World Report

Danish semiotics – an overview

By Frederik Stjernfelt

Semiotics in Denmark has a long history going back to Rasmus Rask, who was the co-founder of comparative Indo-European linguistics in the first half of the nineteenth century, along with Franz Bopp, the Brothers Grimm and many others. In a certain sense, Danish semiotics even began in the thirteenth century with Boethius de Dacia who together with Thomas of Erfurt belonged to the leading scholastic group of logicians known as the Modists. They were among the first to develop an autonomous theory of grammar as well as the doctrine that the “modi significandi,” modes of signification, were closely related to conceptual, and, in turn, ontological structure. Boethius’ work was influential in its own time but was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the twentieth century.

Around 1900, Denmark had influential general linguists such as Holger Pedersen and Otto Jespersen. One of the finest hours of Danish linguistics and semiotics, however, was the founding of the Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague in 1931 by Viggo Brøndal, Louis Hjelmslev, Paul Diderichsen, Eli-Fischer Jørgensen and others. The work of this Circle forms the core of Danish structuralism, related to the contemporaneous Prague circle and Jakobsonian structuralism, but with its own special twist and its own interpretations of Saussure. Brøndal was a French philologist, and his interpretation of Saussure was a philosophical one that embedded structural linguistics in a rich rationalist philosophical heritage ranging from Descartes to Bühler and Husserl. This led Brøndal to a structuralist reinterpretation of traditional linguistic concepts, based on a comprehensive doctrine of word classes, defined by the combination of four basic phenomenological categories, relatum, relation, descriptum, and descriptor (R, r, D, d) – a machinery he put to use, for instance, in his semantic analysis of systems of prepositions.

His co-founder and opponent in the Circle, the younger Louis Hjelmslev, opted for a much more austere version of structuralism, with positivist and Hilbertian inspiration and with the goal of getting rid of all philosophical presuppositions and traditional linguistic concepts. Thus, he attempted to make linguistic description an endeavour based on the use of a mereological dependency algebra, so that all linguistic units, whether on the expression or content side, might be described by their relation of independence, dependence, or interdependence to other such units.

Both Brøndal and Hjelmslev influenced the rise of French structuralism in the 50s and the 60s, as Barthes famously borrowed the notion of “connotation” and much of his “Elements de sémiologie” from Hjelmslev while Greimas based the whole of his meta-theory on Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (in Danish, 1943). Brøndal played a lesser role but still was behind the “neutral” and “complex” terms in Greimas’ “semiotic square.” Hjelmslev’s idea of “sign-function” also plays a large role in Umberto Eco’s semiotics, and Italian semiotics is still hugely inspired by Hjelmslevianism.

Danish structuralism flowered from the 30s to the 50s but largely fell into oblivion as a result of the advancement of Chomskyan linguistics and of pragmatics during the 60s. The ‘68 generation saw a renaissance of Danish semiotics, this time with the focus on the comparative literature and philology departments rather than in linguistics. Major forces in this development were Per Aage Brandt and Jørgen Dines Johansen, initially collaborators, who later each founded their own school in Aarhus (Brandt) and Odense (Johansen). Brandt’s brand of structuralism initially was much influenced by Greimas - whose Paris school he belonged to - while cross-fertilizing it with inspirations from Georges Bataille, Michel Serres, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, later, from the catastrophe theory of René Thom and his disciple Jean Petitot. Dines Johansen’s brand of semiotics was more Peircean inspired and especially aimed at developing a semio-pragmatic theory of literature focusing on the iconicity of literature. With the development of the American cognitive linguistics and cognitive semantics movement, however, both the Odense and the Aarhus schools integrated these approaches and the tension between them lessened, while both of their leading members, Brandt and Johansen, published extensively internationally. Johansen pursued his career as a leading member of the IASS and developed Peircean semiotics together with the literary scholar Svend Erik Larsen (later in Aarhus) with a second generation semioticians like Helle Munkholm and Thomas Illum Hansen, while Brandt initially formed part of the Parisian Greimas group and later developed “cognitive semiotics” together with Peer Bundgaard and Svend Østergaard, publishing the journal Almen semiotic (General Semiotics) and most lately, Cognitive Semiotics. Most recently, Brandt has emigrated to the States to form a group with Mark Turner, Merlin Donald and others in Cleveland.

The heritage of structural linguistics was to some extent carried over in new developments that arose during the same period. The variationist sociolinguist Frans Gregersen (himself a Hjelmslev scholar) is inspired by Hallidayan functional linguistics which also understands itself as continuing the tradition from Hjelmslevian semiotics. Inspired by cognitive linguistics as well as Simon Dik’s functional grammar, a group of ‘Danish functional linguistics’ emerged at the University of Copenhagen, with the linguists Peter Harder and Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen (also a scholar of sign language of the deaf) among its members; their ideas involve a functional-cognitive reinterpretation of Hjelmslev’s theory of the linguistic sign.

During the 80s, a new current occurred, spearheaded by biochemist Jesper Hoffmeyer and biologist Claus Emmeche. The two of them formed the core of the Copenhagen “biosemiotics” school at the universe of Copenhagen, thus forming a third Danish semiotic center. They argued that semiotic vocabulary used in much of biology ought to be taken at face value and form the basis of a new semiotic philosophy of biology, finding semiotic processes even at biochemical levels of description. Together with Tom Sebeok, Kalevi Kull, Don Favareau and others, they formed an international biosemiotic network. Recently, semioticians and semiotic issues have entered neuroscientific research with Mikkel Wallentin and Andreas Roepstorff (Aarhus) as well as Christian Gerlach and Martin Skov (Copenhagen).

Despite much activity and many semiotic scholars, Danish semiotics never united in one single current, and it is significant that no Danish Society of Semiotics was ever founded nor any national conference ever organized. Outside the schools mentioned, many other semiotic scholars grew up with different degrees of affiliation to each, the logician Peter Øhrstrøm, the Peircean semiotician Torkild Thellefsen, and the Hjelmslev scholar Michael Rasmussen in Aalborg; the semiotician of religion Jesper Sørensen in Odense; the computer semiotician Peter Bøgh Andersen, the semiotician of religion Hans Jørgen Lundager, the discourse analyst Finn Frandsen, the Peirce and Luhmann scholar Anne Marie Dinesen, and the semantically oriented linguists Henrik Jørgensen and Ole Togeby in Aarhus; the cyber-semiotician Søren Brier, the cognitive psychologist Michael May, the Koran semiotician Thomas Hoffmann,  and myself Frederik Stjernfelt in Copenhagen.

Thanks to Peer Bundgaard, Peter Harder, and Jørgen Dines Johansen for advice. Johansen also wrote the section on Frederik Stjernfelt.

The grad programme in Cognitive Semiotics at the University of Aarhus has been chosen among 12 programs in Denmark to create a so-called Elite program with especially favorable conditions for skilled students. All teaching will be in English.