I have something to confess. I was an English major. (Oh no! You gasp. Everyone knows humanities majors are weird. I guess since you’re the grant writer it’s okay?) But, it’s even worse than that. I went to grad school in English and I hold a Ph.D. I even taught for a few years after finishing. In the midst of a career change like this, it’s easy to think that none of what I learned in all those years of education will be useful. But I often find myself making connections between some of the most abstract topics I’ve studied and day-to-day life in a retirement community.
One of the most striking of these connections has to do with structural linguistics as outlined by French philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure. Structuralism actually has a lot of applications to everyday life (just trust me), but the one that’s been on my mind lately has to do with dementia. For a lot of reasons, dementia is difficult and scary for the person experiencing it and the people observing the change. One day awhile back a colleague told me about a resident who, at dinner time, tried to eat her soup with her fork instead of her spoon. At first, I thought this was just sad and frankly kind of weird; after all, the resident remembered that utensils are for eating. But then I started thinking about this story using a structuralist lens. My fellow English majors—at least those who studied theory—are probably nodding their heads, but the rest of you might be wondering what on earth I’m talking about. That’s okay. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain—and then, I promise, I’ll also explain what it has to do with dementia.
Saussurian structural linguistics posits that language is composed of signs. To simplify radically, a sign is a word. But in structural linguistics, a word is more than a collection of letters. Signs consist of both the collection of letters (say, “chair”) and the concept behind the collection of letters (so, a thing used primarily for sitting on, with four legs, a seat, and probably a back). Saussure called these two parts the “signifier” and the “signified.” Every sign is comprised of both a signifier and a signified, and the two parts are inseparable (try thinking of a chair without thinking of the sounds and letters c-h-a-i-r; you almost certainly can’t). We understand each other when we talk because we all agree on which signifiers match which signifieds. Because signs aren’t just words, we also know what to do when we encounter their physical manifestation; we sit in chairs.
Saussure also described the concept of sign systems. All languages are sign systems, and there are sign systems that aren’t languages. In systems, signs are arbitrary and relational. Which is to say, there’s no reason why c-h-a-i-r is a thing we sit on accept that it always has been. Also, we understand chairs in relation to tables, stools, couches, and other items in the general sign system “furniture.” Chairs are different from all of these other things, and we know what chairs are for, and therefore what the sign “chair” means, in no small part because we understand how they are different from other things.
You might well ask, “What does all this have to do with a resident eating soup with a fork?”. Well, the resident still understood the sign system “utensils.” What she didn’t understand was the specific sign “spoon” and how it differs from “fork.” As dementia progresses, we lose our understanding of specific signs before we lose our understanding of sign systems. In this instance, academic theory I studied in the past helped me make sense out a confusing event in my present. Structuralism is a way of understanding language and our relationship to it, and it can also help us understand the process we undergo when our understanding of language breaks down.