chapter  III
20 Pages

The nature of speech

Signs Augustine’s reflections about language can be found in three treatises, De Doctrina Christiana (AD 396-426) on interpreting the Bible, De Magistro (AD 389), a dialogue with his son Adeodatus on how and whether teaching is possible, and De Dialectica (?AD 387), a fragmentary schoolbook containing prolegomena to logic. The last of these, sometimes referred to as Principium Dialecticae, is of disputed authorship; if genuine-and there now seems no strong reason for doubting its authenticity (see B.D.Jackson’s introduction to the Pinborg edition)—it will probably be one of the works about which Augustine wrote:

The characterization of language which we find in these three texts is neither original nor profound nor correct. Nevertheless it is appealing, it is bold, and it has had-partly through the wide currency of Augustine’s writings-a lasting influence. Augustine’s theory is that language is a system of signs:

These texts invite us-more or less compellingly-to attribute to Augustine four key propositions:

(1) Speaking is giving signs; (2) words are signs given in speech; (3) a sign is a thing employed for signifying something; (4) words are things whose sole employment is for signifying.