by Franson D Manjali

Dynamical Models in Semiotics/Semantics

Course Description

The course is mainly expository in character. We shall be concerned with the signifying aspect of human language which is inevitably and simultaneously both natural and cultural. Broadly, we emphasize the relevance of three levels for comprehending the process of signification: the physical-biological, the linguistic-categorical, and the cultural-metaphorical. Such a three-layered perspective — essential in our view — has been often masked by the predominantly grammatical approaches to the study of language, especially of the classical and other privileged languages.

Our starting point is the assumption that the case structures pertaining to the sentences of natural languages code and classify the basic patterns of actions and interactions perennially occurring in the world, and available for human perception. The sentential units are geared to capture the interactional dynamics inherent in the world. The infrasentential units, such as the words fill in these case structures or frames, and have meaning only secondarily. However, the linguistic units such as words and case-based sentential structures which categorize objects and actions in the world, upon ritualized use, become severed of their relationship with the physical-biological realm. And moreover, the discrete linguistic signs can be more or less freely and automatically combined to form sentential units. This is the domain of grammar — the rule-governed and automatized combinatorics of arbitrary symbols — appropriately the concern of much of traditional linguistics including that of Noam Chomsky and of Ferdinand Saussure. The notion of a topologico-dynamic semantic continuum is, for us, the main means for reestablishing the link between the categorially available linguistic signs and their physical-biological deep structures.

Evidently, the linguistic structures thus formed do not remain deterministically tied to the physical-biological domain. Their use in specific cultural and intersubjective contexts are subject to inter-categorial dynamics. This is essentially the domain of metaphor (and metonymy) which incessantly allows for the appearance of ‘new’ semantic values for the ‘old’ formal units and structures. The networks of semantic values thus created and stabilized constitute the cultural-metaphorical ‘worlds’ which are discursively real for the speakers of particular languages. The elements of these networks, though ultimately rooted in the physical-biological realm can and do operate independently of the latter, and form the stuff of our everyday discourses.

The perspective that we adopt here has benefited from several multi-disciplinary theorizations in the ‘non-Cartesian’ approaches to Cognitive Science, that have emerged in the last twenty years or so. These include R. Thom’s and J. Petitot’s topologico-dynamic approach to Semantics/Semiotics, E. Rosch’s prototype approach to categorization, L. Talmy’s notion of ‘force dynamics,’ G. Lakoff’s and M. Johnson’s works on conceptual metaphors, and H. Maturana and F. Varela’s concept of ‘autopoiesis’. We shall also refer to the ‘classical’ works of Indian philosopher of language Bhartrhari (7th century) and of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1st century).

Basic readings on the semiotics of Saussure and the linguistic theory of Chomsky, on the developments in Cognitive Science, and in Cognitive Linguistics would be useful for the participants of the course. We shall eschew heavily ‘technical’ discussions, but it is advisable for the participants to have a sound knowledge of the important concepts and ideas in the above-mentioned areas. As for the Sanskrit works, we shall depend entirely on translations and secondary texts.


  1. From Discrete Signs To Dynamic Semantic Continuum – Discrete signs, combinatorics, and the dynamic semantic continuum:
    a. Saussure on discrete signs and on combinatorial syntagms,
    b. Hjelmslev’s notions of the ‘content plane’ and of the cases as signifying spatial relations,
    c. Tesniere’s actantial model of sentence meaning
  2. Catastrophe Theoretic Semantics: Towards a Physics of Meaning – Thom’s Catastrophe Theoretic Semantics and its further development by Jean Petitot.
  3. The Karaka Theory of The Indian Grammarians – The ‘karaka’ theory of the Indian grammarians, as expounded by Bhartrhari.
  4. Force Dynamics in Language and Cognition – Len Talmy’s ‘Force Dynamics in Language and Cognition’
  5. Dynamics in Narrative Structures – Physical Dynamics and the prototype-based categorization of basic sentence structures.
  6. Metaphors in Grammar – From the Physical to the Cultural — the Dynamics of Conceptual Metaphors.
  7. Body, Space, and Metaphorical-Cultural Worlds – Autopoiesis: Embodiment, Enaction, and Embeddedness.
  8. Dialogics, or the Dynamics of Intersubjectivity – Conclusion: Physical dynamics and cultural models in language and cognition.

Franson D Manjali | Biography

Dr. Franson D. Manjali is Senior Assistant Professor in Linguistics at the Centre of Linguistics and English, Jawaharlal Nehru University (J.N.U), New Delhi. He was born in Mysore, India, in November, 1955. He did his education upto B.Sc. at Calicut, and then went on to do M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics at J.N.U. His Ph.D. thesis, “Elements of Spatial and Temporal Relations – A Semantic Study of Malayalam” was defended in 1986. Dr. Manjali taught in the Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi during 1986-87. He did Post-doctoral research in Paris for two years from 1987 to 1989, in association with Prof. Bernard Pottier (University of Paris – IV, Sorbonne) and Prof. Jean Petitot (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris).

His post-doctoral monograph has been published as Nuclear Semantics – Towards a Theory of Relational Meaning (Bahri Publications, 1991). He has also edited two books, Language and Cognition (1993) and Language, Discourse and Society (1992). He has contributed numerous articles, research papers or book reviews in Semiotiques (Paris), Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences (Shimla), International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics (Trivandrum), International Journal of Communication, and Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics (New Delhi), The Statesman (Calcutta), and the Web Journal Texto!.


He was a participant in the First International Summer Institute in Cognitive Science held at Buffalo, NY, in 1994. Dr. Manjali currently teaches two courses, Cognitive Linguistics, and Linguistics and Human Sciences at J.N.U. He has given seminars on topics in Linguistics, Semiotics, or Cognitive Science at several places including Buffalo, Aarhus, Calcutta, and Bombay. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, in 1992 and 1995 and he is an Associate of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

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