5 DOMAINS AND DIMENSIONS

Whether inherent or afferent, semes may also be distinguished according to the type of content to which they refer. We will present two kinds of semes that are particularly easy to identify: the semes that correspond to domains of human activity (dictionary field labels, such as chem. (chemistry) and phys. (physics) are indicative of these); and the semes corresponding to the most general of classes, the dimensions, which are grouped into oppositions, such as animate (alive) vs. inanimate, concrete vs. abstract, human vs. animal, animal vs. plant, etc. For example, the signified 'fork' contains the semes /food/ (a domain), /inanimate/ and /concrete/ (dimensions). Technically speaking, the semes relating to the domains are mesogeneric semes, and those relating to the dimensions are macrogeneric semes.

2.6 INTERPRETANTS

An interpretant is an element of a text or its surroundings (the non-linguistic context or the communicative situation) that allows one to actualize or virtualize at least one seme. In "albino crow", the interpretant that justifies virtualizing the seme /black/ and actualizing the seme /white/ in 'crow' is the presence of the signified 'albino'. To give another example, identical phonic signifiers (homophony), allow the semes /religion/ and /sexuality/ to be actualized simultaneously in "Couvrez ce sein [saint] que je ne saurais voir", spoken by the deceptively pious Tartuffe (Molière).

2.7 THE GENERAL METHOD

2.7.1 THE HEURISTIC AND ANALYTICAL PHASES

In the heuristic, or exploratory phase of analysis, we begin by briefly picking out the semes or isotopies present in the text, or by formulating hypotheses based on genres, eras and authors (for example, the isotopies /countryside/, /city/, etc. in a text from rural legend).

Next, we select a few semes or isotopies that are of interest either intrinsically (for example, the isotopy /aerospace/ in a love story) or because of the relationships they have with other semes or isotopies. Then we can begin the systematic analysis. The text is systematically combed for each seme selected. In very short texts, we might go as far as checking every word for the possible presence of each seme selected. For longer texts, a more cursory reading will suffice.

2.7.2 RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN SEMES AND BETWEEN ISOTOPIES

Several kinds of relationships are possible between semes and between the isotopies they form, such as: opposition, homology, simple presupposition (where the presence of one seme implies the presence of another), reciprocal presupposition (where the presence of one seme implies the presence of another and vice versa), mutual exclusion (where two semes cannot appear at the same time), and comparison (where one isotopy is comparing and the other compared, as in /bird/ and /poet/ in Baudelaire's "Albatross".

Where possible, we will formulate the isotopies as oppositions (as in /animal/ vs. /human/). These oppositions may be homologous with others (for example, if /life/ is to /death/ as /human/ is to /animal/ in a certain text). The elements on the same "side" of a homology (in this case, /life/ and /human/ on the one side and /death/ and /animal/ on the other) constitute a group of semes and isotopies that presuppose each other reciprocally (/life/ and /human/ form one molecule, whereas /death/ and /animal/ form another).

When there is a semic molecule present, it is because the isotopies corresponding to the constituent semes of the molecule form a group of isotopies, known as an isotopic bundle; these isotopies tend to index, or include, the same signifieds at the same time, thus producing the molecule.

2.8 SEMIC TABLES

2.8.1 TYPES OF SEMIC TABLES

We recommend using three kinds of semic tables.

1. The heuristic table is for recording preliminary findings.

An example of a heuristic semic table
Rastier : a heuristic semic table

2. The analytical table can be used to record actualizations of a given seme in the text. We would create as many analytical tables as there are isotopies we want to detail (+ indicates an actualized seme; no plus sign a non-actualized seme, and the minus sign a virtualized seme).

An example of an analytical semic table
Rastier : a analytical semic table

3. The comprehensive table is used to compare the indexations of signifieds in the various isotopies selected and thereby recognize the presence of molecules (in our table, a molecule /X/ + /Y/ appears in signifieds 1 and 2).

An example of a comprehensive semic table
Rastier : a comprehensive semic table

2.8.2 USING THE TABLES

It is very important to name the isotopy appropriately. The idea is to choose the name that will yield the richest analysis in quantitative and qualitative terms, namely by adjusting the degree of generality/specificity (for instance, compare /action/ vs. /movement/ vs. /dance/ vs. /waltz/). Since any signified contains several semes, one signified can participate in several of the isotopies selected for analysis, perhaps even two incompatible isotopies.

If necessary, we can justify a particular seme's actualization or virtualization in the last column of the table or in the footnotes, where we give the interpretants (arguments) on which the analysis is based. Sometimes we need to give evidence for non-actualization or non-virtualization, in cases where the reader might misjudge a specific seme's status as actualized or virtualized.

In order to streamline the tables and the analysis, we can use limiting criteria in our methodology, for instance, by excluding what we call the free grammemes (prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, adverbs, articles, non-qualifying adjectives).

3. APPLICATION: "THE GOLDEN SHIP" BY NELLIGAN

* * *

« Le vaisseau d’or »
Émile Nelligan (1980, 14)

Ce fut un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l'or massif:
Ses mâts touchaient l'azur, sur des mers inconnues;
La Cyprine d'amour cheveux épars, chairs nues,
S'étalait à sa proue, au soleil excessif.

