The Aphasia of Similarity Disorder on the World Wide Web: Jakobson's Linguistic Poles and Hyper-Text

Unpublished by Colin Moock, 1995

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By studying aphasia, Roman Jakobson found that he was able to corroborate on a physiological level what was essentially a Saussurean proposition: language functions according to two poles, that of selection, and that of combination. Jakobson published his findings in 1971 in an essay entitled "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances". His examination of the "twofold character of language" opens with the presumption that "speech implies a selection of certain linguistic entities and their combination into linguistic units" (58). "At the lexical level," he writes, "this is readily apparent: the speaker selects words and combines them into sentences according to the syntactic system of the language he is using; sentences are in their turn combined into utterances" (58). Jakobson also observed that "in the combination of linguistic units there is an ascending scale of freedom", so that the speaker has no freedom to create new phonemes, marginal freedom to create new words, greater freedom to create new sentences, and the most freedom to combine sentences into new utterances. But with the introduction of hyper-text and easy-to-use browsers of hyper-text documents (such as Mosaic and Netscape), it seems that the user of language is now able to exercise a new level of freedom: that of selecting and combining whole utterances, or documents into larger linguistic experiences.

Jakobson's study of aphasias is an attempt to understand the structure of language along Saussurean lines, by examining the relationships between linguistic units. The cornerstone of his theory, "that any linguistic unit involves two modes of arrangement [that of combination and that of selection]" (60), follows from his analysis, not of the units themselves, but of the links between them. According to the first mode of arrangement--combination--any linguistic unit gains meaning in part both from its contexture (that of which it is a part) and its combination (that which is a part of it). According to the second mode of arrangement--selection--any linguistic unit gains meaning in part from the group of other units which would form adequate substitutions for it. The two modes are always interrelated, but actually form different linguistic operations. As Jakobson puts it, "The addressee perceives that the given utterance (message) is a combination of constituent parts (sentences, words, phonemes, etc.) selected from the repository of all possible constituent parts (code)" (61). Hence, "there are two references which serve to interpret the sign--one to the code and the other to the context" (61). In the phrase "black pen," both "black" and "pen" take on meaning in part because of their contiguity, and in part because they belong to the paradigms of "colours" and "writing utensils", respectively. The ability to substitute one word with others always informs the meaning of the original word: the addressee in this case might ask the question "do you mean 'quill' or 'cage'?" in order to ascertain the meaning of the word "pen". The two modes of arrangement (combination, selection) align with Saussure's twin axes of language. In combination, linguistic units are related by contiguities, and reside on the syntagmatic axis. In selection, linguistic units are related by similarities, and reside on the associative or paradigmatic axis.

Because Jakobson's model focuses so explicitly on links, its concepts and vocabulary are useful tools in the study of hyper-text, which is, at its lowest common denominator, a system of links. In terms of linguistic theory, Jakobson holds, as noted earlier, that "there are two references which serve to interpret the sign". Each of these references is "another set of linguistic signs". One is the paradigmatic, or substitution set, the other is the syntagmatic, or combination set. But Jakobson's insistence that the two poles of language inform language usage at all levels (from phoneme to utterance) eventually leads him to account not only for linguistic theory, but also for linguistic practice: he applies his model to the level of conversation. "The development of a discourse," he writes, "may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity" (76). As in lexical links, each topic in a discourse is seen "either as a substitute for, or as a complement to the stimulus" (76). The same may precisely be said of hyper-text documents. Through a hyper-text link, two documents are brought into a relationship. The second document may be seen either as a substitute for the first (as in dialog-box-style definitions, or as in links between archives with similar subject matter) or as a complement to the first (as, for instance, in a weather report service which has hyper-text links to a satellite image, or to services which provide reports on road conditions, or to research on weather systems). In Jakobson's lexicon, links between topics which substitute for one another are called metaphoric, while links between topics which complement each other are called metonymic. The terminology can perhaps be applied with even greater confidence to hyper-text. In discourse, the analog flow of ideas blurs the distinctions between topics, but in hyper-text, digital breaks between documents actually demand the user's recognition, so much so that the user must, by clicking a mouse button, formally depart from one document in order to embark on another. Isolated links allow check points at which the theorist can distinguish metaphoric (substitutive) links from metonymic (complementary) links.

