I’ve argued before that, in contrast to Ferdinand de Saussure’s principle of the arbitrariness of the sign (l’arbitraire du signe), linguistic signs are integral units that have their own meanings or virtual capacities. In other words, it isn’t just an accident that “s” is used as a suffix to pluralize words. There is a pluralizing capacity latent in the “s” itself. This isn’t to say that “s” takes on the sames meanings in different languages or cultural contexts. Yes, language is culturally relative, but that relativity isn’t arbitrary. The meanings “s” does take on are local manifestations of the virtual capacities or singularities of “s” itself. Let’s leave the “s” suffix and look at a different example.
Consider st-: it is the assonance that begins English words like style, stand, still, stay, strap, string, etc. It isn’t considered a full-fledged morpheme, since it doesn’t seem to have it’s own consistent meaning (unlike a suffix like “-ed,” which has a meaning: making verbs past tense). Yet a closer look shows that the consanant cluster is an integral unit harboring virtual capacities. John Lawler has done some amazing research on st-, which he published in an essay, “Style Stands Still,” available on his website along with many other related pieces of research.
In an analysis of the word “style,” Lawler found that the essential meaning of the sounds of a sign accords with the essential meaning of that which it signifies:
there is a great deal of semantic and ontological coherence between the senses of many English words (prototypically monosyllabic words), on the one hand, and the assonances (initial consonant clusters) and rimes (nucleus vowels plus coda compounds) (p. 11).
Thus, the meanings and beings signified by English words are often coherent with the capacities at work in the sounds signifying them. Lawler demonstrates this “phonosemantic” coherence through an analysis of the assonance/rime structure of numerous English monosyllables. Look at “style.” The English word “style” has many senses. It can refer to a stylus, a manner of speaking or writing, or a manner of being in general. Of course, different dictionaries offer varying definitions, and Lawler discusses many of these variations.
The word “style” bears much the same sense as its etymological predecessor, the Latin stilus. “Style,” in this sense, generally refers to some sort of sticklike and/or sharp object, such as an engraving tool or part of a plant or animal. However, the difference between the Latin i and the English y is not a meaningless historical transformation. The spelling of “style” with a y points to a relationship with the Latin stulos (or stylos), which comes from the Greek word stulos (“column”). Although a column and a stylus are both functionally different, and although they have differing physical qualities, they are similar in their virtual being. For a column to be a column, and for a stylus to be a stylus, they must both be “rigid objects of one salient dimension, with their ends distinguished by contact with two-dimensional objects”, whether these ends are the capitals of a column or the surfaces upon which a stylus works (p. 7). It is evident from this that stilus and stulos merged and have become indistinguishable in the English word “style.”
To find the limits of the phonological and semantic/ontological coherence in the etymological roots of the English word “style,” Lawler gathered the major PIE roots clustered around the roots for “style”, which turned out to be PIE roots beginning with st-. All of the PIE roots beginning with st– cohere around the same general images of one-dimensionality, verticality, rigid stability, and stillness (note that it is somewhat difficult to define st– words without employing other st– words). More remarkable is that this coherence among PIE roots is still applicable to their counterparts in Modern English. Some combination of one-dimensionality, verticality, rigidity, and stillness is at work in each of the following monosyllabic English words noted by Lawler: stab, staff, stake, stave, steep, stem, step, stick, stiff, stilt, stub. Each of these words harbors capacties to signify some action or thing that is one-dimensional: a stab, a step, and all the rest are actions or things that occupy or move along a single salient axis. The various beings and semantic definitions implied by these st– words tend to gravitate around their virtual capacities.
According to Lawler, the percentage of words that have the assonance st– that share the phonosemantic coherence noted above is roughly 70%. (Note: Lawler has found that the phonosemantic coherence of rimes has a much smaller percentage of occurrences, somewhere between 70% and 30%. Lawler hypothesizes that this may be due to the larger number of rimes than assonances.) This does not demonstrate the absolute essentiality of this meaning of st-, nor does it demonstrate the opposite. In short, the coherence of sound and meaning found in this assonance (and many other assonances not mentioned here) cannot be dismissed as mere chance or historical accident. Moreover, like I mentioned above, this assonance cannot be considered as an ordinary morpheme, “since 100% of the occurrences of a morpheme have its meaning” (p. 13).
Lawler proposes that these assonances function as either classifiers or adjectival/adverbial modifiers: they identify the words to which they are affixed as belonging to certain semantic/ontological classes (i.e., regimes of attraction); thus members of the st- class radiate out from singularities of inherent st- capacities, some words clustering closer to the essential center, and other words clustering more toward the periphery. The rime is then treated as something like a predicate, bearing in mind that neither assonance nor rime belongs to any syntactic category proper. In sum, various definitions (local manifestations) of st– words all radiate around its virtual power of standing.