The code model of communication: a powerful metaphor in linguistic metatheory

Statement of Responsibility:
Blackburn, Perry L

The concept of communication is a fundamental notion in the metatheory of linguistics. This study explores the historical development and influence of a particular model of communication, labeled the ‘code model’. The code model characterizes communication as a process wherein a source (encoder) conveys a message to a receiver (decoder) through the transmission of a signal. Communication is considered successful if the message received is the same as that sent.

This study reviews use of the code model in various linguistic publications, analyzing the code model as a conceptual metaphor and arguing that it structures the way linguists have traditionally thought about communication and language. While some have suggested that the code model predates even Aristotle, this analysis shows that the contemporary version is better understood as an integration of three models which come from disparate sources:

  1. The conduit metaphor (a folk model of communication)
  2. Saussure’s speech circuit (the model of communication expounded in Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale)
  3. Modern information theory (a model and theory of communication from electrical engineering that has provided essential terminology for the code model account of communication)

As is the case with any conceptual metaphor, the code model is limited in the extent to which it can offer explanation. Over time linguists have attempted to deal with its limitations in various ways, including trying to purify the model and quarantine the anomalies it cannot explain, trying to patch the model so as to extend its usefulness, and finally, some schools of thought have begun to openly wrestle with the anomalies themselves. This pattern of behavior suggests a pattern of disciplinary evolution in line with the predictions Thomas Kuhn has offered for scientific disciplines in general.

While some have argued that the discipline of linguistics is not united under a single paradigm, this study argues that the discipline has indeed been united around code-model presuppositions. While various schools have differed in how they supply details for the code model and in their rules for its application, they have been united in general support of and dependence upon the model. This continuity of presupposition and tradition of thought may be called the Saussurean paradigm.

As a means of illustrating the role the code model plays as a conceptual metaphor in linguistics, this study suggests an alternative model of communication. Based upon an artist-and-artifact metaphor, this alternative model is not suggested as a replacement for the code model, but as an antithesis—an essential element in the ongoing evolution of linguistic metatheory.

Editor's note: The present volume is a revised version of the author's 1999 Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Arlington

vii, 256 pages
code model
conduit metaphor
Information Theory
Linguistic theory
Modern Information Theory
Saussure’s speech circuit
Shannon's Theory
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