Using Jakobson's model, it becomes possible to assess hyper-text documents and the World Wide Web (a hyper-text network) according to the linguistic poles of metaphor and metonymy. A hyper- text document which is comprised mostly of metaphoric (substitutive) links acts in much the same way as does a linguistic substitution set (paradigm), where "a given significative unit may be replaced by other, more explicit signs of the same code, whereby its general meaning is revealed" (61). A hyper-text fiction of this sort could take the form of a series of analogous vignettes which attempts through its examples to convey a general impression of a whole (a particular time, a society, a place etc.). Conversely, a hyper-text document made up mostly of metonymic (complementary) links functions like a linguistic syntagm, where each part has a specific meaning only "by its connection with other signs within the same sequence" (61).

Perhaps because so many documents on the World Wide Web are accessible from a large variety of originating documents, the most common hyper-text link on the Web is the metonymic link. Users "surfing" to a series of web sites construct a kind of new linguistic unit which is above the level of the utterance because it is made up of utterances (documents). Like words in a sentence, metonymic hyper-text links between web sites cast whole documents into contiguity with other documents, such that each constituent document in a series derives a meaning which is determined both by its place in the series and by its relationship with other documents in the series. But unlike a sentence, a document series is generally not constructed in order to convey a unified idea to an addressee, but rather to relay segmented pieces of information. The dominance of metonymic links on the Web seems to point back to the linguistic disorder which engendered Jakobson's study: aphasia. Where "in normal verbal behaviour both processes [metaphoric selection and metonymic combination] are continually operative....In aphasia one or the other of these two processes is restricted or totally blocked" (76). Jakobson calls the type of aphasia in which the metaphoric capacity is impaired "similarity disorder". Sufferers of similarity disorder retain their capacity to combine linguistic units and, thus, make extensive use of metonymic links. A typical patient "was incapable of utilizing the substitution set 'bachelor=unmarried man' because the ability for autonomous selection and substitution has been affected....The same difficulty arises when the patient is asked to name an object pointed to or handled by the examiner. The aphasic with a defect in substitution will not supplement the pointing or the handling gesture of the examiner with the name of the object pointed to. Instead of saying 'this is [called] a pencil,' he will merely add an elliptical note about its use: 'To write.'...Likewise, the picture of an object will cause a suppression of its name....When the picture of a compass was presented to a patient of Lotmar's, he responded: 'Yes, it's a...I know what it belongs to, but I cannot recall the technical show direction...a magnet points to the north'" (66). Similarly, hyper-text links on the Web rarely lead in the second document to a definition of the first; rather, they typically provide the first document with an "elliptical note" or complement. The World Wide Web, it seems, may have the aphasia of similarity disorder.

In attempting to describe similarity disorder, Jakobson quotes a critique of the work of Russian novelist Gleb Ivanovic Uspenskij, who suffered from that type of aphasia. The critic notes that in Uspenskij's work, "the reader is crushed by the multiplicity of detail unloaded on him in a limited verbal space, and is physically unable to grasp the whole, so that the portrait is often lost" (80). Perhaps because a hyper-text document series is made up primarily of metonymic links, there is rarely a sense of a whole, or of the possibility of a whole. Like a cubist painting, the document series remains an intentionally fragmented group of perspectives on the same object. Or, unlike a cubist painting, the document series may actually be a fragmented group of perspectives without any object at all.


Jakobson, Roman. "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" in Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: 1971.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course In General Linguistics, Trans. Wade Baskin. NewYork: McGraw- Hill, 1966. Back to my homepage...