The place of language among sign systems: Juri Lotman and Émile Benveniste

Remo Gramigna


This paper seeks to shed light on an unwritten chapter in the history of Tartu semiotics, that is, to draw a parallel between Juri Lotman and Émile Benveniste on the status of natural language among other systems of signs. The tenet that language works as a ‘primary modelling system’ represents one of the trademarks of the Tartu-Moscow school. For Lotman, the primacy assigned to natural language in respect to other systems of signs lied in the fact that the former functions as a ‘model’ for the latter thus regarded as ‘secondary modelling systems’. Yet how does language carry out its function of being a model for other sign systems? Is language the only primary modelling system? This paper seeks to foster the abovementioned claim of the primacy of natural language and argues that this issue deserves a closer inspection. In order to follow this route, it suggests a parallel between Lotman and Benveniste arguing that there exist several points in common that lead to a convergence of positions between these two remarkable scholars. The paper explores such a possibility, arguing that Lotman’s and Benveniste’s positions open up an interesting debate with specific reference to the relations laid down between language and other system of signs.


primary and secondary modelling systems; natural language; Juri Lotman; Émile Benveniste; metalinguistic faculty of language

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SIGN SYSTEMS STUDIES. ISSN 1406-4243 (print), 1736-7409 (online). E-mail: Postal address: Sign Systems Studies, Dept. of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Jakobi St. 2, 51014 Tartu, Estonia