Mais il vint une nuit frapper le grand écueil
Dans l'Océan trompeur où chantait la Sirène,
Et le naufrage horrible inclina sa carène
Aux profondeurs du Gouffre, immuable cercueil.

Ce fut un Vaisseau d'Or, dont les flancs diaphanes
Révélaient des trésors que les marins profanes,
Dégoût, Haine et Névrose, entre eux ont disputés.

Que reste-t-il de lui dans la tempête brève?
Qu'est devenu mon cœur, navire déserté?
Hélas! Il a sombré dans l'abîme du Rêve!

"The Golden Ship" Émile Nelligan (1960)

There was a fine ship, carved from solid gold
With azure reaching masts, on seas unknown.
Spread-eagled Venus, naked, hair back thrown,
Stood at the prow. The sun blazed uncontrolled.

But on the treacherous ocean in the gloom
She struck the great reef where the Sirens chant.
Appalling shipwreck plunged her keel aslant
To the Gulf's depths, that unrelenting tomb.

She was a Golden Ship: but there showed through
Translucent sides treasures the blasphemous crew,
Hatred, Disgust and Madness, fought to share.

How much survives after the storm's brief race?
Where is my heart, that empty ship, oh where?
Alas, in Dream's abyss sunk without trace.

* * *

We will present an isotopic analysis of "The Golden Ship" by Nelligan (1879-1941), the best-known poem of the greatest French-Canadian poet of the 19th century (who was institutionalized in 1899).

Our isotopic analysis will be simplified in two ways. Firstly, we will address only one isotopy here - the one relating to the domain /navigation/. Secondly, we will not examine every possible signified that could be indexed by this isotopy, but retain only those signifieds represented by nouns, verbs and qualifying adjectives (this eliminates all of the pronouns that refer to a word containing the seme /navigation/, such as "she" for "ship" and "where" for "reef"). In this way we can steer clear of some of the most problematic indexations, especially those relating to possible plays on words (in French, we have "il" and "île", "aux" and "eau", for example).

Limited space prohibits us from delving into another extremely interesting isotopy that also relates to a domain: /sexuality/. While the first isotopy is especially obvious, the second is no less evident: It has a solid foundation in words and syntagms like "naked" ("chairs nues"), "Sirens" and obviously, "Venus" ("la Cyprine d’amour"), which we will examine below. We will advance the hypothesis that our two isotopies are joined in a comparative relationship, with navigation as the comparing and sexuality as the compared isotopy (which does not mean that only signifieds indexed by /navigation/ can be indexed by /sexuality/).

NOTE ON OUR TREATMENT OF METAPHORICAL COMPARISONS AND METAPHORS

We have adopted interpretive semantics' approach to the treatment of metaphorical comparisons (which produce a metaphorical connection) and metaphors (which produce a symbolic connection). We will simplify these principles (see the chapter on interpretive semantics). Let us take two examples from the text we are analyzing. In the metaphorical comparison "gulf" - "tomb", each of the two elements remains within its respective domain and within the isotopy associated with it, that is, /navigation/ and /funeral rite/ (the same thing goes for "the crew" on the one hand, and "Hatred", "Disgust" and "Madness" on the other). By contrast, in the metaphor "storm" - "coitus" (a word not present in the text) - a metaphor that is subject to debate - "storm" participates simultaneously in the isotopy /navigation/ and the isotopy /sexuality/, insofar as it manifests "coitus". There do not seem to be any words that index the isotopy /navigation/ by means of a metaphor; this is why we have given an example with the isotopy /sexuality/.

The table below shows the main signifieds indexing the isotopy /navigation/ (actualized seme: +; inherent seme: i; afferent seme: a; questionable status regarding actualization or inherent/afferent seme: ?).

The isotopy /navigation/ in "The Golden Ship"
Rastier : The isotopy /navigation/

4. LIST OF WORKS CITED

GERVAIS, A., Sas. Essais, Montréal: Triptyque, 1994.
HÉBERT, L., Introduction à la sémantique des textes, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2001.
NELLIGAN, E., Poèmes choisis, Montréal, Fides, 1980.
NELLIGAN, E., Selected Poems of Emile Nelligan, trans. P.F. Widdows, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1960.
RASTIER, F., Sémantique interprétative, Paris: Presse universitaire de France, 1987.
RASTIER, F., Meaning and Textuality, trans. Frank Collins and Paul Perron, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
RASTIER, F., Sémantique et recherches cognitives, Paris: Presse universitaire de France., 1991.
RASTIER, F., Sémantique interprétative, Paris: Presse universitaire de France, 1996 [1987].
RASTIER, F., Arts et sciences du texte, Paris: Presse universitaire de France, 2001.
RASTIER, F., M. CAVAZZA and A. ABEILLÉ, Sémantique pour l'analyse, Paris: Masson, 1994.

5. EXERCISES

A. Determine in which words the semes /choice/ and /journey/ are actualized in this verse from "The Road Not Taken" by the American poet Robert Frost (1915).

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

B. In the same verse, find a semic molecule (for example, /choice/ + /individuality/) and say where it is manifested.

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