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By Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich; Dentith, Simon; Bakhtin, M

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But Voloshinov’s point is that all signs, all the words of a language, are charged with these multifarious and conflictual meanings. For this reason arguments and debates cannot be settled by reference to dictionaries; these provide at best only records of usage, records that can scarcely capture the continuous pulling to and fro that actually constitutes the meaning of any word in any living language. Dictionaries are the graveyards of language. Voloshinov understands the sociality of language in a very particular way, then, a way which distinguishes him from the mainstream of linguistic thought in the twentieth century, which stems from the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

This may be considered a restatement of Voloshinov’s distinction between theme and meaning in that it again sees an utterance as produced by a combination of the normative (existing in potentia only) and the occasional. But it is a greatly historicized restatement, for the normative clearly does not, in the great European languages at any rate, exist in potentia only, but has an active and powerful presence as an imposed standard which some people may even actually speak. So here we encounter a difficulty with this account of language; not in the notion of heteroglossia, but in the normative or unitary alternative pole, which has to do double duty both as the system of norms which permits actual utterances to be made (though of course utterances are not contained by this system), and as the actually existing standard versions of the language which are such a prominent factor in the history of the major European languages.

Where these formulations point above all is to a sociological pragmatics, pragmatics being the name that contemporary linguistics has given to the study of language in context, though Voloshinov’s insistence on sociology is one that is absent from much contemporary pragmatics. But his attempted synthesis ought to do more than point to a productive area of reflection and research; it ought also to solve some of the general problems that he has raised in ways that do not simply add together the attractive bits of the theories he criticizes while repudiating the unacceptable elements.

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